Upriver and west from Vienna lies the Wachau, a valley described by travelers over the centuries as impossibly beautiful, a place of legends and fables and romantic truths (or at least half-truths). The Danube flows through a landscape of forests, storybook villages, hillside vineyards and apricot orchards, with the occasional ruined castle perched watchfully on a hilltop. The vineyards date from the time of the Celts, and wine from the Wachau is famous throughout Europe. The apricot orchards may be even older, since the region has been known for its apricot brandy for centuries.
But the gem of the Wachau has to be the village of Dürnstein, perched on the side of a hill where the wide Danube curves gently between forested banks. Even on a gray and cloudy day, the brightly painted buildings that line the narrow cobblestone streets glow like candles.
Small shops sell handmade glass ornaments, some shaped like clusters of the grapes that grow in stone-terraced rows along the hillsides.
You can buy bottles of the local white wine in bakeries and gift shops almost everywhere in town. Though at home we drink red wine almost exclusively, we were glad to learn about the three categories of white wines produced in the Wachau: Steinfelder, Federspiel, and Smaragd, in ascending order of quality. We bought a couple of bottles to drink on the ship and found them excellent.
Dürnstein, however, is famous for more than its wine.
High above the town are the ruins of a medieval castle, the Kuenringerburg, built in the early part of the twelfth century and known throughout history as the place where Richard the Lionheart, England’s crusader king, was held for ransom in 1192. What may not be as well known, though, is the reason for his capture and imprisonment. Earlier that year, Richard’s army had captured the port city of Acre (in what is now Israel), together with the armies of the French king Philip II and of Leopold, the Duke of Austria. After the battle, despite having played only a minor role in the fighting, Leopold raised his standard above the captured city. Incensed, Richard told his knights to take down Leopold’s banner and trample it in a ditch. Leopold never forgot the insult, and later, when Richard was trying to get home to England to take care of domestic problems (remember King John?), he fell into the hands of his nemesis, Leopold, and ended up imprisoned in the castle at Dürnstein for two years until his ransom was paid. The castle was eventually destroyed in 1646 during the Thirty Years War and was never rebuilt. We didn’t attempt the difficult climb up from the town to the ruins, but I did it in 1986 – in platform shoes, no less – when I was younger and more agile, and I can attest to the stunning beauty of the expansive view from the top.
Because of the cold winter in this part of Europe and the heavy buildup of snow in the mountains whose melting waters swell the rivers they feed, our captain was becoming concerned about the height of the Danube as we approached Germany. If the water is too high, the riverboats can’t get under the bridges. To add to the problem, the weather turned rainy as soon as we left Vienna, and by the time we reached Passau in Bavaria, it was coming down in buckets. Passau is known as “the town of three rivers,” located at the intersection of the rivers Danube, Inn, and Ilz; and it was the Inn that caused most of the trouble, racing down from the Swiss Alps as the snow melted.
Despite the rain, we soldiered on and walked from the ship into Passau, widely known as one of the loveliest cities in Germany. Passau’s Old Town is built on the tapering peninsula between the Inn and the Danube, and narrow streets climb precipitously from the river to the center of the town, where St. Stephen’s Cathedral sits in solitary splendor on a large open square, looking like a wedding cake.
It being Sunday, and Passau (like Bavaria in general) being almost uniformly Roman Catholic, all the shops and cafés were closed, even the famous Gummi Bear factory store. But it being Sunday, Mass was being said in the cathedral, which houses the largest pipe organ in Europe, with over 17,000 pipes, and besides, it was raining. So we went to Mass. Really.
The interior of the cathedral was simply breathtaking. Towering arches reached toward heaven above a warmly lighted sanctuary, with side altars that displayed beautiful paintings and fresh flowers. The sonorous tones of the bells in the cathedral’s two towers punctuated the words of the German Mass, and the great organ overhead made the stones beneath our feet vibrate like a drum.
Passau has a long and colorful history, as do so many of these river cities. A fortified Celtic settlement was established there before 500 BC, its inhabitants engaging in trade, as their successors would do for the next twenty centuries. In the first century AD, the Romans founded a camp, Castra Batava, on the site, as well as a second settlement on the Inn nearby. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the Christian era began and the city was reborn. In 1217, the local bishop, Ulrich, was invested by Emperor Fredrick II with the title of imperial prince, and Passau became an important prince-bishopric. At one time, the prince-bishop of Passau exerted secular power over all the territory from Passau to Vienna and beyond. These prince-bishops were unbelievably wealthy and powerful, since they held both sacred and secular authority directly from pope and emperor. One of the Passau prince-bishops commissioned the composition and recitation of the Niebelungenlied, later to form the basis for Richard Wagner’s four operas of the Ring cycle.
Like all medieval towns of significance, Passau boasts an impressive and historic city hall, or Rathaus, dating from the 13thcentury. The building sits on one side of a square facing the river, and murals on its exterior walls depict characters from the city’s storied past. On one corner wall, there is a marker showing the height of the floodwaters during the worst floods in Passau’s history. Only the floods of 1501 and 1595 exceeded that of 1954; the severe flooding of 2002 was lower, though still well over a man’s head.
Despite the rain and the closed shops, we loved Passau and could see why it has been such a popular tourist destination over the years.
To see more pictures of Dürnstein, click here.
Forr more views of Passau, click here.