Topography has determined the character of Eastern Bavaria every bit as much as the Alps have shaped the south of the state. A vast, uninterrupted belt of forested upland – the Bayerischer Wald or Bavarian Forest – guards Bavaria’s eastern flank on the border with the Czech Republic. It’s a sparsely populated and – compared with much of the rest of Bavaria – still relatively little-visited tract, which was for decades a sort of rural cul-de-sac running northwest to southeast along the Iron Curtain. In contrast, immediately to the west of the Bayerischer Wald, the valley of the Danube runs parallel to the border, and is one of the great natural trade routes of Central Europe. Strung out along it is a series of attractive small cities, each of which has known some glory in its past: Regensburg, the largest of them, is a former free imperial city with one of the best-preserved medieval cityscapes in Central Europe; in the south, Passau is a former prince-bishopric with more than a touch of Italy in its monuments. Between the two, Straubing looks back to a distant golden age as the capital of a strange medieval Duchy that straddled Bavaria and the Netherlands. Not to be forgotten is Landshut on the River Isar, the ancestral seat of the Wittelsbach dynasty.
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With a memorable – and flood-prone – location on the Austrian border at the confluence of the rivers Inn, Ilz and Danube, PASSAU has a lively, cosmopolitan feel that quite belies its modest size. A city of just 50,000 inhabitants, it has nevertheless long been an important place. There was a Roman fort on the site from around 80 AD, a bishopric was founded here in 739 AD and this was raised to the status of an independent prince-bishopric in 1217, a status it retained for centuries until, secularized and annexed, it shared the fate of the other Bavarian prince-bishoprics at the start of the nineteenth century. Passau also rates a mention in the Nibelungenlied, the epic poem that formed the basis for Wagner’s Ring, as the heroine Kriemhild is welcomed to the city by her uncle Bishop Pilgrim.
Passau’s long history of independence has left it with an impressive array of monuments gracing its Altstadt, which occupies a narrow wedge of land between the Inn and Danube. There’s a blend of Central European and Italian Baroque architectural influences similar to that other great ecclesiastical city-state, Salzburg, though here the ice-cream colours add a sunny, southern glow that not even Salzburg can match. Add to that a mighty, photogenic fortress and the buzz created by its university and the cruise ships that depart its quays for Vienna, Bratislava and Budapest, and Passau is well worth an overnight stop.
The most distinctive feature of Passau’s Altstadt is its location on a tapering peninsula at the point where the Danube and Inn meet, and the best place to experience the drama of its situation is in the little park at the eastern tip of the peninsula, or Dreiflüsseeck. Almost tucked out of sight behind the fifteenth-century Veste Niederhaus – the lower part of Passau’s massive medieval fortress complex – is the Ilz, very much the junior of the three rivers, which flows into the Danube from the north just before its confluence with the Inn.
STRAUBING stands at the heart of the Gäuboden, a rich grain-producing district that stretches along the Danube midway between Passau and Regensburg. The Lower Bavarian town experienced a relatively brief but glorious heyday between 1353 and 1425 as the capital of the lesser, Bavarian portion of the eccentric independent Duchy of Straubing-Holland, the greater portion of whose territories lay in the present-day Netherlands.
Spared from devastation in the twentieth century’s wars, timeless REGENSBURG (Ratisbon in English, though the name is nowadays little used) preserves the appearance of an important medieval trading-city better than just about anywhere else in Central Europe. It’s the only major medieval city in Germany to remain intact, and to a remarkable extent the Regensburg you see today preserves its fourteenth-century street layout and much of the architecture – secular and religious – that reflects how it must have looked during its medieval zenith. Straddling routes to Italy, Bohemia, Russia and Byzantium, Regensburg had trading links that stretched as far as the Silk Road. Trade brought cultural interchange too, and the mighty tower houses of the city’s medieval merchants – so reminiscent of Italy – are found nowhere else north of the Alps. No wonder UNESCO added the city to its list of World Heritage Sites in 2006.
Glorious though its architectural heritage may be, this vibrant city is no museum piece. What makes it particularly special is the way its thousand or so historic monuments act as a backdrop for the very contemporary tastes and concerns of its modern citizens, who include large numbers of students. For visitors, Regensburg is a surprisingly multifaceted place, well worth a stay of a few days or so.
Remarkably, the city is actually even older than it looks. The Romans founded a fort here as part of the empire’s Limes, or military frontier, in the then-uninhabited region of Donaubogen in 80 AD; it was destroyed in an attack by Marcomanni tribes in 167 AD, only to be re-established as a legion fortress under the name Castra Regina on the site of the present-day Altstadt. As the western Roman Empire died in the fifth century AD, the Roman inhabitants were gradually replaced by Germanic settlers. A bishopric from 739 AD, Regensburg also became a free imperial city in 1245.
The Befreiungshalle and Donaudurchbruch
The Befreiungshalle and Donaudurchbruch
Southwest of Regensburg at KELHEIM, on a romantic bluff high above the river, the Befreiungshalle (Liberation Hall) was Ludwig’s monument to the wars of liberation against Napoleon and to the idea of German unity. It was begun in 1842 by Friedrich von Gärtner but completed after Gärtner’s death by Leo von Klenze. From the outside, the drum-shaped building looks a little like a Neoclassical gasometer fashioned from painted stucco; the spectacular interior is ringed by 34 winged goddesses of victory with the names of Austrian, Prussian and Bavarian generals picked out in gold above them. A narrow staircase ascends to an internal gallery from which you can better admire the sheer spaciousness of the hall; beyond it, a stone staircase leads to an exterior gallery, well worth the climb for the views over Kelheim and the lovely Donaudurchbruch, a narrow, cliff-rimmed stretch of the Danube to the west of the town that is one of the region’s most beloved excursions.
The Donaudurchbruch ends at Kloster Weltenburg, wedged scenically between the river and cliffs. The baroque abbey church is the work of the Asam brothers, but Weltenburg is altogether more famous for its brewery, which claims to be the world’s oldest abbey brewery and produces the excellent Barock Dunkel beer. You can sample it at the Klosterschänke in the main courtyard. The most popular way to reach Weltenburg is on a boat trip from Kelheim, but hiking trails through the gorge allow a more leisured appreciation of the exceptional landscape, which forms the Weltenburger Enge nature reserve. The closest route to the gorge follows the north bank; there’s a simple ferry across the river to the abbey at Weltenburg itself.
Capital of Lower Bavaria for the past eight hundred years and for a brief period in the thirteenth century Munich’s predecessor as the Wittelsbachs’ main seat, LANDSHUT has architectural splendours that quite outshine its present status as a bustling but essentially provincial town midway between Munich and Regensburg. Its glory days came under the so-called “rich dukes” between 1393 and 1503, when it was the seat of government for the duchy of Bayern-Landshut. The 1475 wedding of one of the dukes, Georg, to Jadwiga (Hedwig in German) – daughter of the Polish king – was one of the most lavish celebrations of the late Middle Ages, and it provides a template for the town’s most celebrated festival – the Landshuter Hochzeit or Landshut Wedding – to this day.