Passau: a blend in the river

by Tim Dawe

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St Stephens Cathedral dominates Passau across the Inn River

Passau is a Bavarian regional town right on the river border with Austria. It’s not really a destination. Trains stop at the station but mostly passengers speed off to Vienna or Budapest or elsewhere. The autobahn and Munich trains bypass it altogether. But this pretty and historic town, now part of the burgeoning river cruise network, is worth the stop. I stopped – more years ago than I care to count – and stayed here as a student for 10 weeks. While not quite my second home, it is familiar.

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Dreiflussestadt – three rivers city

Passau is known as Dreiflüssestadt, or city of three rivers: Danube, Inn and Ilz. The reason becomes obvious 100m above viewed from Veste Oberhaus (built 1219), as the dark Inn and the inky Ilz meet the Danube in technicolour turbulence – with no hint of blue. In the first century AD Romans used this lofty strategic fort to rout Celtic tribes. But it wasn’t pagan power that lasted but papal power – specifically Passau bishops. Archbishop Boniface founded a diocese here in 739. Over centuries it became the largest in the Holy Roman Empire, gathering not only souls but taxes from the river trade. Among the many onion-domed churches bequeathed to Passau is St Stephens Cathedral, containing the largest church organ in the world.

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World’s largest church organ

Passau’s Altstadt, or old town, is dominated at its pointy, confluence end by St Stephens and the large grey bulk of Bishops Palace. From this arrowhead the town fans out upstream across a river-formed isthmus. I remember Altstadt as a jumble of buildings lining narrow medieval tracks, and frantically avoiding traffic hurtling around tight corners and out the tunnels of built-over roads. The old cobblestones are gone now. It’s entirely a paved pedestrian precinct.

Secular institutions sit along the Danube side. Here the Altes Rathaus, or old town hall, takes prominence. This highly decorated Venetian-style civic centre, built in 1404, has a 38m clock tower with a special relationship with the river. Looking up from the town square between hall and river I spot the levels of previous major floods; four metres up 1501 is recorded, and below that, 1954, with 2013 waiting its mark in between. People living alongside a river expect an occasional flood; people living alongside three rivers, more so.

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Cafe Roses today

Near the town square I stop at a café edged in spring flowers and look down on the scene of scurrying tourists boarding their scenic cruisers for Vienna. I continue my first-day orientation with a serendipitous moment; I find Gasthof zum Rosa the dank, working-class bier keller overseen by buxom “Rosa”, and scene of much mayhem and boisterous drinking with my fellow international language students. It’s now Café Roses and gentrified. It even serves “kaffee und strudl”. Embarrassingly, I discover it’s named for the address – Rosengasse – not our long-suffering hostess.

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     Memory of Gasthof zum Rosa

Passau is deeply conservative and Catholic. Traditionally, after mass town folk in Bavarian dress take Sunday lunch at their favoured restaurant before promenading along river paths shaded by Linden trees. There’s the old story of newly-arrived Swiss brothers who, in registering details for their Passau restaurant, recorded their religion as “protestant”. For weeks they received no patronage on the busiest of days, until advised to correct their “mistake” in the register. Perhaps. Still, there are no black faces or veils here, unlike in Munich, just 80km to the west.

After an overnight stay at a hotel high in the suburbs I awake to a view of Austria beyond the Inn alive with dome-shaped, bright green hills where you can see the Von Trapp family singing The Sound of Music. It’s time to seek out familiar haunts.

Nearby is my old school, now a residence. At the river’s edge St Nikola Monastery (founded 1070) has morphed into a theological college and liberal arts university. It looks like the headquarters of a software company. There are no torn posters, graffiti or signs proclaiming student activities, let alone of protest.

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A cafe edged with spring flowers on the banks of the Danube
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A homestay memory of 40 years ago

I retrace my steps across the footbridge to my student billet, a tiny room on the third floor well away from the family. Nothing has changed except for the colour of the new paint. A few paces from my room is the still-walled town of Innstadt, noted for its brewery (and bars) and as the original Roman settlement (270AD). Its streetscape remains largely untouched by modernity.

I leave the German “enclave” on the Austrian side for today’s downtown Passau. It’s unrecognisable. Streets that once followed the topography have straightened or vanished, buildings are obliterated. Nibelungenplatz has modern shopping centres and Cineplexes facing different ways. Ludwigplatz is a grassed square covering a cavernous car park next to a new bus station; all slightly disorienting but also open, liveable and efficient.

It’s still familiar. But like life (and me), Passau, alongside three fast-flowing rivers, moves on.

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Across the Inn towards Innstadt (Austrian side)
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