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  • Writer's pictureMeirion Harries


We had no sense of exasperation after lunch. This being our last day in Munich, the choice was inevitable – half a dozen Weisswurst, gently simmered and brought to table in the water they simmered in. With, of course, pretzel and sweet mustard. Mark Twain might have availed himself of this calming lunch as he became more and more incensed with the German language:

Every noun has a gender, and there is no sense or system in distribution; so the gender of each must be learned separately and by heart. There is no other way. To do this one has to have a memory like a memorandum-book. In German, a young lady has no sex, while a turnip has. Think what overwrought reverence that shows for the turnip, and what callous disrespect for the girl.

Twain tramped through southern Germany and the Black Forest in 1879. A decade later, another humorist, English this time, also found himself in Southern Germany, on a pilgrimage to Oberammergau. He (and his friend 'B') arrived first here in Munich, the way station for the mystery play. They set out earnestly to see the art on offer, but were soon overwhelmed:

Now we use picture galleries to practise spurts in. I did a hundred yards this morning through the old Pantechnicon in twenty-two and a half seconds, which, for fair heel-and-toe walking, I consider very creditable. B took five-eighths of a second longer for the same distance; but then he dawdled to look at a Raphael.

Jerome's Pantechicon is the Alte Pinakothek, one of the largest art galleries in Europe. You could spend fortnight's holiday going nowhere else - or, if you prefer, stick to a lengthy heel-and-toe session through the highlights: Durer's Self-Portrait, Grunewald's Disputation of SS Erasmus and Maurice; Lucas Cranach the Elder's Venus and Cupid; Albrecht Altdorfer's Battle of Alexander; and then works by the Bruegels, father and son, Memling, Van Dyck, Rembrandt, Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Titian, Tiepolo, Poussin, Claude, Velazquez, Murillo and Rubens.

Rubens The Last Judgement (c)wikicommons

Nor were the sounds of Munich to Jerome's taste. He objected to the brass bands that played incessantly:

The band that performs at a Munich beer-garden is not the sort of band that can be ignored. The members of a Munich military band are big, broad-chested fellows, and they are not afraid of work.

Jerome's issue with their music arose when they had lunch in a beer garden:

With the advent of our steaks, the band struck up a selection from Wagner. I know of no modern European composer so difficult to eat beefsteak to as Wagner. That we did not choke ourselves is a miracle. Wagner’s orchestration is most trying to follow. We had to give up all idea of mustard.

Jerome Klapka Jerome aged 30 - at about the time of his visit to Oberammergau (c)wikicommons

For Jerome and B, the route to Oberammergau involved a train and a ride in a farmer's cart up the steep slopes of the Tyrol.

Higher and higher we climbed, and grander and grander towered the frowning moon-bathed mountains round us, and chillier and chillier grew the air.

Oberammergau in 1880

His first impression:

a little village, clustered round its mosque-domed church, nestles in the centre of a valley, surrounded by great fir-robed hills, which stand, with the cross-crowned Kofel for their chief, like stern, strong sentinels guarding its old-world peace from the din and clamour of the outer world ....  the square, whitewashed houses are sheltered beneath great overhanging gables, and are encircled by carved wooden balconies and verandahs, where, in the cool of the evening, peasant wood-carver and peasant farmer sit to smoke the long Bavarian pipe, and chat about the cattle and the Passion Play and village politics; and, in gaudy colours above the porch, are painted glowing figures of saints and virgins and such-like good folk, which the rains have sadly mutilated, so that a legless angel on one side of the road looks dejectedly across at a headless Madonna on the other, while at an exposed corner some unfortunate saint, more cruelly dealt with by the weather than he ever was even by the heathen, has been deprived of everything that he could call his own, with the exception of half a head and a pair of extra-sized feet.

Jerome is describing the Lüftlmalerei - frescoes on many of the buildings that depict fairy tales, religious scenes, fairy tales or are just decorative architectural trompe-l'œil. Franz Seraph Zwinck initiated this style of house painting in the second half of the eighteenth century and these frescoes can be found now all over southern Germany.

Lüftlmalerei in Oberammergau (c)Nicholas Even, wikicommons

Since the twelfth century, the village has also been a centre of woodcarving. The Bavarian State Woodcarving School was founded here in the 1860s and one of the great modern wood-carvers, Wolfram Aichele, a fan of Tilman Riemanschneider, was a pupil. The students call themselves Herrgottschnitzer (God-carvers) because they mostly carve images of saints – from the local good-quality Arolla pine wood. Their religious carvings are found all over the world; the Seaport Shrine in Boston, Massachusetts has an Arolla pine statue of Our Lady of Good Voyage.

Jerome and B could have visited the woodcarving school but they would not have seen the NATO School which was only founded in 1953. At first glance, there is something surreal about having a military organisation's 'premier facility for training and education' set amidst a pilgrimage site. But Oberammergau has military significance. Here in 1936 the Nazis built the Hötzendorf Barracks: originally intended for soldiers, the site metamorphosed into an advanced weapons facility. Here Willy Messerschmitt built the first functional jet fighter, the Messerschmitt 262. And when the Red Army advanced on Peenemunde, Werner von Braun and his 500 rocket men were relocated to the secure tunnels under the Barracks.

The German Army did not defend Oberammergau itself, but some diehard SS troopers - all of them teenagers - threw up a defensive line in front of the barracks. The Americans blasted their way through these boys with artillery and moved to capture von Braun and the valuable research sitting in the facility. Among the first group of intelligence officers assigned to the Hötzendorf Barracks to interview the haul of scientists was a 22-year-old Henry Kissinger.

Henry Kissinger (left) with Fritz Kraemer at Hötzendorf Barracks (c)NATO

The Passion Plays performed here high in the Bavarian Alps are the villagers' side of a bargain made with God in 1634. As Jerome explains:

The good people who dwelt by the side of the Ammer vowed that, if the plague left them, they would, every ten years, perform a Passion Play. The celestial powers seem to have at once closed with this offer.  The plague disappeared as if by magic, and every recurring tenth year since, the Ober-Ammergauites have kept their promise and played their Passion Play. They act it to this day as a pious observance. Before each performance all the characters gather together on the stage around their pastor, and, kneeling, pray for a blessing upon the work then about to commence.

The script of the Passion that Jerome saw has been modified since the Second World War. Hitler had approved of the 1934 performance which blamed the Jews for the 'murder' of Christ. In 1950, Arthur Miller and Leonard Bernstein collected a petition to cancel the Play entirely - but the villagers refused. By the 1970s, the entrenched positions had eroded and Jewish organisations were involved in making necessary revisions to the script. Over the years, there were further modifications until, finally, in 2000, the story was reinterpreted as an inter-Jewish conflict, some Jews for and others against the Crucifixion; Muslims were accepted as actors in the Passion for the first time.

Despite being on a 'pilgrimage', Jerome was not terribly looking forward to the performance:

I think that a play of eighteen acts and some forty scenes, which commences at eight o’clock in the morning, and continues, with an interval of an hour and a half for dinner, until six o’clock in the evening, is too long.  I think the piece wants cutting.

But he emerged in raptures:

Mere peasants represent some of the greatest figures in the world’s history with as simple a dignity and as grand a bearing as could ever have been expected from the originals themselves.

Never has the voice of any actress (and I have seen some of the greatest) stirred my heart as did the voice of Rosa Lang, the Burgomaster’s daughter. It was not the voice of one woman, it was the voice of Motherdom, gathered together from all the world over.

But reality returned as they returned to Munich with other British tourists:

I must candidly confess that the English-speaking people one meets with on the Continent are, taken as a whole, a most disagreeable contingent. One hardly ever hears the English language spoken on the Continent, without hearing grumbling and sneering.

The women are the most objectionable. We travelled down in the omnibus from Ober-Ammergau with three perfect specimens of the species, accompanied by the usual miserable-looking man, who has had all the life talked out of him. The average female English or American tourist is rude and self-assertive … intensely selfish, and utterly inconsiderate of others; everlastingly complaining, and, in herself, drearily uninteresting.

The audio book of Diary of a Pilgrimage -

The full film of Three Men in a Boat -

A little tour of Oberammergau -

British Pathe's The Woodworkers Of Oberammergau (1934) -

Documentary with extracts from the Passion Play -

Flanders and Swann -

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