Passau revels in the sounds of locally cast bells, the world’s largest cathedral organ and the murmuring of three rivers. Baroque magnificence and Italian flair enhance a city break in the southwest of Bavaria. A story by Markus Stein with photos by Frank Heuer
Passau: The City On Three Rivers
“Linde Battery” in the Veste Oberhaus: this viewing terrace in the extensive castle complex offers distant views across the City of Three Rivers as well as straight down. Down to where the eastern tip of the Old Town rises up in the water like the bow of a ship. Down to where three rivers merge to form one broad river. Today, on a sunny late summer’s day, it’s easy to see how different they are: the milky grey-green Inn, arriving from Graubünden in the south, the narrower and olive green Danube from the Black Forest and the small, marshy-black Ilz from the Bavarian Forest.
Together they move inexorably eastwards - now as the Danube. The Inn may be wider and carry more water than the Danube, but since it arrives at an angle it is classed as a tributary and therefore loses its name. What a shame!
Location, location, location
It’s no wonder that people have chosen to settle in such a lovely and commercially favourable place since time immemorial. Passau started life as a Celtic settlement before being taken over by the Romans with the Castra Batavis castle, which became Passau. The Agilolfing family advanced the city to ducal residence status then Saint Boniface turned it into an episcopal see in 739.
The borders of the bishopric reached as far as Hungary, and until 1469 Vienna was a parish subordinate to Passau! From the Middle Ages, the salt trade brought a level of prosperity. In 1803 Passau became part of Bavaria through the Principal Decree of the Imperial Deputation (Reichsdeputationshauptschluss).
The angel in a Tyrolean hat
The New Episcopal Residence is a magnificent building with two balconies and a rooftop balustrade. In passing, it’s worth taking a closer look at the Wittelsbacherbrunnen fountain: you may spot what is probably the only angel in the world sporting a Tyrolean hat, a symbol of the River Inn.
The only angel in the world sporting a Tyrolean hat
The Old Bishop’s Residence
You can feel like a prince bishop as you ascend and descend the right-hand staircase of the Residence, one of the most important attractions in the Old Town. Freely accessible, it is deemed to be one of the loveliest Rococo stairwells in Bavaria. Decorative elements include stucco work and cherubs. Impressively high (closed) doors can be found on each floor. A glimpse of the ceiling fresco leaves you in no doubt about the pride of the prince bishops as it bears the title: “The Gods of Olympia pay homage to the eternal city of Passau.”
Don’t miss: Concert in the cathedral
Just a few steps through the Zengergasse and you find yourself at the highest point of the Old Town and in front of St. Stephen's Cathedral. Its façade gleams white in the sunshine while the roofs of its three onion-dome towers shine in a pale green. Patrona Bavariae looks down benevolently from the gable, with the pure blue of the Bavarian sky above her…
Heavenly sounds in the cathedral again. Organ concerts are held here daily from May to October. The notes dance through the air, ascend to the heights, plunge back to the depths, tumble over each other. Then they come together to form a prolonged chord that penetrates the entire space.
18,000 pipes: a supersized church organ
Cathedral organist Ludwig Ruckdeschel turns St. Stephen’s into a giant acoustic body as he plays Bach’s famous Toccata. Almost 30 metres high, more than 30 metres wide and over 100 metres long, this is the largest Baroque church interior north of the Alps. It takes a massive organ to fill it with sound. That is why in Passau, five “part organs” merge into one single instrument. With almost 18,000 pipes! The sounds comes from all corners and ends, from the gallery, from the choir stalls 80 metres away, and even from a sound hole in the ceiling, known as the “Holy Ghost Hole”. Dolby surround like no other!
Grazie for the Baroque, Italy!
This house of worship was originally built in a Gothic style between 1668 and 1693. The main construction work was dominated by Italian master craftsmen - architects, stucco experts, fresco artists, all bringing a touch of Italian flair to the city along with Italian architecture. The vaulted ceiling teems with angels, figures of Atlas holding up the sky, prophets and pretty ladies, with representations of virtues such as patience and moderation (in all things…). Painted in warm colours, with flashes of brilliant blue.
Passau’s bells for the whole world
What does a cathedral need as well as an organ? Bells, of course. How fortunate, then, that Passau has its own bell foundry, the only one in Bavaria! The Perner family have been employed in traditional casting for 400 years and moved from Pilsen to Passau after the Second World War.
“My grandfather cast the largest bell in the cathedral’s peal, the Pummerin. That was in 1951,” explains company boss Rudolf Perner with pride. “In 1999, for the Millennium, I was myself able to contribute to the Misericordia, which at six tonnes is the second-heaviest bell in the cathedral.”
The foundry is on the edge of the city, high above the Danube Valley. It uses a traditional clay mould process: the shape of the bell is dug into the ground and filled with bronze. Perner casts bells for the whole world, and they now ring out in New Zealand, South Africa, India and many other countries.
Strolling through the Old Town
Passau’s Old Town is endearing and compact, and its attractions are all within easy walking distance. The old streets are full of stories and history. Many exciting details lie waiting to be discovered as new vistas and perspectives open up behind the steep, colourful façades and through archways. Many artists have their shops and workshops in the historic Höllgasse with its colourful plasterwork.
The lesser clergy once lived in the steep Pfaffengasse, which runs up to the cathedral hill. Long ago, gates at either end were closed at night so that nobody could get in or out, especially “women, no matter whose wives they may be”… The Höllgasse leads to the Rathausplatz. Here, guests enjoy refreshments at the sunny tables set out in front of the “Löwen Brauhaus”.
Three rivers, one confluence
The Grabengasse, to the west of the cathedral hill, is noted for its cafés, restaurants and owner-managed shops, selling everything from traditional costumes to books, gold jewellery to perfumes.
Attractive cafés have sprung up almost all across the city, such as the “Café Anton” in the Luragogasse with its pretty inner courtyard or the neighbouring “Café Schöffberger”, designed in a 1950s style with kidney tables and retro furniture.
Further south, on Innkai, the afternoon sun reflects off the grey-green water. A young couple sit on the harbour wall and look dreamily at the fast-flowing water. A few steps further and you reach the small park where the three rivers meet. Look for a bench, raise your nose to the wind, turn your gaze to the water and simply enjoy the moment.
The sweet side of Passau
Small, fine gourmets titbits can be found in the “Confiserie Simon” on Rindermarkt. They have been selling sweet confectionary under this lovely historic vaulting since 1913. “My ancestors were gingerbread makers and chandlers, activities which both required honey and which complemented each other well. After the First World War, the confectionary business grew increasingly important,” reports Walter Simon.
The imaginative master confectioner created special pralines with a Passau touch. His “Goldhauben”, or golden hoods, were based on the traditional head covering worn by wealthy local women. The small, hood-shaped chocolates are filled with apricots or nuts and sprinkled with shavings of gold leaf. Other creations include pralines with mulberries (grown on the Veste Oberhaus), and Gold Pomeranze (bitter oranges), both fruits highly prized in their time by the prince bishops.
When asked what he particularly loves about his home city, Simon waxes lyrical: “Passau is a compact, small city, surrounded by a lot of green countryside and water. You leave your house and immediately feel as if you’re on holiday. Passau is a great city!” And he’s absolutely right.
More informationen on Passau at tourism.passau.de