Oberammergau. It’s fun to say and, nestled in a valley in the foothills of the German Alps, is an even funner place to explore.
I first visited Oberammergau on a family trip as a teen. It was a magical place. Even in the summer, there was a woodsy Christmas charm to the town that felt more like a children’s storybook than reality. So I was a little worried that it wouldn’t live up to my childhood hype when Jim and I recently decided to explore it. I needn’t have worried; Oberammergau is still enchanting.
Below are four things I love about this little Alpine village:
1. The fairytale setting
Near the base of the Ammergau Alps in Bavaria, Germany, Oberammergau sits in a lush meadow valley. In the summertime, it’s encircled by rich green mountainsides. When we visited most recently in fall, woodland creatures ventured into town: we saw deer, squirrels, an owl, and other birds. Mists encircled its Matterhorn-esque peak, the Kofel, and autumnal leaves showered the town in gold. Regardless of the season, the air is crisp, clean, and beautiful.
2. Colorful murals on half-timbered homes
Many of Oberammergau’s buildings are half-timbered and richly decorated in plaster murals — a style popular during the northern Renaissance. It’s a style that goes way back in the town; in an 1872 article for The Century Magazine, Englishman H.H. describes what could almost be the Oberammergau of today —complete with scriptural frescoes but minus the cars.
H.H. reported that the frescoes were over 100 years old even then, but unfaded. It’s a fascinating read. The complete 1872 magazine is free online (the Oberammergau article begins on page 663).
3. The wood carvings
According to the town’s official website, Oberammergau has been well known for its wood carvings since the 1600s. It’s a tradition that is still going strong. The small town is filled with woodcarving shops, and over 100 artisan woodcarvers live and work there. One of my favorites is the Albl family who boasts a lineage of woodcarvers going back to 1556.
In addition to all the shops in town, a good place to see some beautiful wood carvings is the Oberammergau cemetery, adjacent to the town’s prominent church.
4. Its history
Oberammergau has been a tourist destination for centuries due mainly to its Passion Play they’ve put on every ten years since 1634.
The story goes, it was in the middle of the 30 Years War, and a soldier brought plague to the tiny town. The townspeople swore an oath that they would put on the Passion Play every ten years in return for protection against the plague. According to Oberammergau’s official website, the original play was performed in the cemetery on a stage above fresh plague victims’ graves. From that date forward allegedly no other townsfolk died of the plague. And the play, which has grown a steady following over the centuries, has been performed every ten years since.
I haven’t had the chance to see the play yet, but hope one day to make it. The next Passion Play will be during the Pentecost in 2020.
If you go: Oberammergau is a short one hour drive from Munich, or an easy two leg train ride. I suggest having GPS or Google Maps on a phone that works overseas to navigate the mountain roads. The train takes about 2 hours and costs 20 Euros as of the date of this post. Use the Bahn’s website to check times and costs (München to Oberammergau, you’ll connect in Murnau).
Oberammergau itself is awesome, but so are a lot of sites in the surrounding area. Most notably perhaps, it’s only a short drive or bus ride to Neuschwanstein Castle.
— Laura Rowley