Passau, Germany, sits at the junction point of three rivers: the Danube, the Inn and the Ilz rivers. // © 2014 Passau Tourist Association
Many cities in central and eastern Europe have sections informally designated “Old Town,” which travelers are invited to visit. Most often these areas are home to a small cluster of historic buildings whose architecture dates back several hundred years. While attractive, it's also likely that these Old Towns are surrounded by modern high rises and apartment complexes.
That's not the way it is in Passau. A relatively small town (population 50,000), Passau is located at the southernmost tip of Bavaria at the confluence of three rivers — the Danube, the Inn and the Ilz. Hence its reputation as the “three river city.”
Passau quite literally is a very Old Town; Crusaders stopped here on their way to the Holy Land. Today, Passau reflects the look and the feel of a prosperous 17th century community, complete with narrow lanes, cobble stone streets, distinctive architecture, an imposing cathedral, a lovely city hall and shops for merchants and artisans. But don't look for actors strolling about in traditional costume.
”This is not an open air museum,” said Pia Olligschlager, managing director of the Passau Tourist Association. “People live here; it is a true city.”
It's also very much a walking city, because access by car is limited. Besides, as I discovered on a recent trip, the only way to truly enjoy and appreciate Passau's charm is on foot.
One distinctive feature of the little three- and four-story houses, some painted rose, others yellow or other pastel colors, are the decorative balconies with wrought iron railings protruding over the lanes below. You might think that this feature a bit odd in a Bavarian setting, and very Italian. That's no accident. Starting in the 13th century, Passau became the seat of Episcopalian bishops who, as Imperial princes, ruled what was then a small but independent principality.
In the mid-1600s, two devastating fires virtually destroyed the bishopric seat. Fortunately, the city was prosperous enough to afford a sweeping restoration. To oversee the job, the authorities recruited Italian builders, architects and painters. They brought with them their talents as well as a Baroque architectural style, and those wrought iron balconies that sharp-eyed visitors might spot.
With its reconstruction came many of the features that dominate Passau’s modest modern skyline. The most prominent of these is St. Stephen's Cathedral in the city center. Its three green-domed towers are the city's tallest structures. The Cathedral also boasts the largest Catholic cathedral organ in the world. It’s actually a group of five individual organs with — count them — 17,974 pipes that are actually played by one organist. Thirty-minute concerts are presented at noon daily, except on Sundays and holidays.
Looking down over the city from a promontory above the Danube is the Veste Oberhaus castle. While the bishops who ruled for some 600 years lived quite comfortably in Passau proper, the castle was a handy retreat. Another of the town's prominent structures is Mariahilf, a pilgrimage monastery on a hilltop overlooking the Inn River. By tradition, pilgrims prayed at each of the 321 stairs until they reached the church. Fortunately, the church is now accessible by road.
While tradition dominates much of Passau's area, to be fair there is a quite separate modern section in the city. Here, you'll find a shopping mall, supermarket, hotels and the railway station from which visitors can travel on to Vienna, Prague and other points throughout Europe.