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01 January 2014

Highlights from Passau, Germany, with Viking River Cruises

Welcome to Passau, Germany—our first stop on our Viking River Cruises' 'Danube Waltz' from Germany to Hungary. Photo: WikiMedia.org.
Welcome to Passau, Germany—our first stop on our Viking River Cruises' "Danube Waltz" from Germany to Hungary. Photo: WikiMedia.org.

It's known as the Dreiflüssestadt or the City of Three Rivers and as it turned out, one of the true delights of my voyage with Viking River Cruises down the Danube—Passau, Germany. Located in southeastern Germany in Bavaria, near the Austrian and Czech borders, Passau sits on a spit of land where the Rivers Inn and Ilz join the Danube. While a medieval city in origin with roots dating back to 739, today's Passau is very much a Baroque city as I was surprised to find as I walked through its streets expecting to see the medieval half-timbered houses prevalent throughout Germany's villages. However, due to fires that ravaged much of Passau during the 17th century, it was rebuilt in the Rococo style at the direction of Prince-Bishops of Passau who wanted to mirror the popular trend sweeping through Italy at the time. Nonetheless, I loved it despite the lack of medieval Germanic architecture.

Passau was our embarkation point on our Viking Cruises "Danube Waltz" river cruise. After arriving in Munich at 6:50 a.m., we met our Viking representative, hopped onboard a shuttle and slept my way to the Danube where our "Viking Skadi" was waiting to welcome us onboard. After our welcome toast with Verona, the ship's exceptional concierge, we hurried off to the room to clean up, unpack and then head out to explore the city of Passau. Follow along on this walking tour through the Altstadt or Old Town as we visit some of the highlights followed by a most delicious stop at a gingerbread-making demonstration by a family who's been doing it for more than 100 years.

Saint Stephan's Cathedral or Stephansdom


Late one night at Saint Stephan's in Passau, Germany. All photography is the property of EuroTravelogue™ unless noted. Unauthorized use is prohibited.
Late one night at Saint Stephan's in Passau, Germany. All photography is the property of EuroTravelogue™ unless noted. Unauthorized use is prohibited. 

As soon as we left the ship with maps in hand, we followed the winding cobbled streets up to Old Town's highest point—Stephansdom or St. Stephan's Cathedral named for the patron saint of Passau, and of course its neighboring Christmas market. Excitement was mounting inside because I was about to experience my very first European Christmas market, one of eight actually on this weeklong Christmastime voyage aboard the Viking Skadi!

The world's largest cathedral organ awaits visitors inside St. Stephan's Cathedral in Passau, Germany.
The world's largest cathedral organ awaits visitors inside St. Stephan's Cathedral in Passau, Germany.

But before the sweet spices of glühwein and sizzling bratwurst, let's explore the magnificent half-Baroque, half-Gothic cathedral that dominates the Old Town of Passau. Believe it or not, there has been a church on this site since 730 and the one we see today, save the eastern Gothic façade—its chancel and choir—was built in 1668-1693 after its predecessor was destroyed by a fire in 1662. Inside you'll find the world's largest cathedral organ with an astounding 17,974 organ pipes, 233 registers and four carillons.

St. Stephan's owes much of its design to Carlo Lurago, an Italian architect whose work was mostly concentrated in Prague; interior decorations were completed by Giovanni Battista Carlone, the Italian painter from Genoa; and finally the frescoes along the nave and choir were painted by Carpoforo Tencalla, a Swiss-Italian painter who was primarily working in Vienna at the time of the cathedral's reconstruction. His pioneering efforts, painted scenes spread across multiple bays without interruption, were the first of its kind in this region north of the Alps.

Passau Christmas Market at Stephansdom or St. Stephan's Cathedral


Welcome to the Christkindlmarkt or Passau Christmas market at St. Stephan's.
Welcome to the Christkindlmarkt or Passau Christmas market at St. Stephan's.

Colorful chalets brimming with gifts and tasty treats line the walkways at the market.
Colorful chalets brimming with gifts and tasty treats line the walkways at the market.

We purchased lots of little ornaments from this colorful chalet.
We purchased lots of little ornaments from this colorful chalet.

Finally, there it was, my first European Christmas market spread out before my eyes in the cathedral square with more than 70 chalets brimming with scrumptious delights and handcrafted Christmas decorations and gifts. Suddenly, the scent of glühwein filled the air followed by those sizzling bratwursts, some 1/2 a meter long. Of course I yielded to my hunger and thirst and indulged in one of each. What a delight it was!

And finally, my first glass of glühwein in Germany.
And finally, my first glass of glühwein in Germany.

Veste Oberhaus


The 13th-century Veste Oberhaus atop the hill on the opposite side of Danube. Look carefully at the year painted on its facade—the second digit is actually a '4' marking the completion of this part of the fortress in 1499.
The 13th-century Veste Oberhaus atop the hill on the opposite side of Danube. Look carefully at the year painted on its facade—the second digit is actually a "4" marking the completion of this part of the fortress in 1499.

As seen by night from the top deck of the Viking Skadi. While taking pictures that night, met two kind gents smoking cigars and drinking brandy.
As seen by night from the top deck of the Viking Skadi. While taking pictures that night, met two kind gents smoking cigars and drinking brandy.

Perched atop the hill on the opposite side of the Danube, the Veste Oberhaus or Upper Fortress was built in 1219 by the wealthy and powerful Bishops of Passau who controlled much of the commerce along the rivers. Built in Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque styles, look carefully at the exterior of the fortress and you will see that many of the windows are actually painted due to the fact that taxes were levied based on amount of window openings in a building. Today, the fortress houses the Museum of Culture and History with more than 50 rooms of exhibits.

Rathaus (Town Hall)


Passau City Hall seen from the Danube River.
Passau City Hall seen from the Danube River.

Along the banks of the Danube, we walked to the Rathaus or City Hall, a 14th-century edifice built in 1393 on the site of a former fish market. However, the tower with the Glockenspiel that chimes a few times each day was added at the end of the 18th century. Inside you'll find magnificent 16th-century courts and an assembly room, stained-glass windows that paint the history of Passau in light, and 19th-century paintings by local artist Ferdinand Wagner.

On our approach to the tower, our guide pointed out an interesting gauge painted on its façade, a growth chart of sorts but this one measured floodwater levels instead. Approximately 0.5 meter or 18" above the uppermost painted line was another, barely visible line that marked the level for the deluge of 2013—the highest level recorded since the earliest measurement taken in 1501. For those of you not aware, back in the summer of 2013, much of Europe fell victim to unprecedented flooding and in Passau, the waters from the Danube rose more than 12 meters or 40 feet above normal. It devastated much of lower city and evidence can be seen still after six months through saturation marks on exterior walls not to mention the open windows of first AND second-story apartments to air out the rooms within. I was astounded to find that so much hasn't dried after all this time.

Look carefully for the high-water mark labeled 2013, it's barely legible but visible midway between the 1501 marker and the sign that reads 'Wasserstand' or translated 'water level.'
Look carefully for the high-water mark labeled 2013, it's barely legible but visible midway between the 1501 marker and the sign that reads Wasserstand or translated water level.

To provide scale, look where the 2013 marker is at very top of this image.
Now, we'll zoom out a little to provide scale. Look where the 2013 marker is at very top of this image. The 

Note the red line in the image above. This is where the waters of the Danube rose to in the summer of 2013.
Continuing our zoom out, note the red line in the image above which indicates the high-water mark of the Danube during the summer floods of 2013. Photo: WikiMedia.org.

Gingerbread and Advent Wreaths


Gingerbread and Advent wreath-making demonstration inside a cozy little tent in Passau.
Gingerbread and Advent wreath-making demonstration inside a cozy little tent in Passau.

At the end of our walking tour through Passau, we gathered in an alcove where we found steaming cups of punch to quench our thirst and warm our cold hands. After "bottoms up," we entered a very cozy outdoor tent to learn the art of baking gingerbread and making Advent wreaths—just like the Viking River Cruises video promises. Did you know that Passau is home to Germany's oldest gingerbread recipe, and our instructors were none other than local baker Walter Simon of the Café Simon near the Saint Paul Church. Owned by the same family for five generations, the Café Simon knows a thing or two about gingerbread or Lebkuchen as it's known locally, a Christmastime favorite that's baked only during the holidays. In the past, Lebkuchen or "cake of life" was fed to sick children until their recovery. Simply made of only three ingredients: honey, flour and spices, it's the secret combination of the spice mixture that distinguishes this Lebkuchen from the rest. Then, they explained by varying the ingredients with different spices or sugar, and you create the most delicious gingerbread recipes. We were lucky enough to sample three different types, all were scrumptious!

Mr. Walter Simon, 3rd-generation owner of the Café Simon in Passau, holds up one of the wooden gingerbread molds during our demonstration.
Mr. Walter Simon, 3rd-generation owner of the Café Simon in Passau, holds up one of the wooden gingerbread molds during our demonstration, some of which date to the 17th century!

Advent wreath-making demo
Advent wreath-making demo.

The finished Advent wreath.
The finished Advent wreath.

Here's a small taste. Recognize any of the faces from above? ;)



Following our gingerbread lesson, we were then guided through the process of making Advent wreaths.

In all, this delicious demonstration inside a cozy tent while the rain fell gently on the tarps was truly one of the highlights of my cruise and testament to Viking's philosophy of cultural immersion in each of the places visited.

Viking River Cruises Excursions and Tours

With every stop along our Danube Waltz river cruise, Viking offered at least one tour included in the price of the cruise. Plus there are optional excursions—cultural immersion, for an additional cost that you can sign up for during the cruise such as wine tastings, a Mozart concert, a chance to spend the day with a local family, and more. I strongly recommend doing your home work before you leave and plan out which optional excursions you may want to participate in. Sign up as soon as possible because most of them sell out.

Favorite memories of Passau


Stephansdom or St. Stephan's Cathedral.
Stephansdom or St. Stephan's Cathedral.

Undoubtedly, Passau will fill a special place in my heart because this is where I experienced my first European Christmas market, my first glühwein and bratwurst too! It was where I embarked on the Viking Skadi for an unforgettable journey through Europe; and where I learned how to make gingerbread and Advent wreaths too. But above all, one revel-in-the-moment moment as I like to refer to them, occurred on the first evening when I set out by cover of night to photograph Saint Stephan's Cathedral. When I arrived, just steps outside the domplatz or cathedral square, I came upon 24 Advent candles aglow with Christmas light that shone in this tiny square by the 18th-century Bishop's Residence. It was stunning and so full of the spirit of Christmas. I continued up to the cathedral only to find that I was all alone among the now shuttered chalets. In my peaceful solitude, I meandered through the market with only sound of gravel crunching beneath my feet breaking the winter silence. Carefully positioning myself, I framed St. Stephan's from a number of vantage points and as soon as I was satisfied, I started to make my way back to ship. Although I was chilled to the bone, warmth overcame me as I reflected upon my first day in Passau; from the rush of my travels to get there to this moment of peace. I ambled down the cobbled lanes, arrived at my home for next seven days whereupon entering my warm bed, I succumbed to my slumber on this cold winter's night in Passau. My heart full of warmth and light.

Additional Reading:

My heartfelt thanks to Viking River Cruises for inviting me on this Christmastime voyage through Europe. Of course all opinions and thoughts reflected are mine and mine alone. Thank you Viking Cruises for a magical Christmas holiday!

16 comments:

  1. Great city to begin your market tour. I'll have to add Passau to my Christmas market list (I'm addicted to the markets and possibly the glühwein). Love the history and architecture, too. I never get tired of visiting these old European cities -- so much to see, learn and enjoy.

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    1. Hi there Cathy!! I couldn't agree with you more my friend! You would love this intimate little Christmas market, it was a fabulous introduction and the food was oh so good!! Thank you for stopping by my friend!

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  2. Very nice city, as every sity in Germany. I like this country.

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    1. Hi there Victor! I agree, Passau is a wonderful city! Now I just have to see the rest of Germany. Thank you so much for stopping by to share your thoughts!

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  3. It looks so much fun over there! Lovely city.

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    1. Hi Marlys! Have you been to Passau? It was a great intro to the European Christmas markets and I loved its intimate size. Thanks so much for stopping by!

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  4. What an incredible trip this was and what a way to see the Christmas markets. Passau and Calgary where I live had their fair share of floods in 2013. I hadn't realized it was that bad in Europe.
    I love the sound of a gingerbread making class - and I'd be into making holiday wreaths too.

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    1. Greeting Leigh! I know what you mean! Every time you turned on the TV or radio, more flooding. I can't imagine how devastating it must felt to all those who suffered the misery. Let's hope those levels are seen ever again.

      I agree, you would have loved the wreath-making class. Both demos were so informative and fun too, especially sampling the various gingerbread.

      Thank you so much for stopping by and sharing your experiences.

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  5. Looks amazing. Despite living in Germany for over 3 1/2 years I still haven't done a river cruise. Looks like a great way to travel.

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    1. Hi there Laurel!

      My only regret about visiting Passau is that I wasn't able to get a pic of me and you sharing a cup of glühwein! Next year for sure. And, a river cruise should be high on your list too! Thanks so much for stopping by my friend.

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  6. Passau wasn't even on my list for Christmas markets before now but it looks lovely as well! Can't wait to read more about the other stops on your cruise!

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    1. Hi there Lisa,

      You must add Passau to your list, its intimate size and smaller crowds make for such an enjoyable time and they had they best bratwurst of all the Christmas Markets I visited this year! YUM! Thank you so much for stopping my friend.

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  7. Passau looks like a really lovely city. I have never been to Passau but did visit quite a lot of other Germany cities and yes the Christmas markets in Germany are the real thing. I have never thought of doing a river cruise but after reading your posts I definitely will consider.

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    1. Hi Freya. I couldn't agree with you more, Germany has cornered the market on the Christmas markets, that's for sure!! And some of the best food too! Thank you so much for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. And, you should absolutely embark on a river cruise one day! You'll love it!

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  8. You had me at 'sizzling bratwurst', Jeff! I love the nighttime shots of Passau, very atmospheric.

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    1. Hi there Lesley and thanks so much for stopping by! The bratwursts we indulged at this, the first of the Christmas markets we visited, set the standard that none of the other markets to Budapest could surpass. They were scrumptious!

      I have special memories of that night because it seemed I had the who village to myself. Oftentimes as I meandered looking for nighttime shots, I was completely alone. It was so peaceful beneath the twinkling Christmas lights and candles!

      Thanks again.

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Thank you for stopping by and sharing your thoughts!