When we woke up the next morning, we could feel (and hear) that we were moving. As we peered out of our bedside windows, we saw that we were no longer docked in Passau. According to the map on our television, we were in some place called Niederranna, Austria (?). I have to say, it was very bucolic and lovely, but it wasn’t Passau. Later that morning, we learned that we had to leave our dock position to make way for another ship. Passau is a busy stop for most of the river cruise lines and depending on when and where the ships are headed, they have to change docking positions. This morning, at 4AM, our ship had to get out the way to make room for another Viking ship to pull in. This has happened a few other times on the cruise, and though it may be necessary, it really limits one’s ability to hop off the ship to head into town for an early walk, to get a coffee…to go for a run, etc. You are pretty much stranded on the ship until you are docked, which is often very close to the morning tour.
Today, we decided that we would join the group tour because we had absolutely no knowledge of Passau. However, within the first few minutes, I could tell that it was going to be an excruciating experience. Generally, no matter where you are, there are a few types of tour guides, and the woman we had before us is what I would call the “kindergarten teacher”. She spoke to us very slowly and deliberately, as if we were children, and she was also overly animated and a bit condescending. In her defense, her style had probably evolved out of necessity having given countless tours to annoying Americans.
Before I go on, I wanted to say a little about the history of Passau (which I learned post visit). The past few stops on our cruise were visits to quaint and charming medieval towns. Most have been chocked full of half-timbered structures right out of a Bavarian fairytale. However, something about Passau is different. Obviously, there is its unique setting, being surrounded by three converging rivers on a narrow peninsula,, but there’s also the look of the place, a great number of the buildings being pure white or light pastels, and they are built in a newer style–a bit baroque. Even the way the light reflects off the buildings and the rivers makes it seem very far away from our last stop. It feels very Italian. And as it turns out, there is a valid reason for all of this!
Two devastating fires in 1662 and again in 1680 took out many of the medieval buildings of Passau. When it was time to rebuild, rather than restoring what had been there before (as they did in places like Nuremberg) they chose to build in a popular style of the day…which was baroque. The most prominent building in town, with its double towers and dome capped in patinated metal, is St. Stephen’s Cathedral. This white confection was designed and decorated by a trio of Italian architects and designers in 1688. The interior of the cathedral is a lesson in Baroque extravagance, but we will return to that later. And don’t get me wrong, there are still some medieval style buildings in Passau…the town hall being the most prominent, and the streets remain narrow and winding which is very medieval.
Besides the unique architecture, the other historical note about Passau is that it is very old. The Celts settled here over 2000 years ago followed by the Romans, who built a fortress on the strategic peninsula. In later years, the prince-bishops of the Holy Roman Empire took power creating a prosperous trading town. The salt trade with Bohemia (now called the Czech Republic) was the major-money maker for Passau, and the town was well-known for sword and blade making. The weapons were stamped with the Passau wolf which was believed to confer special protective powers to the weapon bearer.
Given its setting between rivers, Passau’s history is also littered with devastating floods. The Town Hall has a set of flood markings on the corner of the building facing the river. Each flood event is marked by the date and the height of the flood waters. One of the worst floods in history hit the town in 2013, but according to marks on the wall…the flood of 1501 still holds the record.
I don’t always enjoy pointing out negative historical facts, but as they say, “those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” And Passau’s history includes some very dark days. Once the home to a young Adolf Hitler for a couple of years, Passau enthusiastically welcomed the Nazi Party in the pre-WW2 years, pushing out at least 400 Jewish families that lived there. And more disturbingly, Passau was the site of three sub-camps of the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp. That’s all that I will share about this evil era in history, but it is worth learning about who was sent to these Passau camps, what they endured and how many thousands perished.
History lesson aside, if you have read any of my other blog posts, it should come as no surprise that after we broke off from the tour group, we looked for a place to sit down and get a coffee. In a lovely little open square behind the Cathedral, we found an outdoor cafe where we got a great cappuccino. When sightseeing, we like to take lots of little breaks during the day to rest, cool off, re-fuel, and pull out the map and figure out the next stops. But on this particular day in Passau, we knew that we had tickets to an organ concert at St. Stephen’s (provided by Viking), so it was just a matter of figuring out what to do before the concert. We decided to stay in the area around the Cathedral and wandered around the shops and quiet streets. I also picked up a new leather back pack that I probably overpaid for….but the cross body camera bag I brought was super uncomfortable and not working out for me.
We met up with our shipmates at the Cathedral at the appointed hour and the cruise director was there to hand out tickets for the 30 minute concert. I’m not sure how you get the tickets if you are traveling on your own…but I know there are daily concerts between May and September. The concerts are very popular and the church was packed…standing room only.
The interior of the Cathedral is textbook Baroque…with superfluous circles and ovals and undulating walls. Rich surface treatments…ornamental stucco, colored marbles, gold gilt…..alcoves that manipulate light entering the space, cherubs and kinetic sculptural figures, massed elements such as columns and piers piled together….all working together to create a space that seems to be alive and moving.
What a setting for an organ concert! And St. Stephen’s doesn’t just have any old organ, it has the largest cathedral organ in the world with over 17,000 pipes. They have a very serious prohibition of recording the concert in any manner, and during the concert, security guards walk up and down the aisles looking for rule-breakers. So I can’t offer you footage of the concert, but to be honest, it is the sort of experience that you have to see, hear and feel for yourself. Some of the musical pieces featured in the concert, such as Charles-Marie Widor’s Symphony for Organ No. 5 in F Major literally vibrated my teeth and the entire church pew shook my body to the bone. It was a very memorable experience and I’d put it at top of the list of things to do in Passau.
We spent the rest of the afternoon just wandering around the town with no particular agenda. We have found Passau so lovely and charming and we decided that tomorrow, instead of joining one of the various tours offered to nearby places, we are going to stay put and explore more of the town.
We stopped in St. Paul’s church, which is situated at an angle, looking out towards the Danube. The church as it is today, was built 1678 and designed by an Italian architect, like St. Stephen’s. The tower is a 19th century addition that was further altered in the 1950’s. The interior of the church is quite striking. The pearly white walls sit modestly like a back drop while the gilded black altar pieces, heavily ornamented with putti, stand out as the visual star of the interior. Interestingly, the plaster work is not part of the original design and was added in the early 1900’s.
Before going back to the ship to relax, we made one last stop. I’m not exactly sure why we chose to go…but we visited the Passau Glass Museum (Glasmuseum Passau). It sits across from the old Town Hall down by the Danube. It may not seem so from the outside, but is a surprisingly massive museum covering 5 floors with 30,000 pieces of art from the 1650’s to the 1950’s. That being said, it is not for everyone, and wasn’t really for me. Empirically, I can admire the impressive collection and acknowledge how well it was curated, but I’m not a fan of glass art. There were some Art Nouveau pieces by Johann Loetz that were as beautiful as pieces created by Louis Comfort Tiffany. Otherwise, it was just an overwhelming onslaught of glass in every direction. Case upon case of vases and glasses and goblets. A lot of pieces will remind you of your Grandma, and sometimes it feels more like an antique store as opposed to a museum. Also, this is not a criticism, but more of an observation…the museum’s layout, which is made up a few old buildings joined together, creates a very odd flow. It’s cooky. Weird. Sometimes eerie. It’s a vertical maze, and you often find yourself at dead ends. There are random sets of stairs, and your next turn could lead you through a darkly lit green corridor. In one room, there was a 10 foot deep hole, surrounded by an ornate railing, and the last few rooms leading to the exit became increasingly narrow, bringing you to a small wooden door that looked like the entrance to the Keebler Elf’s house. They should rename it the Glausmuseum Fun Haus.
Side Note: What Color is the Danube River?
The Danube River is pretty well known. It’s the second longest river in Europe and it flows through 10 different countries: Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova and the Ukraine. And I would assume that many people are also aware of the Danube River because of the famous Blue Danube Waltz, by Johann Strauss II. We’ve been cruising on the Danube for a few days now and will take it all the way to Budapest. So…is it really blue? It’s hard to say for sure. The color changes depending on the time of day and the weather conditions, it also changes depending on the depth of the water, if there have been heavy rains, and pollution levels, etc. But so far, on the German and Austrian portions, it is definitely a blueish green color. Very distinct. I’m going to say it’s Pantone2462 C…and we will see if it changes as we get to Budapest.
In aerial shots of Passau, you can definitely see the marked difference in the color o the Danube on the right, and the Inn River on the left. So the Danube may not be true blue…but it has its own color identity.
Our ship is docked right at the tip of Passau where there is a little park..it’s a lovely little spot. I’m not sure who is responsible for it, but there is a Beer Garden set up with indoor and outdoor seating. Interestingly, if you saw this set up in the States, you would definitely expect to see clowns, maybe some lions and a few trapeze artists milling about. It looks like a circus tent…and possibly after one too many beers, this beer garden becomes a circus (cue cymbal noise and pardon the Dad joke). We are not really beer folks, so we did not bother to check it out, but it’s always nice to see a town with a festive vibe.
For those more interested in what we saw in Passau, I think this post did its job (as will the next one about Day 2). However, in terms of documenting a Viking River Cruise, there was not much of interest to share today, other than the great organ concert that we saw at St. Stephens. Breakfast and dinner aboard this ship dinner were good, no complaints about the new ship or staff…but honestly, nothing terribly noteable happened to write about or photograph. Maybe something exciting will happen on board tomorrow to share.
Regardless, on Day 2 in Passau, we are going to hike up to a fortress on a hill (the Veste Oberhaus), and spend the afternoon climbing up 321 stairs at the Mariahilf Monastery. Auf wiedersehen!