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Saturday, February 20, 2010

Passion Cashin

Apologies for the headline: I've been waiting for an opportunity to use that one. My travel feature from today's Weekend magazine in the Irish Independent

It’s not everyday that you come across a mayoral decree ordering men not to cut their hair or trim their beards for 18 months. That said the German village of Oberammergau isn’t like everywhere else.

This is the scene of the world-famous Passion Play, which will be staged in a custom-built open-air theatre from May to October 2010. It’s an all-hands-on-deck type affair, and everyone in the locality takes it very seriously, right down to men looking suitably hirsute for their parts - ergo, the poster stuck up in the theatre foyer reminding men to avoid razors of all kinds from Ash Wednesday of this year until the end of the Passion Play next October.

The tradition of the Passion Play in the village stems from the 1630s when bubonic plague was laying claim to millions across the continent. The locals made a pact with God that if (S)He were to spare them the worst ravages of the disease, then they would repay the Almighty with a play every ten years depicting the trial, suffering and the death of Jesus Christ.

The first play was performed in 1634, after which not one person died from plague (down from an average of 20 per month the year previous). As a sign of their gratitude, the people of Oberammergau have performed the Play every decade.

I should state from the outset that I’m not religious in the slightest. In fact, whenever I walk into a church, the stained glass windows shatter and choirs begin screeching the music from The Omen. But even I was left in awe after taking in the scale of the preparations for the Passion Play while on a tour of the Oberammergau theatre.

That’s because, despite its content, the Passion Play isn’t really about religion. Faith plays its part, undoubtedly, but, as cheesy as it may sound, the play is about community. Out of a general population of 5,200, some 2,000 locals (including 500 children) are currently in prep mode for the event, ranging from acting roles, to music, to singing, and stage production.

The Passion Play performance starts on May 15, and it will take place over a course of seven hours a day (so bring a flask and a blanket), five times a week, for over five months. To be eligible to take part, cast members must have either been born in the village, lived there for 25 years, or married to a local. There will be no blow-ins here, thank you very much!

Our tour guide was able to identify all the leading players as we walked around town, be they a local publican, teacher, or the woodcarver who works from the beautifully restored Pilates House in the village (due to the aforementioned hair-and-beard decree, it’s easy to spot the male villagers taking part). One section of the play will involve a large crowd scene, so, for the five months of performances, the villagers will literally stop what they’re doing, down tools and head to the theatre to make up the numbers. It really is something else in terms of organisation and commitment.

As a measure of how seriously it’s taken, our guide seemed to be genuinely star-struck when we came across one of the two actors who will play Christ in next year’s Passion. Some roles are even passed on from one generation to the next within families.

If you’re visiting Oberammergau next year for the Play, the good news is that there is plenty more to see and do in the locality to round out any holiday. This part of Bavaria gets the best of both worlds: ideal skiing conditions in winter and glorious sun in summer. Oberammergau itself is like a scene out of an old Brothers Grimm fairytale book, bringing to mind words like ‘quaint’ and ‘charming’ without being patronising.

There’s even a wonderful Christmas store, Kathe Wohlfahrt, open all year round, meaning that you can stock up on exquisite baubles and festive gifts in the heart of summer, just like I (and many other visitors) did.

We also made the short journey to the Linderhof Palace, the ornate country hunting lodge of King Ludwig II, a real character known for his extravagant tastes. His legacy, therefore, is a 19th century castle with opulent interior design, avant-garde architecture and stunning landscaped gardens.

The tail-end of our trip featured a hop over to the village of St Johann in Tirol in Austria. We travelled through the Austrian Alps, via Innsbruck, stopping for a nose around the Swarovski Kristallwelten, a museum comprised of, and devoted to, the world famous crystals.

It houses a series of beguiling installations and exhibitions, including a mechanical theatre where clothes (encrusted with crystals, of course) come to life, a crystalline fairy world where the sun dances with the moon and a crystal devours a plant, and the decidedly trippy Crystal Dome, which gives the impression of stepping inside a crystal, a thousand beams of light refracting of the facetted walls to the music of Brian Eno.

We arrived in St Johann during the annual summer solstice fire festival, where flames and lights adorned the peaks of all the mountains nearby, observed, ideally, from the tip of the Kitzbuheler Horn mountain, which is accessed by cable car.

The village is a ski resort of some renown (or notoriety, depending on your behaviour!), but during spring and summer, you can avail of mountain walks (easy or difficult - the choice is yours) that will allow you to take in the Alpine scenery, breathe in that wonderful air, and work off the excesses of all those weisbiers and dumplings (kudos to our guide Georg Weihs for putting up with our lumbering posse). It was an enchanting end to a trip that certainly whetted my appetite to return next year to see the Passion Play go live. The orchestra might even play The Omen music to welcome me.


Topflight ( or call 01 2401700) organises tailor-made holidays, using Aer Lingus flights from Dublin, Cork and Belfast to Oberammergau, with bolt-on holidays to the Austrian Tirol. The trip is particularly group-friendly - Topflight is offering one free place in 20 for all groups.

A short break to Oberammergau with category A tickets and transfers costs €1199 per person plus taxes. Topflight also offers a choice of one week holidays to Oberammergau, with two nights in Oberammergau area including category A tickets, and five nights in a choice of the Austrian Tirol or Lake Garda, Italy.


In Oberammergau we stayed in the three-star Hotel Feldmeier (, +49 (0) 88223011). It’s centrally located in the village, comprising of 17 double rooms and 6 single rooms. Throughout the winter, it will cost between e340-e360 per person for a double room (half board and breakfast) for seven nights. If travelling to the Passion Play next year, check website for deals closer to the date. Early booking would be advised.

In Tirol, we stayed in the four-star Sporthotel Austria (, +43/5352/62507). Rates at the Sporthotel range from e92-e117 per person (half board) for a double room. Special ski packages are also available for winter 2009/2010.


The Oberammergau Passion Play starts on May 15, 2010, and continues with daily performances until October 3, 2010. The Topflight brochure on Oberammergau 2010 is out now.


*See the Passion Play at Oberammergau. It’s a once-in-a-decade opportunity to see this extraordinary community event. See for details

*Visit Castle Linderhof (, the exquisite country retreat of the 19th century King Ludwig II. The ornate design was ahead of its time - watch out for the optical trickery taking place in the Hall of Mirrors - and its landscaped garden is ideal for long strolls.

*In St Johann, take the funicular (cable car) to the top of the Kitzbuhler Horn and enjoy a traditional Austrian dinner in the Restaurant Adler Hutte (a personal favourite is Gröstl, a roasted mixture of potatoes, onions, and bacon, with a fried egg on top). Wait around for the last cable car, and fly down in pitch darkness for added effect.

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