Note: This trip journal was prepared in 2010 based on our memories and the original slides from the 1960 trip. Because of the deterioration of the slides, similar but more recent pictures have been used for many scenes.]
Introduction. In September 1959 I had arrived in Verona, Italy, with my family on our first overseas tour. I was an Army Captain assigned to the Staff Judge Advocate Office in Headquarters, Southern European Task Force (SETAF). This was our first time in Europe and, with four young sons to look after, we still hadn't seen very much of it. On the way over, our Navy transport ship had stopped in Spain at Cadiz and Barcelona, and we'd taken the boys ashore for a few hours at each stop. It took us a long time to find a place to live, get settled, and find a maid we trusted to take care of our boys when we traveled. In March we found Rosa. She was not only a wonderful maid and nanny, but also became a lifelong friend.
Once Jane was comfortable with the idea of leaving the boys with Rosa, we began planning our first out-of-town trip. The decennial Oberammergau Passion Play was being performed in 1960, and we thought that was something we shouldn’t miss. We had no trouble getting tickets for June and a reservation for two nights at the Hotel Wolf. We would be driving north on narrow winding roads through the Brenner Pass in our oversize 1953 Pontiac station wagon, a seven hour trip of about 250 miles.
Tuesday, 7 June. We left early so we’d reach Oberammergau early enough to do some sightseeing. We were stuck behind a couple on a very slow motorcycle for several miles on winding roads where we couldn’t pass. As we neared Bolzano, we finally came to a long straight stretch and started to pass. The cyclist sped up and hugged the center of the road. As we went by he drifted left across the center line until the tip of his handlebar touched our front door. He then started zigzagging wildly until he hit the right curb and fell. We stopped and ran back, but by that time other cars had arrived. They put the injured couple in their cars and sped off to the hospital. We waited for the police and accompanied them to their station. No one spoke English but, to my surprise, I was able to understand and answer their questions in Italian. We then proceeded on our way.
As soon as we crossed through the Brenner Pass into Austria, we could see a major change in the landscape. Italy is a somewhat dry country. The trees are generally scattered and seem stunted. The dominant color is yellow-brown. Austria, on the other hand, was lush and green. Trees grew wherever they hadn't been cleared. The ground under them looked like it had been swept with a broom, not a twig or a leaf to be seen.
Crossing into Bavaria, the lush green landscape continued, but the mountains were smaller and gave way to hills. Germany was clearly more advanced than Italy. There were more cars and fewer bicycles. In Italy, farmers still plowed their fields behind oxen, and we didn't see any of those in Germany. But even Germany seemed to be a generation behind the U.S. We even saw a few horse-drawn farm wagons, especially in the small villages.
We’d lost more than two hours in Bolzano and still had at least four hours to go. As we finally neared Oberammergau, we passed the Ettal Abbey (founded in 1330) which we had hoped to see that afternoon. By then, though, it was almost dusk, too late to take a tour, so we only saw the outside. A short distance further, the road followed the river into Oberammergau.
[ The name is really a combination of three words - Ober Ammer Gau, which means the Upper Ammer River Valley. Because a neighboring village is called Unterammergau (Lower Ammer River Valley), the Germans invented this tongue-twister playing on the names:
It's very clever, but only if you know German. At least three different natives felt the need to rattle this off to us, but we couldn't understand anything except Oberammergau. ]
Entering Oberammergau, we quickly found the Hotel Wolf. The buildings were just as we had pictured them, maybe even more so. They were very "alpine," mostly white stucco with dark wood trim and balconies. Many of the white walls were painted with large frescoes (Lüftlmalerei) of traditional Bavarian themes, fairy tales, or religious scenes. Every balcony and most of the windows were lined with boxes filled with bright flowers.
We had dinner at the hotel. Our room was very pleasant. Although it was already quite cool outside when we arrived, the windows were wide open and the down bed cover was hanging out to air. It was our first experience using the bed cover instead of an upper sheet. I found it too hot under it and too cool without it. Although we’d just left them that morning, Jane insisted on calling home to make sure the boys were all right.