Unterammergau

There are many atmospheres I remember and could write about.

The stillness of the desert, on a trip to an oasis in Tunisia – riding a camel with the sun setting over the dunes.  A boat trip on Lake Windermere in the rain.  Stroking ponies in the New Forest.  The cobbled streets of Puerto Rico, visited from a cruise ship – taking a horse and cart ride around the sights on a Sunday morning, then a Dotto train to a castle, past a field full of locals flying kites in the strong wind from the sea.  And my beloved New York – the sleepy atmosphere of Central Park on a sunny day, the sumptuous interior of an old hotel, the excitement of Times Square at night, eating street food and watching dance acts when coming across an exotic street festival.

But in terms of impact, in terms of memorability – I can’t help it, my heart is drawn to the mountains.  And a most magical mountain moment, in a little village in Germany called Unterammergau.

Sitting at work, looking at the internet in a quiet moment, I suddenly come across a reference to Oberammergau, and the famous Passion Play that only happens once every ten years.  I’ve heard of it before, but it’s not something that’s particularly called to me as a place to go.  But for some reason, this sudden awareness that something is happening shortly that won’t be available again as an option for a decade, interests me, and I make enquiries about a trip.

After much procrastination, I locate a specialist company online that can offer a ticket and accommodation – I have to organise travel myself.

Anyway, it happens.  I fly to Munich on a budget airline.  After a little look around some department stores and a delightful ‘bratwurst experience’ (they chop it up by machine into little pieces!), I find the right train to catch, and enjoy the beautiful mountain and lakeside scenery as the train makes its way towards my obscure destination.  (On my way home, I accidentally discover that the Oktoberfest is happening in Munich – even though it is late September – and spend an amazing day wandering around that most spectacular funfair and beer festival.)

I didn’t really know what to expect from my journey to Oberammergau, just from looking at maps, and find myself surprised and overwhelmed by the wonderful scenery, accompanied luckily by absolutely beautiful weather.  The mountains are bathed in sunlight and it’s very warm.  Changing trains in some small remote town, sitting for ages on a bench waiting for a connection – it makes me feel like when I was travelling on my own in the old days.  Only the fact that quite a few other travellers are headed in the same direction and for the same reason, make it less strange and less scary.

So – I know that the play is held in Oberammergau, but that the accommodation I’ve been allocated is in Unterammergau, a smaller village nearby.  I expect to go to Ober first and then get some sort of connection to Unter – but suddenly, the slow train I’m on pulls into a station which says Unterammergau.  It’s gone a different way to that I expected.  So I quickly spring into action, and grabbing my little case, get off the train and find myself standing alone on an even smaller train station than the previous one.  There is a small closed up building, hardly a platform, and no staff.  No-one else has got off with me.

I start walking, and find a local street map on a big sign.  From this I work out roughly which way to go, and I believe try also to ask someone, who confirms I’m dragging my case in the right direction.

And so I locate the centre of the village, such as it is.  Only a few streets, one post office, a maximum of two shops, and a pub/restaurant to which I’m later directed for my evening meal.  I find the address I’m apparently staying at and knock at the door.  It looks like a private house, not at all like any sort of hotel, but I guess this is what I was expecting, because it seems visitors get allocated to whatever accommodation becomes available at this once-in-ten-year busy period.

I receive, first no response whatsoever, then eventually a grudging and unfriendly response in German, from an old woman leaning out from an upstairs window.  She’s very suspicious and appears to be trying to wave me away.  A little later, a younger woman appears at the door I’m knocking on, and also seems wary of who I am and what I want.  Only when I have shown her the paperwork does she seem to recognise who I am and why I’m there, and – thank goodness – her manner becomes more friendly and she shows me to a room as a guest.

It’s a beautiful room, with a sloping ceiling, wooden frame bed, tiny little sink and big ornate wardrobe.  A pretty window gives me a view of the mountains.  I have to share a toilet with one or two other rooms, which get occupied later, but I’m happy enough to have arrived safely and be able to establish myself in this home away from home.

The house, like most of the others in the village, is a huge building of several storeys which has a barn built into it.  When I explore the village, I see how these houses all have huge quantities of logs piled up against the sides of them, tractors parked outside, and also feature immediately adjacent manure heaps, which smell spectacularly and swarm with flies.  But this is the way people live here.  In homes which generally seem modern and affluent, and yet which hark back to an older way of life, in that the livestock are housed in the same building as the people.

And so I have the novel experience of being able to hear a cow mooing through the wall, as I lie down in my bed to sleep.

The magic mountain moment, however, happens at night.  I get up to use the bathroom when it’s dark, and walking along the corridor back to my room, notice that there is a door open to the outdoors.  It leads onto a broad balcony at the front of the house, featuring dozens of pots of geraniums and other plants, and some seats which can presumably be used to admire the view during the day.

I am so taken aback by this concept of a door left wide open to the night – I who live in a city and am so security-conscious.  Here we’re obviously in another world.  Who’s going to climb up the outside of one building of many in a little German village?  I suppose it’s just so unlikely here.

Stepping onto the balcony I get the most amazing moonlit view of mountains.  The moon is big and full, the mountains are arranged spectacularly all around, and they are cushioned around the bottom by the most amazing white mist.  The moonlight on the mist is ethereal!

There is no-one about, no traffic, hardly a light on in the whole village, and complete stillness – apart from one, most magical sound.

Just below me, in the tiny little square – hardly more than a crossroads with a patch of flowers and a bench – there stands a pretty little fountain.  I’ve sat by it, and photographed it, during the day.  At night the water keeps running, a gentle, pretty tinkling which I stand and listen to in the moonlight, reflecting on how the people who live here must find this so commonplace, have probably been brought up with the sound of this fountain familiar to them all their lives, and hence take it for granted rather than finding it so wonderful, as I do.

I step out onto that balcony at night several times over the two nights I am staying in Unterammergau, just to experience the atmosphere.  If I was with someone, I might say it was romantic.  Since I’m alone, it is merely breathtaking and profound.

Of course I join the throng to see the Passion Play, and enjoy that experience immensely – the huge cast, the amazing music, the beautiful backdrop of mountain scenery, the animals on stage; horses, camels and sheep.  I have interesting conversations with other travellers over wonderfully European meals, and buy all sorts of interesting souvenirs from the overwhelming selection of gift shops – including a beautiful and very expensive hand-carved wooden horse statue.

But equal to my memories of the play, will always be that of the amazing view from the balcony of moonlit mountains and mist, and the sound of the water fountain, tinkling in the stillness of the night.

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