Die Engel der Befreiungshalle in Kelheim wurden von hinten fotografiert, während die Sonne durch ein Loch in der Kuppel strahlt, sie in ein warmes Licht tauchend.

Kelheim is situated at the confluence of the Danube River and the Rhine-Main-Danube canal. The Liberation Hall towers over the ducal city. Just a short distance up the Danube, Weltenburg Abbey and its world-famous beer awaits, as do cuddly alpacas and juicy melons.

Reading time: 15 minutes

Kelheim: Liberation Hall, Weltenburg Abbey, and Fluffy Alpaca Fleece

Fernando is hungry. He was down by the Danube again yesterday. This time he went for a two-hour long guided excursion—a kid’s birthday party. As usual, he’s taking point, self-assured and beaming with pride. He’s the leader of the pack. And now he’s the first to the trough.

“I guess you could say that Fernando is the top dog,” Isabella Köglmaier reflects, watching attentively to make sure he leaves some food for the rest of the Alpacas on her Bizzlhof farm in Staubing. After all, watchful Egon, curious Hector, proud Buena, and—the grande dame of the bunch with the lovely name—Piña Colada need something to eat too.

Mehrere Alpakas stehen auf der Weide um Isabella Köglmaier
Andreas Köglmaier mit Melonen vom eigenen Feld

The Bizzlhof, situated three kilometers south of the Weltenburg Monastery, has been family owned for generations. However, the Köglmaiers don’t just breed pigs and grow potatoes the same way they always have. The innovative Köglmaiers now keep alpacas for riverside tourism. They also set aside a hectare of land in 2019 to plant watermelons.

Last year, they harvested 8,000 of them. Sure he’s seen better harvests, Andreas Köglmaier admits freely. But he’s not complaining. “The way I see it, if you have the privilege of living here,” he tells us, “then you should just quit your bellyaching. For us, moving out of Kelheim has always been out of the question.”

Burial Mounds and Manor Houses: a Heaping Helping of History

The Köglmaiers aren’t the only people for whom Staubing is special. As one of the oldest villages in the Kelheim municipal area, Staubing’s history dates back thousands of years. Archaeologists have uncovered ancient burial mounds as well as remains of a Celtic oppidum. The Roman road from the castrum Abusina to Regensburg passed through this town. In the fifth century, the Bavarians began settling the region.

Staubing is an authentic slice of Old Bavaria. Just like Kelheim itself. Situated at the confluence of the Altmühl and Danube rivers, it was one of the earliest fortifications and seats of power for the House of Wittelsbach. This was back before the city of Munich even existed.

When you stroll through Kelheim’s Old Town, it feels like every corner has some historical significance. The Wittelsbach castle, located by the quayside on the Danube, is a prime example. Referred to in historical sources as Kelheim Castle as early as 1050, it would later be the birthplace of Duke Ludwig I (1173). And what was his nickname? The Kelheimer, of course.

Ludwigsplatz Kelheim mit seinen alten Fachwerkhäusern die als Restaurant funktionieren

If you walk a few meters further, through the Danube Gate to Wittelsbacher Alley, you will find a cross planted in the cobblestone pavement next to the Chapel of St. Otto Chapel. It marks the spot where Ludwig the Kelheimer’s life was abruptly ended by an assassin’s knife in 1231.

Ludwig left his mark across the old city center, which he originally ordered to be built. He had the streets known today as Altmühl and Donau aligned north-south; Lugwig St. and Ludwigplatz Square aligned west-east. It’s a city built along two main axes that divide it into four quarters. They intersect right in the middle of Kelheim’s center.

These are streets that make taking a relaxing stroll pure joy, full of shops, eateries, bars, coffee shops, and restaurants. Off to the east stands the Ludwig I monument. Not in commemoration of the stabbed-to-death duke this time but of the homonymous Bavarian king. But more on that later.

A Kelheim Institution: from “Markl” to “Buk”

A visit to Kelheim is always an ooh and aah experience. However, if you want to dig a little deeper and find out why the locals consider the city to be so special, then your best bet is to head over to Café Buk and ask Johannes Rabl over a slice of homemade lemon tart. Now in his late twenties, he’s been waiting tables at this establishment since high school, back when it was still known as Café Markl.

The Markl was a true Kelheim institution. Opening its doors in 1872, Café Markl was the favorite haunt of many a Kelheimer over its century and a half plus of existence. The parents and grandparents of Johannes were regulars themselves.

When Kelheim teenagers went out on dates, it was typical for them to meet up at “the Markl” to share some traditional specialties like “Gentleman’s Cake” (Herrentorte) or hazelnut rum cake – the best way to a heart being through the stomach, after all. The café was as central to Kelheim’s identity as the Danube or the Altmühl.

Café Buk Inhaber Johannes Rabl steht in seiner Küche vor einem Tisch mit verschiedenen Torten und Tarts
Café Buk in Kelheim mit seinem Frühstücks-Käsebrettl

Originally, Johannes had completely different plans for what he wanted to do after graduation. He studied materials science and engineering in Erlangen and followed that up with mechanical engineering. Then he decided to go to Regensburg to become a chef, where he trained at the Roter Hahn Hotel. By his mid-twenties, Johannes was working under master chef Anton Schmaus at a Michelin star-rated restaurant named Storstad, situated in Regensburg’s famous Goliath House. The world was his oyster.

But the pull of his hometown proved irresistible. Because “the Markl” had just shut down, he decided to lease the space and take it over. When Rabl reopened the business, it had a fresh concept, youthful design, and brand new name: Café Buk. Johannes chose Buk—that’s the past tense of the German word for baking—to represent the blend of modern zeitgeist and traditional craftsmanship he wants to epitomize.

Buk sticks to authentic baking tradition. The crispy fresh bread is baked in a wood stove; pies and cakes come from the old pastry kitchen. Products such as cheese, milk, and coffee are all locally sourced. Just like they have been for the last century and a half!

Small Town Charm: What a Feeling!

When asked if he regrets not having spent more time searching for inspiration and gaining experience, Johannes wasted no time in replying. “Nope,” he assures us with a giant cappuccino in his hand. “I might have been gone for a while but I didn’t ever truly leave. It’s great to be back. It’s true that Erlangen and Regensburg weren’t very far away. But being fortunate enough to actually live and work here is a totally different story.” It’s just got that feeling!

“I’m really glad to be back.”

Getting to be near his family. Having friends around who drop in. Walking out of the café and taking in the “small town charm,” as he calls it. Being certain he’s going to come across a familiar face; taking a few moments to have a nice conversation. Even going down to the Danube to walk along the river or taking a bike ride through the surroundings.

“I didn’t really become aware of how deeply I felt connected to Kelheim and to nature,” Johannes reflects, “until I came back. The city itself and how beautiful it is here wasn’t even on my radar.” Speaking of which, it’s about time we look at some of the Kelheim area’s top destinations.

Liberation Hall: a Colossal Temple with a Panoramic View

First up is Liberation Hall (Befreiungshalle), an imposing landmark which stands atop Michelsberg hill. King Ludwig I commissioned court architect Friedrich von Gärtner to build this monumental temple to commemorate victorious battles fought against the French during the Wars of Liberation that raged between 1813 and 1815. The temple was built using local limestone.

Its exterior gallery provides a tremendous 360-degree panorama. You can see well into Lower Bavaria. And the river? The view of the quietly flowing Danube and its gorge, which is the next stop on our itinerary, is simply breathtaking.

Depending on the season, boat tours depart from the quay near Wittelsbach Castle heading west up to 13 times per day. The journey takes visitors almost six kilometers through the Weltenburg Narrows, its limestone rock faces reaching up to 80 meters high. This geotope was designated a protected area and national natural monument by King Ludwig in 1840, making it the first of its kind.

Its impressive rock formations bear names such as the Beehive, the Pirate Rock, and Napoleon’s Suitcase. It is said that the latter received its name when the French emperor left his luggage there while retreating. A lovely legend, isn’t it? Could also just be a rivermen’s tall tale.

Die Befreiungshalle in Kelheim mit ihrer weißen Fassaden. Um die Halle herum stehen Säulen an der Fassade ab, von denen jede eine majestätische Statue trägt
Aussichtspunkt von der Befreiungshalle auf die Stadt Kelheim. Im Fokus ist ein Aussichtsfernglas
 Eine Schifffahrt auf der Donau wurde von den umliegenden Bergen aus fotografiert.

Weltenburg: Boat Ride to the Oldest Abbey Brewery

The Benedictine Weltenburg Abbey is just a relaxing 40-minute boat trip away. With its thousand-year history, it is one of the oldest abbeys in Bavaria and the oldest abbey brewery in the world. In fact, the monks of Weltenburg have been saying “prost” with their own beer since around 1050.

With around half-a-million annual visitors, there is always plenty of action in the bar, beer garden, and the parish church, which was designed by the Asam brothers in late Baroque style.

Don’t worry. There are also plenty of places to repose. One of our favorite spots is the gravel bank by the river right in front of the monastery. It’s not everyday that retreats are actually outside the abbey walls. And if you keep heading upstream, there’s a good chance you’ll run into Fernando, Egon, and the other alpacas. Staubing is right next door. Right around the next bend to be precise—on the banks of the Danube, which winds its way east another 2,400 kilometers before finally flowing into the Black Sea.

Am Ufer von der Donau sieht man das Kloster Weltenburg mit seinem roten Dach und blauen Kirchturmdach. Im Wasser sind zwei Stehpaddler

The Altmühl River ends in Dietfurt a.d. Altmühl. There, it flows into the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal, which connects to the Danube River at Kelheim. Undoubtedly, the last pedestrian bridge crossing the river is one of the most beautiful places in the city to conclude your visit. On this balmy summer evening, the westward vista from atop the curved suspension bridge is incredible: an illuminated Liberation Hall gleaming in the twilight.

When you sit back and hear the murmur of voices rise from the beer-garden goers and outdoor diners on both banks of the river and you just let the calm sink in, it is easy to see why Johannes, Isabella, Andreas all wanted to come back. And why somebody would say no to leaving in the first place.

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