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.
The first stop on the tour was a small courtyard behind the old Town Hall (the “Altes Rathaus”). There was a charming statue of a medieval knight, but I was more interested in the views of the Town Hall tower in the background…so in my distraction of taking photos, I did not catch the anecdotal story about the knight. In fact, I realized that I was not going to be very attentive today and so we made the decision to pull the plug and left to explore on our own. I’m sure we missed a lot of interesting facts and local folklore, but my notorious short attention span won out.
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.