Oberammergau, a small village in Bavaria, has staged the passion play every 10 years (with 2 exceptions) since 1634. It plays to audiences of 4,900 five days a week from May to October and you will be very lucky to get a cancellation. Even for the non religious it is an experience not to be missed.
Our tour started in Dublin on 15 September where we were originally booked into the Clarion at the Airport. By a quirk of fate we were transferred, all expenses paid, to the brand new Gibson Hotel opposite the Point, sorry O2. As we were not flying until 5p.m. this was a veritable godsend.
Our companions had never visited Dublin as tourists so I inaugurated a crash tour starting with the Luas to Jervis and then walking up through Temple Bar, Grafton Street, the Green and then back down to Dublin Castle.
An uneventful flight saw us in Munich around 8pm and from there it was a two hour bus journey to our hotel in the village of Oberau in the Wildschöenau area of the Kitzbühl Alps region of Austria. It turned out that the 3* Hotel was actually a 3* Guest house which was somewhat disappointing as it certainly lacked the facilities of a hotel. One could not fault the family running it as they were very accommodation and were only supplying that for which they had been contracted.
The following day, Friday, we started our tour of the Austrian Tirol, Driving to Fugen in the Ziller Valley and taking the narrow gauge steam railway on the one and a half hour journey to Mayrhofen. The weather was not perfect but the drizzle managed to stop when we were out and about so really could not complain for the time of year. It is obviously a popular ride as about 5 or 6 other coach parties arrived. The train meanders at a maximum of 32 mph through the valley, pulling into sidings here and there to let the diesel service through.
We arrived in Mayrhofen, a noted ski resort in the winter, in time for lunch and, in accordance of our guide’s, Julian, advice, headed into the Neue Post hotel for lunch.
Following this we spent some time exploring the town by way of the Mayrhofen 1, a tractor thinly disguised as a train.
It is a fact that towns such as this really come alive during the winter sports season and unless one is on a walking holiday they lack the this vitality during the autumn. Maybe I am biased having spent a lot of time in the general area during the ’80s. We re-embarked on our coach and headed for home, stopping off at the small town of Rattenberg on the River Inn.
This is famous for its crystal and we were given a demonstration of glass blowing in one of the major establishments. For a slide show of the photos of our first days excursions please click here .
I will not dwell on the repast at the Schneerose but we managed a few beers and some great craic in the dining room later in the evening.
On Saturday after a breakfast of cereals, salami, cheese and ham we were to cross the Brenner Pass and enter the Italian Tirol (Südtirol) and the border town of Vipiteno.
For those who don’t mind a bit of history this area of Italy was originally Austrian and the predominant language remain German, or Austrian. It is an autonomous state within Italy. I first crossed the Brenner in 1971 on my way to Venice; then there were queues of lorries miles long waiting for customs clearance. Now there is not a sign of a customs post. It really is not possible to get photographs from a coach that do the views of the the bridge and the pass justice so I make no apology for omitting them.
The Europa Bridge, opened in 1963 was a feat of engineering and took pressure off the original pass road which still meanders along 180 metres beneath it. Vipiteno, or Sterzing in German, is a typical border village which dates back to the 10th century. It has seen its fair share of history being a staging ground for various Nazi generals on their way to South America.
There was a official municipal function taking place in the square, complete with the inevitable local band which added an element of local colour. Of course we also got shepherded to the major tourist shop, which, it must be said offered a great line in wines and spirits. I succumbed to the temptation of a bottle of excellent Grappa!
From here we made our way on to Innsbruck, which is at the confluence of the Inn and Sill rivers and is the capital of the state of Tyrol. It was the home of the Hapsburg’s, one of the most important royal dynasties in Europe and who ruled for over 500 years. It is a wonderful city and well worth a visit. It’s most notable attraction is the “Golden Roof” which was built in 1500 by Archduke Friedrich IV to honour the second marriage of Maximilian I, the Holy Roman Emperor. In more modern times Innsbruck has hosted the Winter Olympics twice and is due to host the 2012 winter paralympics in 2012.
We had an excellent guide who met us off the bus and took us round the city starting through the Hofgarten. We also had an extensive visit to the Hofburg, the Imperial Palace which contains much of the history of the Hapsburg dynasty.
Click here for the photos for day two of our adventure
Sunday morning saw us on our way again, this time for for a boat trip on at Zell am See and from there to the well know resort of Kitzbühel. Well, it’s well known if you watch Ski Sunday or you indulge in winter sports.
The weather held for us and we drove through the magnificent scenery up into the alps and the mountain lake. The boat duly arrived and we found seats outside on the upper deck. The speciality of the day was coffee and apfelstrudel with cream.
Wouldn’t you know it; they ran out at the table before us! In a fit of self denial we decided to give food a miss and wait until we disembarked for lunch.
Amazingly enough there was a band playing in the town square. The recommended eating house was the Sportstürbel, which it turned out, offered among other things an amazing home-made bratwurst with sauerkraut.
Following a leisurely walk round the town and the lake side promenade we were shepherded onto the bus once more and set off for Kitzbühel.
It being Sunday there were no shops open. The continent has not succumbed to great British seven day week and shops close on Saturday at around 2p.m. and do not open again until Monday. This is a good thing! Another good thing is that HGVs are not allowed on the roads on Sunday which makes for a more pleasant journey.
Even out of season Alpine towns do have an atmosphere and Kitzbühel is no exception. My only gripe was that the restaurant at which we stopped for coffee had run out of Sachertorte, the inimitable Austrian chocolate cake conceived by Franz Sacher, a kitchen apprentice in the court of Prince Metternich in 1832.
On our way back we passed the ballooning festival. The best picture I have is of the NASPA balloon sinking slowly into the village.
We arrived back at the Schneerose for our last evening and in good alpine tradition partook of a few beers before calling it a night and packing our cases.
Photos for the day can be seen by clicking here.
I had been intrigued by the statues used to mark the footpath from Oberau to Neiderau, a distance of about 5 km and decided to walk it before breakfast on Monday morning. Thus I rose early and set off for the round trip.
The statues and their accompanying stone plaques are a philosophy of life and guide one along the route. They are lit at night so as to make the going easier. Also along the route one comes upon the Wildschonau dragon who reputedly cleft the valley in it’s death throes, having been slain by a farmer. A slide show of the statues is here.
I got back to the guest-house in time to shower and change for breakfast, which was really needed after the walk, and to get our cases down ready for our excursion to Achensee on our way to Oberammergau for the final stages of our tour and of course, the passion play. Once breakfast was over our mover and shaker, Anita, organised everyone for the group photo.
Having achieved this not unremarkable feat we bade farewell to the valley and headed of to the village of Pertisau on the Achensee, the largest lake in the Austrian Tirol. This village was the favourite of the Emperor Maximilian who based his hunting and fishing expeditions here. From here we embarked on our boat, the oldest in the fleet of 4 that are licensed to cruise the lake.
The sun shone in an almost cloudless sky and yet again we were presented with a series of amazing mountainscapes. the pictures say it all. We returned to Pertisau and had plenty of time to explore. The Parish church from which Ave Maria, in a multitude or vairiations, is broadcast to village at midday and 6pm each day is one of the many delights and we duly listended to that days rendition.
It’s other claim to fame is the extraction of mineral oil from the local slate which is said to have all healing medicinal properties. They even have a visitors centre the “Steinöl Vitalberg” given over to it.
This area is not only a winter resort but caters for walkers, climbers and paragliders, of whom we saw many, throught the summer. It also boasts the oldest golf course in Austria. The lake itself has drinking quality water and views are stunning. It is certainly an area I’ll consider revisiting for a pleasant walking holiday (and maybe a round of golf, but don’t tell Josephine). We had lunch in the Christine and this proved to be another excellent hostlery. Try their fried eggs on fried potatoes!
The photos of the lake and village are here
It was a shame to leave such an idyllic spot but needs must and we headed off on the road to Oberammergau.
Tour coaches are ot allowed into the centre of the village so they are all directed to a holding park where one is then collected by taki or minibus and ferried to the selected accommodation. As most of the guesthouses are relatively small, taking up to about 4 couples at most, we were split up for the first time on the tour.
Do not expect lifts; do expect steep narrow staircases and sloping ceilings. Also expect to be greeted with a friendly smile. We were allocated, together with David and Vicki, to the Zum Kirchenbauer adjacent to the main church so we had no problems finding our way back.
Having deposited our bags we set out to explore. The main occupation of the village is woodcarving and every other shop displays this art in various forms. The ones that attracted me were either far to expensive or would certainly not have looked at home in NI. As to be expected there were throngs of tourists of all nationalities roaming round.
We returned for our evening meal and found that our table companions were a South African couple which made for interesting conversation. The other table also had a South African couple and two ladies from the States.
We retired fairly early and in the morning I made an early start and walked the footpath to Ettal about 4 km up the valley. What I had not realised was that I should have taken the footpath on the other side of the river and which followed the valley.
My choice of route went up the side of the mountain. Ah well, one lives and learns. I also found, having nearly reasched my objective, a signpost saying “Ettal 1 km”. Greatly encouraged I pressed on and about a kilometre further came across another on offering the high pass to Ettal 1 km and the other the alternative route – stall at a kilometre. I picked the high pass as this was more or less on the flat. Then round the corner there it was nestling in the valley in the misty morning. Task accomplished and only the walk back to negotiate.
At 10 o’clock we went to the theatre and attended the pre play seminar given by Otto Hüber, the deputy director. It was an excellent lecture and gave a great insight into the the production of the play and its evolution from the first performance is 1634. The auditorium holds just under 5000 and the acoustics are good enough that there are no microphones required by the cast. iT is impressive! The stage is open but they have added the facility of a sliding roof in case of inclement weather.
Act one started at 2p.m. I will not attempt to describe the passion play; it is awesome both in scale and presentation. The narrator and choir of about 30 provide the continuity betwen scenes and “living sculptures” are used to as flashbacks to the old testament stories. The clearing of the temple scene sees over 500 people, dogs, donkeys and doves on stage at the same time. It is impossible not to be enthralled by the majesty of it.
The first act, which lasts about 2 1/2 hours finishes with Jesus being arrested. Then there is a three hour break for dinner and the second act starts at 8. This lasts up to 3 hours depending on who plays Jesus (all the major roles have two actors who play on alternate nights), one taking half an hour longer than the other. One would not see the time going in and suddenly it was the resurrection and the end of the play. My advice to anyone who has not been is to make it one of their “must do before I die” events.
Click here for photos of the village and area
The next day we set off for Munich and the last visit of our tour. Had I been able to afford the time I would have rearranged my flights and stayed on until the weekend.
The route follows part of the Via Claudia Agusta, an ancient Roman road, now a cycle track, linking Ostiglia in Italy with Donauwörth on the Danube in Bavaria.
Our first stop was at the Nymphenburg palace, a 17 century masterpiece of baroque architecture. From there we went on into the city and were left off at the Marienplatz. They have brought the Oktoberfest forward a couple of weeks as they have had such bad weather in Bavaria for the past few years, so the city was alive with tourists. The temperature was around 23° so their optimism paid off!
A party of us decided that we would forgo the wonders for a while and headed off to the famous, or notorious, Hofbrauhaus for a litre or two of Bavarian beer and something to eat. After that we headed down into the open market to watch the world go by and get a bag of the ubiquitous frites and mayonaise.
We finished our day over a final beer in the Marienplatz and then it was back to the airport for an uneventful trip home!
For photos of this final leg click here
The following are links to the @trip maps of our travels.