Getting Crafty in Bavaria
by SHARON MCDONNELL
I stopped dead in front of the house painted with scenes from Little Red Riding Hood.
Houses painted with colorful murals of religious and rural scenes were a familiar and charming sight during my stay in Bavaria. But I was still surprised to encounter buildings decorated with the big bad wolf and Hansel and Gretel from Grimm's fairy tales in the delightfully angled streets of Oberammergau.
The custom of wall painting, called Lueftlmalerei, which applies colors to wet plaster for staying power, was first used to adorn Baroque facades in the foothills of the Alps, in both southern Germany and Italy. Richly painted facades became a popular way for 18th- century traders, craftsmen and farmers to display wealth and piety, and to keep up with the Schmidts.
A People Apart
Ask someone from Bayern - Bavaria - where he or she is from, and the answer won't be Germany. The state in Germany most intensely proud of its traditions, the region was a separate kingdom for centuries. It's also the part of Germany where traditional handicrafts, folklore, folk music, and festivals are most alive. Add the snow-topped Alps, jewel-like lakes, rushing rivers, onion-domed churches, and a storybook castle - Neuschwanstein - and you have an unbeatable choice for people seeking both beauty and culture.
Located near the Austrian border, the town of Oberammergau is best known for its "Passion Play," an all-day performance in which about 2,000 villagers act out the events that led up to Christ's crucifixion. The custom originated in 1632 with the town's promise to honor Christ's final days with this ritual, which they believe saved them from the Black Plague that was wiping out Bavarian villages.
Held every 10 years during the summer, productions draw some 500,000 spectators, about two-thirds of them from the U.S. Although the next "Passion Play" is not scheduled until 2010, you still can get a sense of this immense pageant by viewing the costumes, props and exhibits on display at the Passion Theater, located in the center of town.
Oberammergau is also Bavaria's major handicraft center, known for wood-carvings, wall-painting, Hinterglasmaleriei (painting on glass) and pottery. Visitors can watch some of the town's 120 wood sculptors in action, plus wall-painters and glass-painters, at the "live workshop" at Pilatushaus, whose decorated facade depicts Christ being judged by Pontius Pilate.
The town's Woodcarving School is another place to examine this ancient art, used for Madonnas, saints and cherubs, as well as animals, hunters and household furnishings. First mentioned in a 12th-century manuscript, which noted that monks brought this local art of wood carving to other towns, the practice became so trendy by the 18th century that distribution houses were established across Europe. In fact, traveling salesman known as Kraxentrager sold the carvings door-to-door.
The delicate art of violin-making is based in nearby Mittenwald. From the 17th century, the violins, called Mittenwalderinnen ("women from Mittenwald"), were re-vered in Europe from St. Petersburg to Constantinople. One of the master violin-makers was Matthias Klotz, who apprenticed in Italian cities like Parma. His grandson is believed to have created Mozart's concert violin.
A violin-making museum showcases many stringed instruments in a cozy old-fashioned setting with rural furnishings and household goods. (A modern touch is a video showing how the instruments are made.) There's a 140-year-old violin-making school here as well.
A dozen miles south of Oberammergau is Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Bavaria's best-known resort town. Germany's highest mountain, the Zugspitzse, towers 9,720 feet above streets lined with shops and wooden, chalet-style houses whose balconies overflow with geraniums. The town hosted the 1936 Winter Olympics and 1978 World Skiing Cham-pionships.
One of the quaintest streets, Fruehlingstrasse ("Spring Street"), offers awe-inspiring views of the Alps. Snow fell softly on the December day I drove by, tempted by the many picturesque B&B's renting rooms at modest rates (U.S. $15-$20 a night).
Bavarians love festivals and fairs. The Christmas markets, held for three weeks in December, are picturesque places to shop. The top markets are held in Munich, the Bavarian capital (the biggest and most-visited), Nuremberg, and Bad Toelz, a 14th-century market town whoseMarktstrasse is lined with pink, blue, yellow and gray houses, many painted with murals. In the frosty air, I sipped gluhwein (hot mulled wine), munched cinnamon-roasted nuts, found the urge to hum "Stille Nachte" ("Si-lent Night") and "O Tannenbaum" ("O Christmas Tree") irresistible, and watched a bearded Saint Nicholas donate fruit to children who swore they were good all year.
As I prowled stalls and shops, I noted dozens of appealing gifts like wooden silhouettes of landscapes, nativity scenes, and houses lit by electric bulbs - for use as window decorations. Also captivating were old wooden armoires painted with flowers, and unusual glass tree ornaments that contained a candle and painted landscape. Enough toys were found to keep good children very happy, at least for a couple of weeks.
Dating to the 17th century, the Leonhardi Parade is one of the loveliest and most traditional horse pilgrimages in Germany. It takes place in Bad Toelz every year on November 6, the feast day of St. Leonard, the patron saint of horses and cattle. As church bells chime, 80 horse-drawn carts magnificently painted with scenery and flowers, hundreds of horses, and citizens in colorful native costumes parade down the sloping Marktsrasse.
The procession then crosses the bridge over the Isar river, and climbs steeply to Kalvarienberg (Calvary Mountain) to the Leonard Chapel. After a church service and parade around the chapel, the pilgrims and their horses are blessed by the priest. Next, a wild ride down the mountain brings everyone back to town, where they receive a second blessing. In other Upper Bavarian villages, similar parades with just one horseman honor the saint, a 6th-century nobleman, on different dates in November.
Bavaria's Carnival season, called Fasching or Fosnet, starts January 6 and ends at midnight Shrove Tuesday. Customs stem from the rites of spring of pagan Germanic tribes, as well as the Romans, who ran through streets striking people with branches during Saturnalia. There's also the overlay of Christian practices during the long weeks of Lent.
As part of the Bavarian celebrations, masked and costumed revelers parade noisily through the streets and dance at costume balls. Many people wear fierce-looking carved wooden masks (often inherited from ancestors) depicting witches, trolls, mythic characters, fools and bears. Other participants smack onlookers with tree branches - customs intended to chase away winter and welcome fertile spring.
In Garmisch-Partenkirchen and Mittenwald, masked men clad in embroidered lederhosen jump periodically during their parade so heavy cowbells hung from their belts ring. The "winter witch" is symbolically burned at the stake on the market square, while hundreds of witches howl and dance, in the town of Laningen. Other towns, like Stockach, carry a "Fools' Tree," similar to a Maypole, through the streets and hoist it in the town square.
Although I've seen white-steepled and turreted Neushwanstein Castle in winter and summer, it always astounds me as it rises like a vision from its mountain aerie. The castle was built by King Ludwig II, who was loved by his Bavarian citizens. Not so by his war-mongering court ministers, who had the romantic, artistic monarch declared insane and deposed at age 41.
He was found drowned in Lake Starnberg a few days later in 1886; Bavarians have wondered if it was murder or suicide ever since. Every year in Oberammergau on August 24, the night before his birthday, large fires are lit in the Alps in the shape of a crown, the letter "L" and a cross in his memory.
A more 21st-century way to honor "Mad Ludwig" is by attending Ludwig II: Longing for Paradise, a dramatic musical about his life. Suitably enough, the theater is located directly across Lake Forggen from Neuschwanstein, which glows in the distance.
I found the production enchanting, from the lush, operatic arias to the gorgeous sets, including two live horses pulling a sleigh with the lonely king under the starry sky; and a scene with Ludwig dancing with his soul-mate and cousin, Empress Elisabeth of Austria, in a crystal-mirrored ballroom. I couldn't blame the king at all for preferring to be a patron to Richard Wagner, building castles, and writing love poems to "Sissi," his
glamorous cousin, instead of listening to his stuffy court ministers blathering about Prussia.
Ludwig's life ended tragically, and he never attained his goal of building a special theater for Wagner's operas. How fitting that Fuessen's Musical Theater Neuschwanstein was built in his honor, adorned with his beloved swan motifs, from the staircases to the royal-blue stage curtain. Neuschwanstein, his masterpiece, shines in the distance.
For information on additional programs and tour operators, see our Geographical Index under "Germany."