Traveling Rail Europe’s ‘Little Lines’

German rail trains are fast and sleek.

By Don Heimburger
Photos by the author

One of my favorite things to do when planning a European trip by rail is to pull out my European rail route guide and investigate the towns and topography of the area through which I’ll be traveling.

Thus, when I recently organized a trip to Oberammergau, Germany from the Black Forest village of Villingen-Schwenningen, to visit the Passion Play theater and interview some of the play’s directors, I was delighted to see that I’d be changing trains at Pasing, a suburb of Munich, then heading south into the Alps. Pasing station is undergoing a major remodeling around the platform area, and it needs it. Hopefully by now the station is done and the passengers can more easily maneuver on the platform.

All aboard!

The schedule called for me to arrive Pasing at 11:20 a.m. on an Intercity Express from Ulm. Then a Regionalbahn train left at 11:39 a.m. for Murnau, which was slightly under an hour trip. At Murnau, I took the last leg of the trip to Oberammergau. End of story? Not quite, because the fun in travel is actually traveling, not going just from point A to point B.

The fun is waiting for the train, watching the other passengers and seeing what pulls up at the station when its your train. The fun is checking out the cars and seating arrangements, finding the diner and having a meal, or watching the scenery go by. And that’s where my research came in. I knew that the fun part of this trip—any train trip in Europe–is watching the scenery, and I was in for some spectacular scenery.

Not far out of Pasing I could tell the tracks were heading southwest, and towards the Alps. Actually, on a very clear day, you can see the Alps from Munich itself, but I hadn’t been able to see them when I flew in until the very last moment before we touched down. Now, however, it was a beautiful clear day, but it wasn’t until about Murnau that I could see the landscape starting to suggest something big was going to happen.

At Murnau the track split, with one line going to Garmisch-Partenkirchen and then onto Innsbruck: that would have been an awesome route to follow. The other line made a large loop, ending up in Oberammergau. Had the line been straight, the schedule for that segment of the trip would have been much less than the allotted 40 minutes. After Murnau, and a quick on-board lunch that I had packed, the track started to conform to the undulating hills.

idyllic Oberammergau
Many buildings in Oberammergau are brightly decorated with Luftlmalereien.

Oberammergau Mayor Arno Nunn is in charge of the world-famous Passion Play 2010.
Sit back and relax with a cold beer under a tavern umbrella.

We rolled further south, and there finally the mountains appeared and were growing bigger at every turn in the tracks. Our regional train, with a loud squeak for a horn, signaled for road crossings and little dirt paths that wound up into the foothills. Colorful mountain flowers along the way were welcoming enticements to follow the increasingly curvy path to my destination.

Small, interesting German villages, rich green forests, rolling meadows and the looming Alps were all reasons to continue the journey and discover what Oberammergau had in store. A word of caution: don’t step off at “Untergrammergau” when you want to get off at Obergrammergau. The town names, when you aren’t German and the conductor speaks fast, can be very similar!

This idyllic scene from Obergrammergau is one reason for going there.

At Obergrammergau the track abruptly ends at the station–there’s one track in–and it’s the same track out of the station. From there, you can walk into the center of town, or get a bus or cab. This little city, where the world-famous Passion Play is held every 10 years, is usually very active and touristy. But you feel like you’re in a “real” German town when you’re finally relaxing with a cold beer at a small tavern under the shade of an umbrella, and the Alps rise majestically above you. That’s living, that’s Germany, and trains will take you there. Next time, try the “small rail routes.”

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