Skip to main content

Passau: Small City, Big Past


Where Gumbo Was #229

Passau is a German city with an Austrian history, and the Austrian border at its southern city limits. While it’s a fairly quiet university and tourism town today, it has a story that’s much bigger than you might expect.


And while parts of it look quite a bit like other cities and towns of its area, the huge size of its cathedral points to its past importance; that and other factors helped George G, Professor Abe and PortMoresby recognize it last week.


We visited Passau last spring; it’s the port where our Viking River Cruise (and many others!) began. Tourism is one of Passau’s two big industries; the other is its famed university, whose 12,000 students are nearly a quarter of the city’s population.


The main part of the city lies between the Danube and the Inn rivers, forming a peninsula, with the older part at the eastern end where the city began. The old area of the city, including the cathedral and the Rathaus, are distinctly Baroque; a disastrous fire in 1662 put paid to most remnants of earlier styles.


Between the cruise docks, facing the Town Hall, or Rathaus and the cathedral, there are small streets, small squares, and plenty of shops and cafes. Turning west from there, you’ll find yourself in the newer parts of town; less charm, but if you’re looking for a supermarket and a place to buy a belt rather than a souvenir shop, it’s the way to go.


Settlement in the area dates to Roman times, when the Danube served as the informal border between Roman control on the south and Germanic tribes to the north. Because the Inn and Iltz rivers flow into the Danube at Passau, it was an important trading as well as military settlement. It still refers to itself as the Three-River City—just like Pittsburgh.

P1010879Inn on the left, Danube on the right, and the Iltz flowing in in the picture below.


In the 8th century, an English monk named Boniface became the first Bishop of Passau, and by the 10th century it was the largest diocese in the Holy Roman Empire, covering southern Bavaria and most of western Austria, as far as Vienna. Stating about then, and continuing up to Napoleon’s time, the Bishops were also the political rulers of the lands around Passau. Now the big cathedral makes more sense!

Passau about 1681, from the hills, looking north.

Passau is also where the 30 years of war over the Protestant Reformation in Germany came to an end: In the Treaty of Passau, the Emperor Charles V guaranteed religious freedom for Lutherans, and agreed to a Diet in Augsburg for a final resolution. Three years later, the Treaty of Augsburg allowed each ruler to choose the religion for his territory.


The power of Passau, both religious and political, ended in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars, with its German territories assigned to Bavaria, its Austrian territories shrunken, and its power limited to religious matters. Even so, Passau’s tourism people are quick to point out, St. Stephan’s Cathedral, above, still has either the largest or second-largest church organ in the world, and it is the “big brother” to Vienna’s cathedral of the same name.


Outside the cathedral, we found a cheerful, but not large, farm and meat market, and around the corner, the elaborate Bishop's Palace.


Of course, a cathedral isn't all that goes with being a Prince/Bishop. The bishops also had an army and a hilltop fort to protect the city. Today, it's occupied by a hotel, but in 'the old days' it was serious business. It sits on the hilltop on the north side of the Danube. Called the Veste Oberhaus, its lower stone portion dates to 1219; the upper part was added later. The picture above of the Iltz joining the Danube also shows the Veste Niederhaus, also part of the fortifications.


If you look in the  foreground of the picture, you can see the two cables that were in one of the clue pictures. they are the suspension cables of a bridge across the Danube. The bridge's 'tower' is buried in the hillside!


The city's relationship with its rivers is a troubled one; this gauge on the side of the Rathaus shows high-water marks of Danube floods. The top two marks, over 12 metres above normal, are from 1501 and 2013. But a close look reveals that in the century since the Danube was tamed with locks and embankments, there have been more big floods than in the 600 years before. Here's Passau in the 2013 flood, not yet at its worst. The red circle shows the water gauge.


Next to the Rathaus is the Wilder Mann hotel. It's actually four historic buildings joined together, with the oldest dating to 1303. The statues on the corner of Sts. Stephen and Nicholas date to its use as a courthouse. When the current hotel opened in 1979, the guest of honor was astronaut Neil Armstrong. In the 19th century, it hosted a different kind of star: the Empress of Austria spent several weeks there.


The city's manhole covers carry the Three River theme: they're inscribed with the motto 'Leben an Drei Flussen,' or 'Live on Three Rivers.' 




Images (27)
  • P1010722
  • P1010723
  • P1010731
  • P1010736
  • P1010740
  • P1010741
  • P1010742
  • P1010749
  • P1010751
  • P1010753
  • P1010778
  • P1010780
  • P1010790
  • P1010797
  • P1010801
  • P1010802
  • P1010805
  • P1010809
  • P1010812
  • P1010845
  • P1010849
  • P1010871
  • P1010879
  • P1010881
  • P1010825
  • 1280px-Passau_Braun-Hogenberg
  • flood

The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

Add Comment

Comments (3)

Newest · Oldest · Popular

We first heard the Three Rivers bit from our cruise director, who pointed out that we would be able, as we sailed downstream, to see different colors in the water as they merged. So, when I spotted the manhole cover, I was already alert to the idea...

And yes, Marilyn: I've never been a cruise fan, but this was different, and we'll do another eventually.

The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

Link copied to your clipboard.