Oberammergau, Germany, situated in the heart of Bavaria and about forty-five minutes from Neuschwanstein Castle, is worth a stop on a driving tour of southern Germany. I only had an hour or so to spend in the small town, which about five thousand people call home, and my visit happened to fall on a quiet Sunday night with almost nobody out on the streets.
You might be wondering: out of all the tiny hamlets and picturesque villages that litter Bavaria, why visit this one? It seems oddly specific, I know, but I didn’t just blindly choose a random town off of a map. Oberammergau is perhaps one of the most unique places one can visit in all of Europe, thanks to one incredible quirk that the townspeople all seem to share: an affinity for Luftlmalerei.
If you’re a regular reader, you’ll know that budget travel is a subject near and dear to my heart, and I believe that art should be accessible for everyone, not just to those who can afford a pricey entrance fee to an exclusive museum. I put Oberammergau on our Bavarian itinerary because the town seemed to cater to these very values: Oberammergau is essentially one living, outdoor museum, with buildings as the canvas and paint as the medium. I was sold with the promise of no long entry lines or costly admission.
Yes, nearly every shop, home, lodge, and public building in Oberammergau is covered in some sort of religious or fairy-tale themed painting.
Some are fun and inspired by the region’s love of all things whimsical; after all, the Grimm brothers hailed from Hanau, Germany.
I have to start with this building’s exterior, for obvious reasons. There’s a flying pig and the word “Schmuck,” which I assume has been a family name in Germany far longer than it’s been an American slang word, but I admit I let out a chuckle.
Other paintings are more artistically serious:
The Alpine tradition of creating elaborate paintings on buildings is known as Luftlmalerei, and visitors to central Europe will see this trend all over Bavaria and Austria. Oberammergau, however, takes its Luftlmalerei to a whole new level, and visitors will notice that each painting is meticulously maintained.
Note the wrought-iron signs, yet another trait of central Europe. Each business would advertise their products in German and through the use of a picture for illiterate patrons. (For example, a bakery would be identified by a pretzel.)
Christians worldwide might already be familiar with Oberammergau, albeit for an incredibly different reason. Oberammergau’s claim to fame – and primary tourist draw – is the Passion Play, a play performed by residents of the town once every decade that shares the story of Christ and his crucifixion. The Passion Play is, theatrically speaking, an incredible feat, and only people from Oberammergau are allowed to act on its stage. Amazingly, the play was first performed in the mid-seventeenth century and is still going strong.
Unfortunately, the Passion Play has its political side, and is not merely an artistic expression for those of the Christian faith; rather, the play’s history is solidly anti-Semitic and receives similar criticisms to this day. Strolling through Oberammergau, visitors will be able to understand why Bavaria proved to be such a fertile recruiting ground for Hitler in the 1930s. While many of the buildings in town feature quirky or historical paintings, like those shown above, others are solidly Christian and are put in the most prominent places in town, as if to encourage those who are not believers to keep passing through. While Antisemitism was undoubtedly a part of the twentieth century, there seems to not be much effort made to prevent it from creeping into modern-day.
This is one of the first paintings visitors will see upon entering town.
Obviously, there is nothing inherently wrong with these paintings or the fact that the region is overwhelming Christian in makeup, but when coupled with Germany’s horrific Nazi past, the events of sixty-five years ago start to be put into perspective. In Oberammergau, it’s important for travelers to remember that the separation of Church and State, which we take for granted in the U.S., doesn’t exist in many places. Displaying a crucifix on a public building in Germany has an entirely different meaning and historical place than it would in the States.
A small cemetery hidden behind Oberammergau’s church acts as the final resting place for many men from the area who died fighting on the battlefields of World War I. Americans are often shuffled through Verdun or the Somme, but we rarely have the opportunity to understand how average folks from “the other side” were affected. This town lost fathers, sons, brothers, and friends just like similarly small towns in England and France did. World War I was incredibly bloody, and the human cost of this and similar tragedies hits home in Oberammergau.
What if art and religious history aren’t your forte? Fear not, there is something for you in Oberammergau: hiking! Don’t let that flying pig make you forget that Oberammergau sits in the heart of the Alps, where visitors are never too far from a stellar hike or ski slope, depending on the season.
Nearby Kofel is a short walk away from downtown Oberammergau and offers a lovely view of the town from atop its peak.
Is Oberammergau worth visiting? Absolutely. I’ve yet to visit a destination that I leave without gaining at least some insight into local culture and customs – and I don’t think I ever will. That being said, Oberammergau’s history is turbulent and controversial, and a visit here is not about blindly appreciating beautiful works of art. No one can argue that the paintings Oberammergau has on display aren’t spectacular and enjoyable, but context is always important. For travelers who love challenging, if a little uncomfortable, destinations, Oberammergau is a “can’t-miss.”
- If you’re looking to do some hardcore hiking or Alpine skiing, Oberammergau or any of the neighboring towns in the district of Garmisch-Partenkirchen would both make for a wonderful base. Otherwise, plan on spending about two hours in Oberammergau – this should give you ample time to explore the town, study its paintings, and grab a bite to eat.
- Oberammergau is about an hour’s drive from Munich, making it easy to pair with Neuschwanstein Castle for a Bavarian day trip.
- If you’re interested in seeing the Passion Play, which is slated to start in May 2020, start planning now and definitely book tickets ahead of time. To call this event “massive” is an understatement, and hotels book up fast. You don’t want to have to commute from Austria!
- Definitely bring your English-to-German phrasebook with you to Oberammergau; some townspeople speak English, but many don’t.