For more than 125 years, residents in the tiny German town of Oberammergau have commemorated the eve of the birth of the fairy-tale Bavarian King Ludwig II with a dramatic and fiery bonfire display, called the König-Ludwig-Feuer.
My father shares the 25 August birthday with Bavaria’s much-loved king, and so my parents often have get-togethers on the evening of the 24th. They kick off with a late-afternoon cookout, and invite friends over for a viewing as the surrounding mountain tops are illuminated with symbols to remember the king. The year Shawn and I were able to attend the shindig, my mom had incorporated Bavarian flair into the otherwise American cookout: namely blue & white linens reminiscent of the Bavarian flag, and finger food appropriately fashioned into the shape of a crown, using a cookie cutter that would please any royal.
The Annual King Ludwig Bonfire (König-Ludwig-Feuer)
The focal point of the Ludwigsfeuer is the Kofel, Oberammergau’s distinctive mountain, which bears a slight resemblance to Switzerland’s more massive Matterhorn.
Atop the Kofel, male ‘fire-makers’ (Feuermachers) construct a 14-meter-tall wooden crown. On the Kofel’s slopes below, these men also craft a cross out of timber. And on surrounding mountaintops overlooking this valley in the Ammergau Alps, they create the abbreviation ‘L II’, short for King Ludwig the II. The Feuermachers are all locals, and many of them are descendants of past fire-makers. In all, there are about 90 of them.
Preparation for the Ludwigsfeuer begins month in advance, with wood being carefully cut, set out to dry, and eventually lugged up to the Kofel’s 1342-meter peak, and to other neighboring mountain peaks.
Around nine in the evening on the 24th of August, shots from a gun salute echo through the valley, and shortly thereafter the crown and cross are set ablaze. Occasionally, a bit of yodeling can be heard. And as the fire devours the wooden symbols throughout the valley, a traditional brass band plays Bavarian music. The band eventually wraps up with the Bavarian anthem.
When the fires die out, the fire makers begin to make their way down the Kofel, with torches in hand to light the way through the forest. From the ground, the string of men looks like a glowing snake. (Having made the climb up the rugged Mount Kofel by day, I can’t imagine how treacherous the trails must be under the cover of darkness. This doesn’t even take into account the weight of all the wood and materials they had to earlier haul up the mountainside!)
Once down in the village, still with their torches in hand, the fire makers join town residents and walk in a procession through Oberammergau’s main streets. The brass band members, along with drummers, provide a soundtrack for the spectacle, and eventually the participants celebrate in pubs until the wee hours of the night.
King Ludwig’s Close Ties with Oberammergau & the Bonfire’s Origins
To international visitors, King Ludwig is perhaps best known as the builder of the Neuschwanstein Castle (after which the Disney castle was modeled), and Linderhof Palace, an elegant structure of smaller proportions than its more famous counterpart.
King Ludwig had close ties with Oberammergau, likely because Schloss Linderhof is only a few kilometers away. In 1871, King Ludwig also attended a special performance of Oberammergau’s world-famous Passion Play, an event that inspired him to donate a marble crucifixion monument to the town. At 12 meters tall, it was initially the tallest stone monument of its kind. Weighing 58 tons, the sculpture’s transport presented logistical challenges; several laborers were even killed while moving it through the rugged mountains.
This Crucifixion Monument (known locally as the Kreuzigungsgruppe) was inaugurated in October 1875, with a fiery unveiling. It’s believed that the King Ludwig Bonfire that continues to this day has its origins in that event.
After King Ludwig’s mysterious death in 1888, several Oberammergau residents lit a fiery memorial on the Kofel to honor the dead king. A bonfire has taken place annually since then, with the exception of several years when dry weather conditions would have made such a spectacle dangerous. The bonfire’s now-signature crown was not added to the spectacle until 1946.
Where in the World?
- The König-Ludwig-Feuer, or Ludwigsfeuer for short, is held in Oberammergau annually on 24 August, the eve of King Ludwig’s birthday. For details about the upcoming fiery event, refer to the Ammergau Alps website. I’ve heard that many visitors to Munich embark on organized tours for the spectacle – perhaps even staying overnight in Oberammergau. I haven’t personally done so since my parents live in Oberammergau.
- To make the trip independently via the German rail or by bus, consider getting the Bayern or Regio Ticket (website in German, but you can use Google Translate). These special tickets start at €20/25 for one passenger, and cost €6 for each additional passenger. You can use them to travel via bus and train throughout much of the region, making them a better deal if you want to make a few stops in a day. You can purchase tickets online, via a ticket machine, or in person.
- Interested in learning more about Bavaria’s beloved King Ludwig? Download the free app ‘Ludwig II – Walking in the Footsteps of a Fairytale King’ from the iTunes store.
- Are you looking for a guesthouse or hotel in Oberammergau? Before my parents moved there, Shawn and I spent two nights at the Gästehaus Hildegard (affiliate link). We thought the beds were comfortable, the owners were helpful and kind, and the breakfast was tasty. The guest house is centrally located in the town too, and it’s not far from the Tiroler Gasse bus stop. The train station is also only about 1 km away.
- The following page indexes all my posts from Germany, including visits to King Ludwig’s Neuschwanstein Castle and Schloss Linderhof.
Photography & text Tricia A. Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.