We woke up to beautiful blue skies in Germany. It was warm, but not sweltering. The perfect day for another round of sightseeing in Passau. Today, we had two priority items on the agenda and the rest of the day would consist of aimless wandering and discovering what’s around the next corner.
The first stop would be making our way up 344 vertical feet to the top of St. Georgsberg mountain where we would visit the impressive Veste Oberhaus. This 800 year old fortress has morphed and expanded considerably over time, and was originally built by Ulrich II, the first prince-bishop of Passau.
In the Google map image above you can see the Veste Oberhaus in the center right. The old fortress sits atop the mountain, looking across the Danube to the town of Passau below. To be honest, I’m not sure which vantage point is more impressive–from above or below. Hundreds of years ago, from down below, the citizens of Passau must have looked up at the fortress with a sense of fear, and at times, disdain as big brother watched over them. On the flip side, from up above, the prince-bishop would have looked down on the people of Passau (literally) with a sense of power and authority. On two occasions, in 1298 and 1367 angry citizen mobs, ready to overthrow the bishop, made failed attacks against the fortress.
As a tourist, getting up to the Veste Oberhaus can be achieved the hard way, by climbing up a winding path through the woods, or you can take the easy way and jump on a shuttle bus (for a small fee) that will drop you just below the entrance (the bus leaves from a stop outside the old Town Hall). I think that ordinarily, had we been traveling by ourselves, we would have climbed. However, this river cruise style of traveling makes one very lazy and less energetic. We’ve gotten used to coaches waiting right beside the ship to whisk us away to our next destination. So, we took the shuttle bus.
Fair warning, even using the shuttle bus, you still have to do a bit of walking to get into the fortress walls, and until you reach the very top, it’s all uphill.
Once you are on top of the mountain, the views of Passau are stunning! From here we could see our ship docked on the River, the towers of St. Stephen’s church, the old town hall tower…pretty much every place we had visited the previous day.
Besides touring the fortress, there is the Oberhausmuseum Passau (the Passau Museum), a restaurant (Das Oberhaus) and a youth hostel.
Despite all of the river cruise ships docked in Passau (both local and Viking-type ships) and European tourists visiting by car, we did not find it to be overly crowded at the Veste Oberhaus. We arrived early on a Sunday morning, around 10AM, and there were only a few other visitors. In fact, as we walked around the perimeter of the fortress, we found ourselves all alone.
We decided to take a tour of the Oberhausmuseum which is a very nicely curated walk thru the town’s history. It’s pretty Passau specific, but there are sections on medieval life, samples of armor, an exhibit on old apothecary, there is a fire museum (after the two devastating fires in Passau, they learned to take fire seriously). There is also a gallery featuring sculpture by Hans Wimmer. But for me, just meandering the halls of this 800 year old building was the real treat.
Once we finished our visit to the museum we headed out and decided to forgo our round trip bus pass and actually walk down the wooded path (the same path that you can climb up to the fortress).
A couple of things about the path. It’s very clearly marked and has a railing on one side–you aren’t going to get lost. But it’s a steep, wooded path…essentially a dirt path through the woods. There are stray rocks and occasional sets of steps. I would not recommend trying to take the path if you are not steady on your feet, not in good shape and don’t try it if you are wearing your cute shoes/sandals (I slipped twice in my boat shoes, and I can see sandals being a problem). Going down was really not so bad, but I can attest to seeing very many unhappy, disgusted faces on folks climbing up the path to the fortress. I definitely saw various couples shooting death glares at the partner that suggested climbing up instead of taking the handy shuttle bus.
After coming down the mountain from the Veste Oberhaus, we crossed the Danube and made our way over to the Inn River side of Passau. This part of the Inn had its own distinct greenish color, and as I said the day before, the color of the water juxtaposed with the white and pastel baroque buildings take you on a journey outside of Germany.
To make up for our laziness in taking the shuttle bus up to the Veste Oberhaus, our next stop would involve climbing up 321 steps to the top of another hill…but instead of a fortress, we would be visiting the pilgrimage church of Mariahilf. I’m sure there are other ways to get there, but we simply walked over the bridge spanning the Inn River along the street appropriately called the Mariahilfstrabe.
Technically, after you cross the bridge you are in Innstadt which is, I suppose, a district of Passau. There wasn’t a lot of signage or physical directions leading you to the Mariahilf stairs…but you can see the stairs on the hill as well as the church towers at the top…so we geo-guesstimated how to get there. We also found ourselves walking behind a large group of tourists (in their 20’s, not American) that seemed to be headed to the same place. They were being really loud and acting goofy and climbing the 321 stairs is supposed to be this spiritual journey kind of experience. So, I said “let them get ahead of us! I don’t want to walk up with them. They are obnoxious!”. And that’s what we did.
And then…we got lost. We could not find the entrance to the Mariahilf stairs. Nothing was marked. Nothing looked like the proper entrance to these famous stairs. And once you are directly below the church, your perspective changes, and it was not obvious where the stairs began. After a considerable amount of time and frustration, we determined that it had to be this random wood door that we found with a small sign that said “Zur Wallfhartskirche”. I don’t know why the signage makes no reference to any stairs or to Mariahilf…but it does translate to “Pilgrimage Church”, so this had to be the place.
Talk about subtle…the entry doors are basically unmarked and then when open the door, you are greeted with a long empty hallway leading to who knows where! After our fun house experience in the Glass Museum yesterday…I have to say that the tourist spots of Passau are lacking in directional signage. But, as we hoped, the hallway led to the bottom of the 321 steps!
Quick historical sidebar here….the stairs were created out of necessity back in the late 1620’s. There was a church official from St. Stephan’s Cathedral that lived on this spot and in the 1610’s he decided to build a wooden chapel in his garden where he hung a lovely painting of Mary and baby Jesus (it was actually a copy of an original by Lucas Cranach the Elder painted in the 1540’s).
And then in 1622, this gentleman, Marquard Freiherr von Schwendi, had some visions that instructed him to build a chapel at the top of the hill where the faithful could come and admire this painting (which must have been a REALLY good copy of the original). Apparently, his little hilltop chapel was a huge hit and received tons of visitors. He then decided that a proper church was needed for all of the faithful pilgrims to gather, so he hired the Italian builder, Francesco Garbanino, who built the baroque church in about 1627.
But back to the stairs….we began the ascent.
I have tried to find some information about the construction of the stairs but haven’t really found much to share. I’m fairly certain the original stairs from the 1620’s were made of wood–but I don’t know when the present stairs were constructed. For the pilgrims, the climb was slow and deliberate and was achieved on their knees. They would stop at each stair and say a prayer before continuing the journey up. Even on the day we were there, several modern day pilgrims were making the climb on their knees. As you get closer to the top, the walls lining the stairs become increasingly decorated with pictures of Mary…they all vary in age, style, and choice of frame. Several have been adorned with prayer beads from one of the pilgrims.
I’ll be honest and say that, as a tourist, I found the stair climb to be interesting and I’m fond of the idea of people being so close to their faith that they make these pilgrimages and devoutly climb the stairs on their knees, praying all the way. But as a non-Catholic, there’s a bit of a disconnect with all of the focus on Mary. I can appreciate it for what it is, but I didn’t find the experience to be terribly spiritual or special.
Once you reach the top of the stairs, you find yourself in a sort of courtyard and of course, the baroque Mariahilf church. The interior of the church is fairly simple but has a magnificent gilded altar piece featuring the painting of Mary and Jesus that was the genesis of this whole complex.
We strolled around a bit and enjoyed the spectacular views of Passau from the hilltop. Today’s view was the mirror image of what we saw from the Veste Oberhaus yesterday….and in fact, from the Mariahilf church, there is a great view of the old fortress.
We finished our tour of Mariahilf and it was time for our daily coffee break. I don’t know how popular it is amongst locals, but tourists are told about Cafe Simon, which is known for a variety of sweet treats. We walked back across the river and strolled along the quiet streets.
They have a variety of offerings…chocolates, gingerbread, their famous “domes” all of which you can buy in the store. But we chose to go out back to their little outside cafe with table service. We shared this variety plate that had chocolates, gelatos, gingerbreads, wafer cookies….a little taste of everything that they sell. There was fruit on the plate, so it wasn’t all sweets. The coffee was delicious, as well.
That evening on the ship, we celebrated all things German, as we would now be headed to Austria. At dinner, we were served beer, each table was dressed with pretzel stands and local meats. The menu was more sausages and sauerkraut…and there was live entertainment. Local musicians in their lederhosen made their way around the dining room singing traditional German songs and playing accordions.
Tomorrow we will visit Welk Abbey on our first stop in Austria! Until then….