Day 10: Passau: Organ Concert on the World’s Largest Cathedral Organ
After sailing calmly down the lovely River Danube all night, we awoke this morning in the border town of Passau, Germany, only one kilometer from Austria, which we can see in the distance and which is visible from several vantage points in town. Today’s docking is the closest we’ve had so far to a town center. Disembark, walk about 200 yards up hill, and you’re there.
Our tour guide for the morning was Konrad, a professor of international relations at Passau University and a native of this town. He started our walk with a discussion of the city’s history, which can be traced to more than 7,000 years ago, thanks to its location at the confluence of three rivers: the blue Danube that originates in the Black Forest of Germany, the black Illz that originates in the Bohemian Forest of northern Germany and the green Inn that originates in the melting glaciers of Switzerland. The three rivers give the city much of its character, but they have also contributed to its unfortunate past, namely a series of devastating floods, the depth of which are documented on the photograph below. The most recent, and the second worst in history, occurred in June 2013 and reached the second story of all the buildings on the banks of the Danube and left behind more than three feet of mud when the waters receded.
After pausing briefly on the banks of the Inn River and noting the milky color caused by the suspended sediment scraped and crushed from the sides of Swiss mountains by massive glaciers, we climbed the hill to town center and St. Stephens Cathedral. Unlike Gothic cathedrals we saw in other cities, Passau’s cathedral was different. The original Gothic structure, which had stood for hundreds of years, was destroyed by afire in 1683 that also destroyed or damaged much of the town. Italian baroque architects and craftsmen were hired to build a new church, a project that too more than a decade. The resulting edifice was very different from the older Gothic cathedrals that pepper the German landscape.
The interior of the cathedral was as striking as the exterior, perhaps even more so. The Italian fresco painters and especially the stucco artists who finished the interior out did themselves. Once again, just as the exterior of the building was striking in it’s attention to the most minor details, the interior in itself could easily result in a multi-hundred page art book. Below are two photographs that show only a minute fraction of the thousands of detailed stucco sculptures and ceiling paintings. Neither my pedestrian writing nor my inadequate photographs do them justice.
But the real treat at the cathedral today was not the gorgeous paintings or the stunning stucco sculptures. Rather, it was a 30-minute concert of baroque organ music on the largest cathedral organ in the world. The St. Stephens organ is actually a system of five organs connected together and played on a single console. The organ has more than 17,500 pipes ranging in size from more than 30 feet long to less than 3 inches long. The quality of the organ combined with the acoustics of the cathedral inspired feelings of awe and even reverence. The concert was tagged as the highlight of today’s tour, and it was.
The organ concert was the last stop on the tour and after another delicious lunch back aboard the Viking Skirnir, we returned to town for more sightseeing, some shopping, and, of course, a visit to a biergarten to sample the local brew, this time a pilsner. More staid than the brews I quaffed in the last few days, it was a good, cold drink on a warm German day when the sun warmed the city to about 87° F.
We returned to the ship at 5 p.m., the crew cast off the lines, and we soon sailed past the three river confluence and into Austria. Tomorrow, I give up beer and return to wine and a visit to a vineyard and winery. Life is good.
More from Passau