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.