Oberammergau and Unterammergau is the tale of two villages.
The two villages lie about three miles distant from one another, both on the banks of the Ammer River, in the district of Garmisch-Partenkirchen in the Bavarian Alps.
What differentiates the villages is an event that happened almost four hundred years ago.
At the time, Europe was being ravished by bubonic plague, and the disease had even reached the remote southwestern corner of Germany in which lie Oberammergau and Unterammergau. The residents of Oberammergau made a vow to God that if their village was spared the plague, they would all perform a Passion Play every ten years to give thanks for their survival. According to legend, after the vow was made not another villager died from the plague, and the first Passion Play in Oberammergau was performed in 1634. The tradition has been carried on faithfully every ten years since, with the 42nd Passion Play taking place in 2022.
There is no doubt that the advent of the Passion Play transformed the village of Oberammergau. Today, the village is geared up to receive a daily influx of 5,000 tourists from all over the world; there are restaurants and lodgings; car parks and gift shops; and the daily ticket receipts for the Passion Play itself must total something in the region of half a million Euros.
In contrast, just a short distance along the valley, Unterammergau looks largely unchanged from how I can imagine it must have looked back in the early 17th century. It has a sleepy, timeless feel of tranquillity. The focus of the village remains the 11th century chapel of St Leonhard. There are horses in the fields; hay piled in the barns; chopped wood in the sheds. There are few visitors and, the locals who I met, still wear traditional lederhosen and dirndls, without either a sense of inhibition or irony.
I wonder which village envies the other more? Does Unterammergau feel jealous of the commercial behemoth next door, or does Oberammergau rue the innocence that they have lost?
© E. C. Glendenny
E. C. Glendenny tries to get her head around the local tongue-twister:
Heut kommt der Hans zu mir,
Freut sich die Lies.
Ob er aber über Oberammergau,
Oder aber über Unterammergau,
Oder aber überhaupt nicht kommt,
Ist nicht gewiss.