On a narrow peninsula at the confluence of the Danube, Inn and Ilz rivers sits picturesque Passau. Our Doug Linton finds no trouble whatsoever in "river city."
By Doug Linton
When Kriemhild, the heroine of the German epic saga The Nibelungen-lied, was on her way to meet her new husband, King Etzel (a.k.a. Attila the Hun), she stopped off to visit her uncle, Bishop Pilgrim, who lived in a lovely little town on the Danube called Passau. All the merchants came out to greet her, and her uncle was so delighted he asked her to stay a few days. She apologized, and said she couldn't, because a bunch of knights were waiting for her in the next kingdom.
Besides the fact that she is later killed by Etzel, Kriemhild might have regretted that she didn't stay longer in Passau. It really is a lovely town.
The city is blessed with an enviable location and lovely architecture. Passau sits on a slender, finger-shaped peninsula that points to the confluence of three rivers: the Danube, the Inn and the little Ilz. For the best view of this watery meeting, stand at the Dreiflusseck (Three River's Corner) at the end of the old town, or go up to a vantage point on the citadel, and you can watch the pale blue waters of the Inn meet the dark green waters of the Danube, while the slender black waters of the Ilz join quietly at the side. While the rivers meet, they don't blend until some kilometers later. It is quite a sight to see their fluid borders continue to thread and swirl their way downstream. Of course, this is on a good day—at other times, the three rivers will be various shades of brown, but you can still see the distinctions.
Passau's history also belongs to the rivers. The city flourished as a key transit point of the salt trade, until the Bavarians finally opened up a competing salt works in 1568. The city still was able to live off the plentiful trade that went up and down the rivers, particularly the Danube. Today, the three rivers continue to bring riches. Most of the boats that dock in Passau are heavily laden with a bounty of tourists—75,630 in 1999 alone—who arrive on day cruises from Linz or longer ones from as far away as Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest, and even the Black Sea, although these have been suspended until the Danube can be cleared past Yugoslavia.
Kriemhild's uncle, Bishop Pilgrim, was one of the city's prince bishops who did double duty as leaders of both the church and state. This was a similar situation to that of the prince bishops in Salzburg, a nearby rival, who were equally well "loved" by their subjects. In both cities, the high dramatic citadels were built more to defend the prince bishops from their own people, rather than to defend their people from invaders.
What to See in Passau
But, as they say, people aren't all bad. The bishops also bequeathed the city a number of lovely baroque buildings. The foremost of these is the St. Stephan's Cathedral, which served as the mother church for that other St. Stephan's in Vienna, a city that was once in the bishop's domain (at its peak, the bishop's rule extended as far as Hungary).
The cathedral was originally a Gothic church, but it was destroyed in a fire in 1662. Two years later the bishop of that time, Wenzeslaus von Thun, decided to rebuild the cathedral in the latest style, which happened to be baroque. The basic frame is Gothic—wide and with uniform rows of pillars—but the lavish stucco decorations of cherubs, fruits, vegetables and shrubbery are clearly baroque.
A second notable thing about the cathedral is that it has the world's largest church organ. (There is a larger concert organ in the United States, but it is not located in a house of worship.) The cathedral's organ is made up of five distinct parts: The monumental main organ is located in the back, flanked by two side organs; a choir organ stands up front; and an echo organ is hidden in the "Holy Ghost hole" in the ceiling, so named because in the olden days a white dove was lowered through this hole during Pentecost. The pipes range from an eleven-meter long behemoth to a six-millimeter pip-squeak, which only dogs and small children can hear. During the summer and the Christmas holidays, a short organ recital can be heard daily at noon for a small admission fee. During the rest of the year, the organ can be heard during Sunday Mass.
Next to the cathedral is the New Residence, which the bishops built once they felt safe enough to live amongst their own people. The exterior seems fairly neoclassical, but the building's real treasure is inside. Actually, this isn't the cathedral treasury, which is also located here, but the recently-restored rococo staircase, with its lacy, vine-like stucco molding, decorative carved wooden doors, and bronze lanterns on each landing. It shouldn't be missed, and not just because it's free.
Of Passau's several museums, the privately-owned Passau Glass Museum, located in the Hotel Wilder Mann, is easily the most impressive. It displays the collection of local travel entrepreneur, George Höltl, who is interesting enough in his own right to warrant a digression. Höltl made his money in promoting a unique and low-cost means of adventure travel, called the "Rotel." Travelers on a "Rotel" tour spend the day riding around on a bus visiting sites, and then at night sleep in cubicle-sized sleeping berths either on the bus or in a trailer linked up behind. While this might sound like an adventure in itself, the real adventure comes from the locations—the Rotel tours travel throughout Africa, China, and India as well as across the Central Asian Silk Road. Trips can last for more than a month.
However, back to the museum. Höltl's collection consists of an astounding 30,000 pieces of glass dating from 1700-1950. Styles include Baroque, Classical, Empire, Biedermeier, Historicism, Art Nouveau, Art Deco and Modern. The 18th-century etched glass, cut glass, and hand-painted glass are exquisite. The collection also displays different glass innovations such as a variety of "stone" glass, glass that looks like gold or silver, and pressed glass, sometimes referred to in the United States as Depression-era glass. If you like decorative arts, or even if you don't, you will find the collection overwhelming. I would rank it as one of the best small museums I have ever seen. It is open daily 10am-4pm, 1pm-4pm in the off season.
So, we would all do well to learn from Kriemhild's mistake. Whenever traveling in the region don't pass up Passau. its beautiful setting on the rivers, lovely baroque buildings, and impressive collection of Bohemian glass are worth a visit, and certainly much healthier than marrying a marauding Hun.
Hotel Schloss Ort
Though it's not the only hotel in town with watery views, the Schloss certainly has the best. This is because of its quiet location away from the busy roads and noisy boat docks that mar the morning serenity. The hotel is also just a few steps away from the tip of the peninsula, which is one of the best places to view the celebrated "meeting of the three rivers."
The castle itself looks more like a large 18th-century townhouse, attached to a portion of the old city's defensive wall, than a true Schloss. It gleams from a renovation last year; in fact, the entire quarter seems to be undergoing a revival.
The entrance is set on a small, cobblestone courtyard. The lobby is equally brief: a simple, efficient room with an abrupt little reception desk. The extra space has apparently been saved for the spacious restaurant hall, nicely decorated with knight's armor, medieval weaponry, a fireplace and high vaulted ceilings. The restaurant opens to three levels of vine-covered terraces with expansive views of the Inn River and the baroque Mariahilf (Our Lady of Succor) cloister across the way.
The 18 guest rooms are bright and decorated in a tasteful mix of the traditional and modern. Whitewashed walls contrast pine floors, slender light fixtures and candle holders are fashioned from wrought iron, and nightstands are converted old wine presses. The hand-painted wooden bed frames are crisply dressed with white linen and fronted by small Persian rugs.
The staff's English is not the best, but they are friendly and open to interpreting hand gestures. The best news is that the room prices are equal to—or even a bit lower than—the competition, so you are advised to hurry and visit before they raise the rates.
Daily Rates: Singles 95 DM ($43), doubles 148 to 210 DM ($66-$93)
Contact: Hotel Schloss Ort, Am Dreiflusseck, tel. +49/0851/340 72, fax 318 17
Rating: Quality 15/20, Value 16/20
Hotel Weisser Hase
While the White Rabbit does not have river views, it makes up for it with an exceptional staff, attentive management and large comfortable rooms. The hotel is located at the start of the pedestrian zone in three 400 year-old buildings, just across the street from the Restaurant Heilig-Geist-Stift-Schenke.
The reception is relatively spacious and manned by gracious English-speaking staffers who will greet you by name throughout your stay—never before have I heard so many Herr Lintons.
The hotel holds 108 guest rooms spread across four floors, all of which are easily reached by elevator. Rooms are large, modern and very comfortable with built-in wood furniture, thick wool carpets, and subtly toned fabrics of jade, gold and damask. The baths are glimmering white and look brand new. While the hotel lacks any local details, anyone who values comfort or space would do well to stay here.
Daily Rates: Singles $92 to $110, doubles $146 to $173
Contact: Hotel Weisser Hase, tel +49/0851/92 11 0, fax 92 11 100
Rating: Quality 14/20, Value 14/20
Hotel Wilder Mann
This hotel is generally considered the best in town, and is certainly the only one to have been opened by an astronaut. It is owned by Georg Höltl, a local travel entrepreneur and owner of the Glass Museum housed in the same building. When Höltl bought the hotel a number of years ago, it was in a sorry state. After a careful refurbishment—and a ribbon-cutting ceremony featuring Neil Armstrong—the hotel quickly became one of the best in town.
Wilder Mann benefits from a wonderful location, right across the square from the town hall and a few steps from one of the main boat docks, convenient for anyone arriving via boat. The interior has the heavy walls, vaulted ceilings, and polished stone floors one would expect from 400 year-old interior design.
Guestrooms are done in a traditional style with decorous Biedermeir-style bed frames, polished wooden floors, candle-style chandeliers and either prints or original oil paintings set off by gilded frames. Fans of Austria's fated Empress Elizabeth can rent the Sisi Suite, where she stayed on her two visits to the city. The suite is also one of the few rooms with water views, as the rest are taken up by the Glass Museum. The staff is minimal, but very friendly.
Daily Rates: Singles approx. $53, doubles approx. $67
Rating: Quality 14/20, Value 14/20
As hotels in Passau tend to fill up on weekends and during the summer, it is worth briefly mentioning two additional options, located on the main pedestrian street and with views of the river (although this is a mixed blessing, since they also overlook a busy road and a bus parking lot).
Hotel Zum König
This hotel has nice rooms and a popular terrace restaurant. Rooms are divided between the main building and a quieter annex just a few steps away.
Daily Rates: 3-star singles: $79 to $114, 4-star singles: $97 to$120; 3-star doubles: $52 to $74, 4-star doubles: $74 to $94
Contact: Hotel Zum König, Rindermarkt 2, tel. +49/0851/9 31 060, fax 931 061
Rating: Quality 13/20, Value 13/20
Hotel Passauer Wolf
This hotel gets its character from owner and chef Richard Kerscher, who runs a comfortable, homey establishment that manages to be a bit more expensive than it should. The restaurant offers two pricey gourmet menus, one featuring regional dishes and the other with creative international standards.
Daily Rates: Singles $86-$114, doubles $133-$200
Contact: Hotel Passauer Wolf, Rindermarkt 6-8, +49/0851/931 51 10, fax 931 51 50, Web: hotel-passauer-wolf.de/english/
Rating: Quality 13/20, Value 12/20
Hacklberger Bräustüberl Biergarten
It was a close race for best in town, but the peak experience was at the tavern in the Hacklberger Brewery. This might come as some surprise as the restaurant in the Hotel Wilder Mann is widely considered the best international restaurant in town, and the Heilig-Geist-Stift-Schenke is easily the one with the longest history. Still, I simply enjoyed my visit to the Hacklberger more. Why? There are a couple of reasons, one of which has to do with a memorable plate of spareribs.
The brewery certainly is a sight to behold. It was built around the turn-of-the-century, when "Industry" was quickly becoming Germany's new religion. This can be seen at the Hacklberger in the way the brewery resembles the grounds of a monastery, although instead of a church, the layout is centered around a large, tiled-roof building with a big brick smokestack. The Schenke, or tavern, is located in a similarly styled building across the road. It rained during my visit and the restaurant was only serving indoors, though the large tree-shaded beer garden still looked inviting if you edited out the rain.
Inside the tavern, I was pleased to be the only tourist. This could be because the brewery is across the river and a bit of a walk—but not much—from the more tourist-saturated old town. From the way they joked with the traditionally dressed wait staff, the other customers seemed to be regulars. Still, I didn't feel like an intruder—in fact the others seemed to look out for me. When the waitress who brought my order forgot to give me any silverware, a young man at the table across the way, who was playing cards with his friends, called out (to translate roughly from German) "Katharina, aren't you going to bring him any silverware?"
But what about the food? All I can say is that I am thankful to this day that I decided to order the pork ribs—they were incredible and cost a mere 19.90 DM ($8.80). The plate was blanketed by two large slabs of pork ribs, which also obscured a mound of roasted potatoes and a ladle of barbecue sauce. The meat was incredibly moist and tender, and perfectly seasoned—not too salty, as is sometimes the case in this part of Central Europe.
A spicy Hacklberger wheat beer provided the proper accompaniment, though I like their Pils better. Since that day, I have tried elsewhere to relive my Hacklberger rib experience, but none can match it. I look forward to going back.
Contact: Hacklberger Bräustüberl Biergarten, Bräuhausplatz 7, tel +49/0851/583 82, fax 75 22 13. Open Tuesday-Sunday 10 am-midnight.
Rating: Quality 16/20 Value 16/20
Six hundred and fifty years have gone into the making of this restaurant, located in the Holy Ghost Monastery and charity house.
The Schenke's first customers were the destitute, each of whom got a bread roll and two glasses of wine per day. Since then the menu has expanded, but the monastery's wine still offers one of the best reasons for making a visit. This is because it is blessed with a six hectare vineyard in the coveted wine region of the Wachau in Austria. The monastery also has local vines in the surrounding hills, but the best wine comes from that little piece of Austria.
There are three distinct dinning areas. The main room has dark wood wainscoting, lovely stained glass windows and vaulted ceilings covered with Gothic stenciling. In back is a large vine-covered patio that is open during the warmer months. The most atmospheric setting is the Stift's cellar room, with more vaulted ceilings and brick floors that are so uneven the chairs are three-legged so they don't wobble. (The owner says the bricklayer was tipsy when he began his work.) The bar is fashioned from a massive wooden wine press, which was brought from an old vineyard in Austria.
I visited the Stift twice. The first time I had the Hungarian woodcutter's plate, a diverse pile of grilled meat—a sausage, a pork chop and a slice of beef—arranged around a handful of French fries and some mixed pickled salads.
The woodcutter's plate was only passable, so the next time I went a little more upscale and ordered poached Walfish served with sautéed vegetables. The fish was delicious: a cut of pillow-soft white fish fringed by blue skin, served with a side of melted butter and a second dish filled with savory cream spiked with horseradish. A further accompaniment was a small dish of julienne vegetables in a white wine sauce.
I ordered a glass of the famous white wine but, since it was lunchtime, I mixed it with mineral water. It still tasted good.
Contact: Heilig-Geist-Stiftschenke, Heiliggeistgasse 4, tel +49/0851/2607. Open Thursday-Tuesday 10 am-midnight.
Rating: Quality 15/20 Value 16/20
A kind soul at the Passau tourist board was nice enough to recommend the Greindl, a café and pastry shop located a few streets off the main pedestrian trail. This local favorite also serves a light lunch menu, but its forte is its homemade cakes and pastries, each lovingly made, artfully decorated and best of all served in large slices. The Greindl also serves good coffee.
Contact: Konditorei-Café Greindl, Wittgasse 8, tel +49/0851/356 77. Open Mon-Fri. 7am-6pm, Sat. until 5pm and Sun. 11:30pm-6pm.
Rating: Quality 16/20 Value 15/20