Weekend Wanderlust: Past meets present in picturesque Passau

Situated on the Austrian border and dotted with Italian architecture, Passau in lower Bavaria is as much of a confluence of cultures as it is of rivers.

Weekend Wanderlust: Past meets present in picturesque Passau
Many cruises past through Passau's picturesque old town in the summer. Photo: DPA

The Danube, Ilz and Inn rivers flow together in the city’s famous “Dreiecke” (triangle) and from high up on the hill overlooking the lower Bavarian town, I could actually see three different shades of blue merging together.

Located a 2.5 hour train ride from Munich, I arrived in picturesque Passau for a long weekend in June, when its curvy cobblestone streets were filled with chattering students, cruise passengers and cyclists winding through its many Roman ruins or heading to the nearby Bayerischer Wald (Bavarian Forest).

Passau of the past

On one hand, the city feels like it still belongs to a prosperous 17th century community, with narrow lanes, an imposing cathedral and loads of small shops with artisanal crafts.

Many of these stores are situated in little three and four-story houses, brightly standing out with rose, yellow and pastel colours, and with wrought-iron railings protruding over the railings.

The Dreiecke of Passau, where three rivers merge together. Photo: DPA

They look more like a little Italy than Bavaria, and that’s no coincidence: 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.

The Catholic presence is felt the most strongly at St. Stephan’s Cathedral, which boasts the largest cathedral organ in the world. As I sat inside for one of the daily half-hour concerts, the walls elegantly echoed with the sounds of five individual organs – containing 17,974 pipes, and played by a solo organist.

St. Stephan's Cathedral. Photo: DPA

Another remarkable religious highlight of the city is the Mariahilf, a monastery on a hilltop overlooking the Inn River. Traditionally, pilgrims prayed at each and every of the 321 stairs heading up to the top. Luckily nowadays there is also a road that leads to the top.

Also looking down over the city from a viewpoint above the Danube is the Veste Oberhaus castle, which was founded in 1219 and expanded over the centuries. Although the bishops who ruled for some 600 years lived quite comfortably in Passau, the castle was a handy retreat. A built-in museum showcases some of Passau’s best artifacts.

Present-day Passau

The Studenten der Stadt (city’s students) have given Passau a modern-flair, bringing it hip cafes, international themed restaurants that complement traditional Bavarian fair, and pubs open till the wee hours of the night.

Founded in 1973, the University of Passau is the youngest in the state of Bavaria, and consequently boasts a modern campus. The research university – which counts 38 different undergraduate and postgraduate programs – still has roots which go back hundreds of years as an Institute for Catholic Studies.

One of the modern buildings of Passau's university campus. Photo: DPA

On a Saturday night, I headed with two French friends – and international master’s students – to the so-called Wahn’s Inn (a play on words for the German Wahnsinn, or madness), a popular and low-key weekend hangout.

This cozy pub carries a wide selection of locally brewed beers and foreign whiskeys, but is best known for its selection of over 200 board and card games. Guests grab a drink and gather over its wide tables in the evening to play favourites from Uno to Trivial Pursuit.

If you’re in the mood for music, you can also head to the distinctly Deutsch Musikbar Colours, a dimly lit, retro-styled bar features a rotating line-up of alternative DJs. It also boasts a beer garden in the backyard, and hosts watching parties for every Sunday night for Tatort, the long-running German crime show.

When the weather is nice, the prime of Passau occurs outdoors, however. Every Tuesday and Friday from spring through fall at St. Stephen’s Cathedral, local vendors line up to sell fresh and regional products such as honey, fruit and schnapps.

Being Bavaria, there is also a stand that sells sausages with Senf (mustard) and the beloved Brezel, usually a large pretzel topped with nuts or poppy seeds.

Bavarians have a sweet tooth, and normally even savoury breads are coated with powdered sugars. If you take a Saturday stroll along the Inn river, you’ll also find a flea market which sells used goods, including household appliances, clothes and even vinyl records.

Passau’s cuisine: a meeting point of past and present

Passau is a culinary hotspot, with many traditional restaurants rich in regional food a creative touch. With several brew houses and taverns, it’s easy to find typical hearty Bavarian dishes mostly consisting of meat and knödel, or boiled potato dumplings.

Knödel: a typical Bavarian dish. Photo: DPA

Hearty local favourites include Leberkäse, a loaf made out of corned beef, pork, bacon and onions, and Schweinshaxen, a roasted ham knuckle. Side dishes like Spätzle, an egg noodle with roasted onion, abound, and there's even a handful of recently opened meatless cafes and restaurants.

Most menus come complete with a mouth-watering dessert section. Local favourites include Mohnpalatschinke (poppy seed crepes) and seasonal strawberries served with liquor over vanilla ice cream.  

I ended my long weekend lounging at the Weissbräu Andorfer, a sprawling beer garden on a hilltop overlooking the city. The summer sun began to set over the patio, and picturesque Passau faded into silhouette across its rivers.

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Travel: Six reasons why the Spreewald near Berlin is worth visiting

Situated only a 45 Minute train ride from Berlin, this lush UNESCO Biosphere reserve and cultural gem transports visitors to another world.

Travel: Six reasons why the Spreewald near Berlin is worth visiting
Tourists canoeing through the scenic Spreewald. Photo: DPA

Around Germany, the colloquial verb herumgurken (pickle around) has the meaning of traveling around and around when lost.

While I was equipped with a map, the word still seemed the most fitting way to sum up my time in the Spreewald, known not only for its vast pickle production, but also stunning nature and culture to discover by bike, foot or – especially – canoe.

READ ALSO: Travel in Germany: 10 must-see places within reach of Berlin

Here are six reasons it’s worth a visit, whether as a Tagesausflug (day-trip) from Berlin or a week-long adventure.

1. Pickle paradise 

The pickle harvest in Kasel-Golzig in the Spreewald on July 17th. Photo: DPA

Known for some 50 percent of the production across Germany, Spreewalders take pride in their pickles. In the three days I was there, it felt like I sampled every sort of gourmet Gurken delicacy there is, from creamy Gurkensuppe (served both chilled and warm in the summer), Gurkenaustrich (spread) and a surprisingly good Gurken and raspberry Radler

Tucked into the forest, the town of Burg even offers Gurkeneis if you fancy the summer sweet with a green tint. 

2. The Sorbian language 

People going for a Gondola ride in Lehde. Photo: DPA

You might mistake the text under German signs around the area for Polish or Czech. Yet it’s actually Sorbian, an official minority language of Germany spoken by over 60,000 people. 

Many of them live in the Spreewald, and the little village of Lehne – a two kilometre walk or cycle from the old town in Lübbenau  – pays tribute to their way of life and language, including an open-air museum that gives a glimpse of how the Wends (as they are known locally) lived in the 19th century. 

3. Bunte Biodiversity 

Otters are often spotted swimming in the Spreewald. Photo: DPA

With its more than 5,000 species of animals, Spreewald is so rich in biodiversity that the 475 square metre area was given the title of an UNESCO Biosphere reserve in 1991.

One particularly striking species are the white storks, which are often spotted perched atop large nests they’ve created on large protected pillars. The species is critically endangered elsewhere in Germany. 

The Spreewald can also at times feel like the tropics with colourful animals and amphibians like the fire-bellied toad and over 900 species of Schmetterlinge (butterflies).

4. Rural charm

It felt like we were much further from Berlin as we hiked past Hütte (cottages) with thatched roofs and cozy country stores with local products that closed at 2 pm each day. From Lübben, we hiked along a 14-kilometre riverside trail to Schlepzig, known for both its Bauermuseum (farm museum) and Brauerei with locally brewed beer.

5. Water Wanderung

A true streaming service: a postal woman delivers mail by water at the start of the Post's canoe delivery season on May 14th. Photo: DPA

With 1,500 kilometers of waterways, one of the best ways to explore the Spreewald is by water. The area is so-well connected by water that even mailmen and women from the Deutsche Post pragmatically paddle from home to home to deliver post.

We had a sporty Sunday, leaving Lübben at 9:30 am and paddling 14 kilometres to Lübbenau, just in time to a devour a hearty lunch of potatoes and Quark cheese with linseed oil, a Spreewald specialty, at a beer garden affixed to the side of the river. We then headed back for another adventure, as small waves formed amid the windy afternoon weather. 

Families of swans, cranes and ducks joined the journey at times, unfazed by their human companions. 

If you're looking for a more leisurely journey, all sorts of canoes, kayaks and other boats can be rented by the hour, or you can sit back in a Venice-style Gondola as a host in tradition garb guides you through the landscapes.

6. Official bike trail

Bike riders in the Spreewald town of Leipe. Photo: DPA

Distinctly marked by yellow signs of a cycling pickle, the Gurkenradweg forms 260 kilometres of scenic trails that lead through the forest, starting in Lübben and leading to Cottbus, the heart of Brandenburg’s Sorbian-speaking community. Bridges break up the journey (and sometimes, this being Germany, construction projects as well.)

If you’re timid about trekking longer distances, most bike rental shops also offer daily e-bike rentals for around €25 a day. Just be advised, especially in the summer months, to reserve bikes at least a week in advance.