The eternal passion of a German village
Oberammergau as 2,000 locals prepare to take to the stage
Where in the world would you find a mayoral decree ordering men not to cut their hair or trim their beards for a year and a half?
It's a command issued once a decade in the German village of Oberammergau, whose world-famous Passion Play will be staged in a custom-built open-air theatre in May.
It's an all-hands-on-deck affair, and everyone in the locality takes it very seriously. There's barely a man around town who doesn't look suitably hirsute for the occasion -- and if they've forgotten, posters dotted in public places remind them to avoid razors of all kinds from Ash Wednesday until the end of the play in October.
The tradition stems from the 1630s, when bubonic plague was taking the lives of millions across the continent. The locals made a pact with God that if He were to spare them the worst ravages of the disease, then they would repay Him with a play every 10 years depicting the trial, suffering and death of Jesus Christ.
The first play was performed in 1634, and not one person died after it from plague (down from an average of 20 per month the previous year). As a sign of their gratitude, the people of Oberammergau have performed the Play every decade since.
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 music from The Omen. But even I was left in awe after seeing the scale of the preparations for the Passion Play during a recent visit to the Bavarian village.
That's because, despite its content, the play isn't only about religion. Faith plays its part, undoubtedly, but it is really about community. Out of a population of 5,200, some 2,000 locals (including 500 children) are currently in preparation mode for the event, taking on acting roles, singing and stage production.
The Passion Play starts on May 15. It takes 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 be married to a local. No blow-ins need apply.
Our tour guide was able to identify all the leading players as we walked around town, be they a local publican, teacher or the wood-carver who works from the beautifully restored Pilates House in the village.
One section of the play will involve a large crowd scene, so, for the five months of performances, the villagers stop what they're doing, down tools and head to the theatre to make up the numbers.
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 this year's play. Some roles are even passed on from one generation to the next within families.
If you're visiting Oberammergau for the Passion Play, there's 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 such as 'quaint' and 'charming' in their truest sense.
There's even a wonderful Christmas store, Kathe Wohlfahrt, open all year round so you can stock up on exquisite baubles and festive gifts in the heat of summer.
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 is a 19th-century castle with opulent interior design and avant-garde architecture. Watch out for the optical trickery of the Hall of Mirrors -- and its landscaped garden is ideal for long strolls.
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 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. There's a crystalline fairy world where the sun dances with the moon and a crystal that devours a plant as well as the decidedly trippy Crystal Dome, which gives the impression of stepping inside a crystal.
If you're travelling in summer, try to time your visit with the annual solstice fire festival in June, when flames and lights adorn the peaks of all the mountains nearby. The best observation point is the tip of the Kitzbuheler Horn mountain, which is accessed by cable car. On your way back, wait around for the last cable car and fly down in pitch darkness for added effect.
The village is a ski resort of some renown, but during spring and summer it's perfect for mountain walks (easy or difficult -- the choice is yours) that will allow you to take in the Alpine scenery, breathe in the pristine air, and work off the excesses of all those weissbiers and dumplings.
We stopped by the Restaurant Adler Hutte for Gröstl, a roasted mixture of potatoes, onions, and bacon, with a fried egg on top.
It was a perfect end to an enchanting trip.