If you’ve already booked to see the famous Oberammergau Passion Play this summer or are hoping to get a last minute place on a tour, you may be interested in the tips I gathered from our recent visit to the Passion Play. First of all – don’t worry, you’re in Germany where everything works like clockwork and I was impressed that the play organisers seem to have thought through everything to ensure your enjoyment of the play and your stay in Oberammergau.
Background to the Oberammergau Passion Play
The Oberammergau Passion Play dates back to 1632 when the Plague was sweeping through Europe and reached the town claiming many lives. The people of Oberammergau gathered to ask God to spare their village and made a vow that they would perform a Passion Play every ten years. From that time there were no further deaths in the village and since then the Passion Play has been regularly performed at Oberammergau, becoming especially popular for visitors in the last century. The Oberammergau Passion Play is an incredible community effort as all the performers are amateurs and in order to take part you must have been born in the town or have lived there for 20 years. In order to nurture the talent for the Passion play, there is heavy emphasis within the community and local education on drama, choirs and orchestras in order to train each generation for the performances of the future. For each speaking part there are two actors and the playing of different parts often runs in families, with actors taking the same parts that their fathers and grandfathers performed before them.
Arriving in Oberammergau
Oberammergau is about 3 hours journey time by train or road from Munich, which is an ideal airport to fly into. Many visitors will arrive by coach as part of a tour and our coach was directed into a large car park on the edge of the town. From there our group was appointed an English-speaking local guide to assist us and some of our party were transferred into mini-buses for a free transfer to our local accommodation. This prevented coach congestion in the village of Oberammergau and the guide then stayed on the coach to assist the driver to deliver others of the party who were staying in accommodation outside the village. During the performance there were free shuttle buses available to take everyone in allocated accommodation into the centre of Oberammergau or to the restaurants where they would eat lunch and dinner.
Oberammergau Play Packages
If you book through a specialist travel company as we did, they will have purchased a package of tickets, meal and accommodation from the play organisers. Each package includes a bed and breakfast stay for 1 or 2 nights in or around Oberammergau, a ticket to see the play performance, lunch and dinner on the day of the play and free shuttle buses to take you to and from the performance.
There are different grades of package available, and the lower priced one will get you a lower grade of theatre seat, meal and modest B & B accommodation, while a higher priced one may get you a seat in the front section of the theatre with higher grade of accommodation in a hotel that may be more centrally located. If I was booking with a tour organiser from scratch, I would enquire what level of package I would be getting as, if you have the opportunity to shop around I would personally prefer to pay more for a better placed seat, and to stay in a centrally located accommodation.
We also discovered that some packages on certain days allow you to stay 2 nights in the villages, while others like ours are only for one night, and given the choice I would definitely stay for 2 nights to be able to look around Oberammergau at a more leisurely place.
If I went to the play again, I might consider trying to book a package directly and then organising my own holiday around it, although you would probably need to book as soon as the tickets are released around one year before the play. Many of the packages are taken by travel companies, who then build a holiday touring the region around it, but overall the tours do tend to be expensive and you may not have the time for a long trip. It does seem that most overseas visitors book their visit to Oberammergau as part of an organised tour from a specialist travel company.
The Passion Play Theatre
The Oberammergau Passion Play is performed in a large, modern, purpose built theatre that seats 4500 people and there are entrances all along each side to get the audience in and out relatively quickly. The wide stage at one end is open to the elements and there are trees and the mountains in view behind the stage set. The theatre auditorium is covered over for the audience of 4500 people and seats rise on a gentle incline from the stage giving everyone a good, clear view even at the back, although in such a large theatre, you will be able to see more detail of the performance if you are seated in the front half of the theatre.
The performance is divided into two halves of 2.5 hrs each with a meal in between. In previous years the performance was divided into a morning and afternoon session with lunch in between, but in 2010 the timing changed with the first half starting after lunch at 2.30pm with a 3 hour break for dinner and the second half starting at 8.00pm.
Even though it was long, I enjoyed every moment of the Passion Play – it was truly an amazing spectacle. The dialogue in German in interspersed by music and singing from a choir and the orchestra, often with a background of living tableaux with scenes from the bible, making a colourful picture behind the choir who were dressed in long white robes. The other unique element was created by the crowd scenes involving all ages including children and babes in arms as well as the occasional sheep, donkey, and even a small camel. At times there must have been at least 200 people on stage at one time, all acting their socks off.
The performance of the Oberammergau Passion Play
The play is performed in German but you will be given an English text, so may like to bring a tiny pencil torch to read it as it gets dark in the second half of the performance. As the evening becomes chilly in the Alps, even if the day has been warm, you will want to have warm clothing with you as the theatre is covered but open at one end. A small pair of field binoculars is useful if your seat is towards the back of the theatre, although all seats have an unrestricted view and perhaps a small bottle of water to ward off tickly coughs.
Accommodation in Oberammergau
Our accommodation was in a local house that provided Bed and Breakfast, in a pleasant residential area and was a short walk to our allocated restaurant and a 15 minute shuttle bus ride into the centre of Oberammergau. For the duration of the play the residents of Oberammergau open their doors and make room for the large influx of extra visitors. Guests are allocated the accommodation by the play organisers depending on the level of package, so it is difficult to determine the specific place you will stay.
If you are in this kind of accommodation you should expect a room that is clean and comfortable, with a warm welcome but not necessarily the latest decor – ours was in shades of 1970s browns and greens. Our group were dispersed in different accommodation and ate in different restaurants and some found that they were staying on outlying villages which meant that they were quite rushed and had very little time to look around the town before the play. Luckily, the arrangements were changed so that we had a couple of hours to look around Oberammergau on the morning after the play.
Overall, I felt the play really did live up to expectations and is well worth making the effort to see the play once in your lifetime. The play is as much about the passion of the people of Oberammergau to remain true to their vow and the enormous effort and thought that had clearly gone into putting on the play was a credit to the village and made the play a memorable occasion for us visiting Oberammergau.
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