Das Modehaus Garhammer direkt neben der Stadtpfarrkirche von Waldkirchen
Right in the thicket of it

Waldkirchen is nestled deep in the Bavarian Forest. The place we discovered turned out to be full of surprises. It’s a city with plenty of history, a tinge of melancholy in the air, and centuries of artisan tradition. Although Waldkirchen is surrounded by a landscape of enchanting natural beauty, it is anything but the “backwoods.”

Reading time: 12 minutes

Waldkirchen: Bavarian Forest Surprise

The power hammer is putting in a shift today. The mighty metal die moves up and down without the slightest deviation, every strike landing with pinpoint accuracy and metronomic precision. Thump-thump-thump at 210 beats per minute. It’s a pounding rhythm. If this was a nightclub, the pace of the hammer blows would serve as the foundation for intense, high-speed techno music. But it’s not. This is Stefan Kindermann’s old forge on the outskirts of Waldkirchen.

Stefan just finished placing a two-kilo stainless steel blank shaped like a chocolate bar under the massive piece of hardware. The metal is hammered relentlessly until it’s no more than a few millimetres thick before it’s drawn out and widened. Stefan calls this step “frying.” This is one of the first stages in the process of crafting the legendary “Woodsman Pan”, it’s touch of Old West romance undeniable. It’s not hard to envision a posse of grizzled cowboys huddling around a camp fire, shovelling baked beans out of their Waidler frying pan.

Pfannenschmied Stefan Kindermann arbeitet am Amboss in der Hammerschmiede in Waldkirchen
Gusseiserne Pfanne auf einem Amboss in der Hammerschmiede von Josef Kindermann in Waldkirchen

The Kindermann Forge has been in business since 1686. Stefan is the tenth generation of Kindermann keeping the fires burning. There was a long period of time during which his father was convinced that blacksmithing was on the red list of crafts threatened with extinction. Industrial-scale production, low-cost competition from all over the globe – the future looked anything but bright.

Then, in 2014, Stefan’s father came up with a brilliant idea. Kindermann would hand-forge frying pans out of a single piece of iron. His friends at the pub all sniggered at him. A frying pan? What do you want with a frying pan? Unflinching, Joseph transformed his vision into a lucrative business model.

Waidler cast-iron frying pans turned out to be such a runaway success that Kindermann stopped making anything else. The 70 pieces that Stefan and his three employees are able to hammer our per week are barely enough to keep up with the orders. The wait time to get your hands on one is currently three months. “Somehow we really hit the mark with these,” Stefan says.

“Because you can take the Waidler out of the woods, but you can’t take the woods out of the Waidler”

His father’s ingenious plan was one of the factors that drew Stefan back to Waldkirchen five years ago even though he had a good job working for a major mechanical engineering firm in Regensburg at the time. The other factor was homesickness. “You can take the Waidler out of the woods,” Stefan concedes, “but you can’t take the woods out of the Waidler.”

This deep sense of rootedness, this sense of home leaning slightly toward melancholy, is part of the essence that defines this gentle and unruffled stretch of land in Bavaria’s east. It’s a mysterious region, steeped in history. Waldkirchen is also marked by a sense of longing; Stefan is not alone.

Der Brunnen am Marktplatz von Waldkirchen mit einer Skulptur des Künstlers Rupert Berndl

Nobody Gets Chased Out of This Town!

It felt like they were on every corner in the city and the Old Town was no exception: I’m talking about the Waldkirchen’s famous “wheel chasers” of course. That’s how the guard stones used to be called which were set up to protect building masonry against damage from carts and carriages that frequently cut corners too sharply.

Waldkirchen’s guard stones ended up becoming emblematic for the city. As we stroll across the market square, there’s another thing we find ourselves encountering over and over: lovingly crafted granite sculptures. Each commemorates a historically significant local. Here it’s an innkeeper, there it’s a merchant, further down it’s a market reeve. Posted against a building façade stands an attractive young man dressed in dashing attire from the Biedermeier period. That’s “Stoanane Hans”, Stone Hansel, who has been standing there since the stonemason Matthias Hausbäck chiselled him into the wall in the mid-19th century. Wearing a sullen look, the lad is also known as the “Eternal Bridegroom” because his search for a bride-to-be clearly has not gone well.

In 1972, a long-held and often-voiced wish of the local citizens was finally granted and the city installed “Stoanane Gretl” across from him. At least this way Hansel gets to be a little less lonely even if the poor lad obviously has no chance of ever crossing the street to join his beloved. It’s enough to melt stone hearts!

Ausstellungsstücke im Museum Goldener Steig in Waldkirchen
Portrait von Fürstbischof Leopold Ernst von Firmian im Museum Goldener Steig in Waldkirchen

There is a particular guard stone known as the “Säumer” (the porter) which indicates just how far back the history of Waldkirchen stretches. The stone figure was erected in front of the Stadtcafé coffee shop in 2010 to mark a very special 1,000-year anniversary. To find out more, we headed over to the Goldener Steig Museum located at the south end of the old city wall.

The people of the museum put on a fascinating show with plenty of opportunities to interact both digitally and virtually. That made for an entertaining and intense look at the origins of the long-distance trade route known as the Goldener Steig, which was first mentioned in a source from 1010 and connected Bohemia to the Danube for centuries.

It was along this route that the porters, known as “säumer”, would lead their pack animals. The three-day-long journey would see them transport salt northward from Passau and return to the south loaded with grain. It was a great business model that flourished throughout the 16th century. The Thirty Years’ War and the later Hapsburg bans on Bavarian imports at the beginning of the 18th century heralded the decline of the “Golden Road.”

You can still find evidence of the old transport trails throughout the Bavarian Forest. These sunken roads were carved into the landscape and are great if you happen to be looking for a comfortable path on which to follow in a salt porter’s historic footsteps.

A Grand Natural Spectacle

The Saussbach gorge – a perfect place to take a relaxing walk – is easy to reach from the city centre. The six-kilometre-long route starts at Market Square going south and leads past the old Sauss Mill. Formerly a sawmill, today the building is home to an organic supermarket that sells fresh food grown in the region. Right before entering the gorge, we see an opportunity to fuel up on coffee and crumb cake and decide to take advantage.

Within the canyon a grand natural spectacle awaited, featuring waterfalls and cascades, wild rock formations, and shaded nooks along the riverbank. It is one of the most awe-inspiring primeval landscapes in all of Eastern Bavaria.

After walking two kilometres up a gentle slope we reached a small reservoir. From there, the path lead back to town along a small canal, which the citizens of Waldkirchen branched off from the Saussbach for their benefit during the 15th century. They would use the canal not just to supply the city with drinking water and water for washing but to ensure that professions such as tanners, salters, and brewers, which were vital to the community, had the water supply they needed as well.

Wanderer mitten im Grünen in der Saußbachklamm bei Waldkirchen
Blick auf einen Teil der alten Ringmauer in Waldkirchen

Let disaster get you down? In Waldkirchen? Never!

We returned to town and headed over to St. Peter and Paul, a mid-19th century neo-Gothic parish church. Also known as the Bavarian Forest Cathedral, St. Peter and Paul was completely destroyed by air raids at the end of April 1945 along with the rest of Waldkirchen’s Old Town.

In late April 1945, allied bombardment completely levelled the town centre

As U.S. troops approached, they dropped leaflets over the city announcing that they would accept a peaceful surrender as long as the population refrained from resisting. But when an American reconnaissance plane came under anti-aircraft fire, Air Force bombers responded by reducing the city to rubble. Reconstruction took years, just as it did in the wake of devastating fires which laid waste to the city on five separate occasions since 1492.

But you can’t keep the people of Waldkirchen down. Life must go on, no matter how bleak the situation might appear – a thought shared by one of Waldkirchen’s most famous daughters. Emerenz Meier (1874-1928) stands alongside Lena Christ as Bavaria’s most important writer of folk poetry.

There is a fascinating museum celebrating her life and work in the house of her birth, located in the Schiefweg district. It shares the thrilling life story of a pugnacious woman whose early writings were declarations of love to nature and her homeland that gave voice to the melancholy which is such a quintessential part of her Bavarian Forest roots.

„Wirtshaus Zur Emerenz“ in Waldkirchen

Often mocked in the home of her birth for being a “mad rhymester,” Emerenz emigrated to the United States in 1906. She dedicated herself to pacifist, anti-capitalist, and social-justice activism in her adopted home of Chicago until she died of kidney inflammation at the age of 53.

By providing contemporary historical context and precious details, the 'Born in Schiefweg' Museum not only tells Meier’s story, but also describes the fates and fortunes of the nearly 6,000 other people who emigrated to America from the Bavarian Forest between 1880 and 1902 to escape economic hardship.

Visitors learn what hurdles and obstacles the newcomers had to overcome and how they joined together in one Chicago neighbourhood to form a community dedicated to their Lower Bavarian heritage. How they cultivated old customs and folk songs, how much they were wracked by homesickness. They never fully managed to take the woods out of the Waidler either.

Backhendl mit Kartoffelsalat im Emerenz-Meier-Haus in Waldkirchen
Kaskadenbrunnen am Marktplatz in Waldkirchen

“Wirtshaus zur Emerenz” Restaurant

Our day comes to a close in the charmingly furbished Wirtshaus Zur Emerenz. Located in the basement of the museum, this cozy and rustic restaurant features a lovely garden and serves classic Bavarian cuisine.

What a day spent taking in the sights and sounds of Waldkirchen, an unassuming and yet exciting city that’s perfect for walking, strolling, stop off, admiring, and marvelling! We were able to glimpse into its history, customs, and tradition of craftsmanship and experience its natural beauty. All that, in a city where they’ll be looking at each other with longing in their eyes for all eternity. So close and yet so far. Just like Stone Hansel and his Stone Gretel.

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