On the vast open-air stage of Oberammergau's Passion Theatre, a cluster of foreign tourists, from twenty-somethings to septuagenarians, most clutching cameras and smartphones, are flocking around an affable, unassuming German chap. He's Frederick Mayet, a 37-year-old who lives in this postcard-pretty Bavarian village, and works in PR and marketing for a theatre in Munich, an hour or so down the road.
You might wonder why he's attracting so much attention, why everyone's badgering him for group pictures and selfies. Well, the answer is simple. Frederick is "Jesus". Or at least he was in 2010, when he starred in the Passion Play, Oberammergau's world-famous retelling of the "suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ".
They've been staging the play in the village, once a decade, since 1634, fulfilling a promise made to God during the dark days of the bubonic plague. The vow was basically thus: spare us any further deaths, Lord, and we'll do the Passion Play forever more. God responded and Oberammergau kept its word.
In 1680, the community voted to transfer the performances to the start of each decade, and, apart from the odd postponement, due to war or temporary political bans, the tradition has endured, though it has evolved, dramatically. The 2020 play, for which tickets have recently gone on sale to resellers, will draw almost 500,000 spectators – half from overseas.
There will be 102 performances (five a week, from May to October) and more than 2000 actors, musicians and stage technicians will be involved – all of whom must have been born in Oberammergau or lived there for 20 years. Exceptions are made for the children of new village residents, and the animal stars (sheep, goats, donkeys and even camels make appearances). Frederick, who we meet on an absorbing backstage tour of the Passion Theatre, quite fancies reprising Jesus (which, like all the play's major roles, is shared with another actor).
"If you lose your hair, or drink too much beer in-between, it's hard to be Jesus again, so I might still have a chance," Frederick says. He is slim with a healthy head of mousy hair, which is shorter now than in the 2010 photographs displayed around the venue (purpose-built in 1929 after the play's popularity boomed, it could almost seat the whole village in its 4800-capacity covered auditorium).
Frederick – who hopes his three-year-old son, Vincent, may also be cast, perhaps as a goat herder – says all the male actors will stop cutting their hair and shaving after Ash Wednesday, 2019,(around audition time). It's an example of the dedication and attention to detail that makes Oberammergau's Passion Play such a vivid spectacle. Indeed, since it's performed only in German – spectators can get a printed English translation for the five-hour, two-part play – it's the acting and audiovisuals that most captivate the foreign crowd.
Frederick likens it to opera. "That's often in Italian, and even if you don't speak Italian, you can still enjoy it. Most spectators, whether they're religious or not, German-speaking or not, will be familiar with the Passion Play story, and a third of it is music from the orchestra and choir."
Venturing backstage, we browse props and costumes used in previous plays, including a wooden Last Supper table that is more than 200 years old, huge crucifixes (to which "Jesus" is secured by a climbing belt under his loincloth) and soldiers' helmets and flowing robes.
Frederick reveals new costumes are designed and sewn by villagers each Passion Play season. "Can you imagine opening your wardrobe and having to wear the same things you did 10 years ago? We want to keep things fresh and interesting."
While many people have their hearts set on visiting Oberammergau in 2020, it's a rewarding destination year-round, whatever the year. Nestled in a valley by the River Ammer, lorded over by the pine-forested Ammergau Alps, it has long been an alluring resort for Bavarians. Snowbunnies abound in winter, while in summer, the village's elevation (837 metres), makes it a cool, enticing escape from Munich and its steamy, jam-packed beer gardens.
Boasting a knot of tranquil backstreets, lined with gorgeous architecture, Oberammergau's compact core is a joy to visit. As well as a treasure-filled onion-domed parish church, in whose cemetery grounds the first Passion Play was hosted, there are countless attractive three and four-storey buildings blessed with wooden shutters, plant-potted balconies and magnificent frescoes.
Known as luftlmalerei (fresh air paintings), and using a trompe l'oeil technique, the facade frescoes have blossomed here since the 18th century and comprise not just scenes from the Passion Play, but Brothers Grimm fairytales, such as Hansel and Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood, and celebrations of Bavarian life featuring buxom maidens in dirndls and bearded characters in lederhosen. In some, painted above shops and restaurants, the men are drinking, feasting and dancing; in others, they're woodcarving.
It's a trade that has thrived in Oberammergau since the Middle Ages, not least thanks to the lust for souvenirs from Passion Play pilgrims. Every other village store stocks wooden handicrafts, from nativity sets, crucifixes and saints, to secular toys and picture frames. In some shops, like Leonhard Holdrich's, around the corner from the Passion Theatre, you'll see craftsmen beavering away at their windows.
When the weather's good, pause for a beer on the sun-trap front terrace of Hotel Alte Post, a fresco-daubed inn that dates to 1612 and serves tasty Bavarian fare (the goulash of venison is heartily recommended). Not just a lovely place to watch the world go by, the terrace has a nice vantage point of Kofel, a 1342-metre mountain crowned by a wooden cross.
In another sign that Oberammergau is rather fond of its traditions, each August 24, villagers scale Kofel's shark fin-shaped summit and light bonfires to mark the birthday of Ludwig II – the flamboyant Bavarian king who, in 1871, was treated to a private Passion Play performance in the village.
Qantas and Emirates fly to Munich from Sydney and Melbourne via Dubai
The Passion Play will be the highlight of several of Collette's European tours in 2020, with itineraries and pricing to be announced in mid-2017. See gocollette.com/passionplay for the latest.
Collette also visits Oberammergau every year on three of its regular tours: Discover Switzerland, Austria and Bavaria (duration: 10 days, March-November); Exploring the Alpine Countries (12 days, April-October) and Classic Christmas Markets (eight days, November-December). Tours priced from $2179.
If travelling privately, Oberammergau's Hotel Alte Post has rooms from €89 euro, with breakfast; altepost.com
Steve McKenna was a guest of Collette
FIVE MORE THINGS TO DO FROM OBERAMMERGAU
1. LINDERHOF PALACE. The Bavarian countryside is littered with the fairytale castles of King Ludwig II, but it was this baroque-rococo affair – 14 kilometres from Oberammergau – that he stayed in the most. Full of opulent mirror and chandelier-strewn interiors, the palace sits in resplendent landscaped gardens that contain numerous quirky outbuildings, such as the Venus Grotto, a huge artificial cave inspired by Richard Wagner's opera, Tannhauser; schlosslinderhof.de
2. ETTAL MONASTERY. Established in 1330 by a Bavarian duke, and later expanded in baroque style, this Benedictine abbey sprawls beneath the forested mountains of Ettal, Oberammergau's neighbouring village. After admiring the architecture – it's particularly dazzling inside the domed abbey church – visit the on-site brewery and distillery, and sample the beer and liqueur made by the monks; abtei.kloster-ettal.de
3. ADVENTURE SPORTS. Accessible via the Kolben Chair Lift – on Oberammergau's western limits – the peaks overlooking the village offer fabulously fresh air and a slew of outdoorsy pursuits. While skiers and snowboarders are in their element from November to March, the rest of year, you'll find trails for hikers and bikers, a forest with a high ropes course and the Alpine Coaster, a family-friendly 2.6-kilometre toboggan run; kolbensattel.de
4. LUNCH WITH A VIEW. For something more leisurely, head to Oberammergau's eastern side and hop on the vintage gondola that ascends Laber Mountain, the highest peak edging the village (1684 metres). At the summit restaurant, you can order traditional Bavarian meals and savour the views from the sun terrace. In clear weather, you'll see lakes, valleys and mountains and even Munich and beyond. You can hike and paraglide up here, too; laber-bergbahn.de
5. PEAT THERAPY. The pine moors of the Ammergau Alps are rich in deposits of peat – a natural medicine said to help with various conditions, including gout and muscle and joint pains. Enjoy treatments such as "moor mud baths", in which the peat is heated with water and steam, in the spa towns of Bad Kohlgrub and Bad Bayersoien, north of Oberammergau. The latter is home to the Moor Symphonie wellness facility; moorsymphonie.de