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Passau, Bavaria, Germany

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Passau is a town with 50,5361 inhabitants, situated where the Danube and Inn meet, at the border between Germany and Austria. Alexander von Humboldt - German explorer and naturalist, 1769-1859 - once said that Passau is 'one of the seven most beautiful cities in the world'. Considering the fact that he was what would be called a 'globetrotter' today, there must be some truth in his judgement.

Topographical Situation

Passau is called the Dreiflüssestadt (three-river-city) due to its unique situation at the confluence of three rivers:

  • The Danube, of the three, is furthest from its source, and the combined river takes its name as it leaves Passau.

  • The Inn, with its source in the Alps, brings even more water to Passau (especially during the spring thaw). It serves as the border river between Germany and Austria for quite a distance before it reaches Passau.

  • The Ilz, with its source in the Bavarian Forest, is the smallest of the three. It makes a unique double loop through a nature- sanctuary before it flows into the Danube.

These three rivers meet at a single point in Passau, which is called Dreiflüsse-Eck (three-river-corner). As Passau is situated in the southern outskirts of the Bavarian Forest (a low mountain range), the city is rather hilly, with a tongue of land both between the Ilz and the Danube, and between the Danube and the Inn. If you approach the city upstream by boat, which is said to be the most beautiful way to come to Passau, the tongue of land between Inn and Danube protrudes like the bow of a giant ship. This marvelous situation has its disadvantages; the room for the city's growth is extremely limited, the sewers and other services have to cross rivers to be efficient, and many bridges are required to carry the city's traffic.

Those who see this for the first time are surprised that the three rivers have three very distinct colours. The Ilz is dark brown, almost black. Its nickname is 'Black Pearl', due to its colour and to the fact that freshwater pearl mussels (Margaritifera margaritifera) used to live there. The Danube is a middle brown colour, and many people are somewhat disappointed that the river isn't 'The Blue Danube' at all. The Inn is of a light brown hue, almost yellow, due to the clay and sand that it brings. If you look down to the Dreiflüsse-Eck you'll see that the Inn takes almost all of the riverbed, forcing the Danube over to the left bank. The Ilz, small as it is, seems to wait for its chance to get her black water in between the left bank and the Danube. The three colours can be distinguished for quite a distance before the waters mix.

During the snowmelt times in spring, when the Inn brings a lot of water from the Alps, parts of Passau will be flooded. The inhabitants of Passau don't regard it as a catastrophe (many TV stations do, and send their helicopters to Passau to get some spectacular footage of 'a town on the verge of drowning', whereas Passau, metaphorically speaking, just rolls up its trousers and wears wellington boots for a couple of days). The standard water level of the Danube is approximately 500cm (17ft). The lowest streets are flooded and blocked at about 720cm (24ft). In May 1999, there was a level of 920cm (33ft), which was indeed a problem (not a catastrophe!) for the city, as many people couldn't reach their jobs in time. The highest flood in recent times was in 1954, when the Danube and the Inn touched each other in the middle of the town, with a level if more than 1200cm (40ft). That was a catastrophe, and the town decided to relocate many inhabitants out of the endangered areas.

At the base of the Rathausturm (City Hall Tower) some of the high water levels are marked. It is very impressive to stand there trying to imagine the water reaching several feet above one's head.


The earliest settlements date back to prehistoric times. On the Altstadthügel (Old Town hill) traces of Celtic settlements have been found. Around 80 AD Passau was one of the northern border forts of the Roman empire. The name of that fort was Castra Batava, which was also the origin of the city's name. The Romans brought Christianity to Passau, and from around 460 there was an organized Christian church in the town. In 476, the Romans left Passau for good.

In 739, the first bishop came to Passau and the town has been capital of a bishopric ever since. During the following centuries Passau began to flourish economically, as well as culturally and spiritually. As rivers were the most important methods of transport, and Passau had the privilege to have three of them, it developed into a commercial centre early on. Passau took its toll of all the goods that passed through the city. Taxing the salt carried on the 'Salt Way' that led from the Alps to the Bavarian Forest created remarkable wealth for the city.

The Count-Bishops of Passau were not only the spiritual, but also the secular shepherds of their flock, a state of affairs that was not very popular among those inhabitants of Passau who were not directly attached to the Episcopal See. Civilian uprisings were quite common, and in the 15th Century the Count-Bishops built a well fortified castle on the Georgsberg (George's Mountain) to control the citizens. Guns were always loaded and aimed at the civic town hall.

The spiritual heart of the city is undoubtedly the Stephansdom (St Stephen's Cathedral). It is the biggest baroque church north of the Alps. The organ is one of the largest church organs in the world, with 273 registers distributed over five different locations in the church. During the tourist season an organ concert takes place every day around noon. It's definitely worth the entrance fee.

In more recent times, Passau seems to have been forgotten, or considered to be an obscure little town at the outskirts of the world, where 'Lower Bavaria is lowest'. This has changed dramatically along with the collapse of the Eastern Block, German Reunification and the eastwards expansion of the European Community.

There are several ways to determine the geographical heart of Europe, but the result is never too far from Passau.


Passau has always been a very culture-conscious town, attracting artists of all kinds. The Count-Bishops used to adorn themselves with artistry, a lot of which can still be seen today. Writers and composers lived in or near Passau, be it only for short periods of time. What might be of more interest for someone who comes to Passau today is the contemporary cultural scene:

  • One of the most important music and cultural festivals, Europäische Wochen (European Weeks), has been staged in Passau since 1952. In the last few years, it has even developed into a true European festival, with events taking place in Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic.

  • Passau is one of the breeding areas of the political cabaret in Germany. Many of Germany's leading performers of this genre, specialising in political satire, have started their career in Passau, in a small place named Scharfrichterhaus (Headsman's house). One of the most appreciated awards for political cabaret in Germany, the Scharfrichterbeil (Headsman's Axe), is bestowed annually in Passau. Jazz concerts also take place there.

  • One of the best managed museums in Germany is situated in the former Count-Bishops' castle, the Oberhaus. There have been annual special exhibitions for some years:

    • Weißes Gold ((White Gold) (1997), featured the salt trade that made Passau wealthy and important.

    • Das Geheimnis der Bruderschaft(The Secret of the Brotherhood)(1998) featured the secrets and mysteries of the craftsmen's guilds.

    • Ritterburg und Fürstenschloss (Knight's Castle and Count's Palace) (1999) showcased the life and culture in a castle.

    • Apokalypse (2000) featured the End of Days, which was a very appropriate theme for a exhibition with all the Y2K-hype taking place at that time

    • Bayern - Ungarn - 1000 Jahre (Bavaria - Hungary - 1000 Years) (2001) highlights the close connections between Bavaria and Hungary.

  • One of the finest museums for modern art, the Museum Moderne Kunst, was founded in Passau in the 1990s. It features regular exhibitions from contemporary artists from around the world.

The University

Passau has a small but excellent university. It usually reaches top places at the rankings of German faculties of economics and law. Its outstanding feature is the close connection between languages and the specific studies. The students have significantly contributed to everyday life in Passau. In 2001 there were some 8,000 students enrolled, many of whom lived in Passau. This leads inevitably to the next point...


Students want to party. If they can't do so in their apartments, they have to go to pubs, bars, bistros, discos, you name it. So the growth of the university also caused a steady increase of places to hang out. These places come and go, but, over a longer period of time, the number increases.

If you want to hang out without needing a car, you might want to go to the Innstadt (the English translation 'Inn Town', is absolutely appropriate), the only part of the town that is situated on the right side of the river Inn. You'll find all kind of bars, pubs, bistros, etc. Want to hear loud music? Go there. Want to play pool or snooker? Go there. Want some Mexican food? Go there.

You'll find a large choice of ethnic food in Passau, from the local variety ('gutbürgerlich', which, as an example, might be the inevitable pork with kraut and dumpling) to Italian, Indian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Greek, Turkish cuisine.

The Breweries

It may seem hard to believe, but in Passau there are no less than five breweries:

  • Innstadtbrauerei is located in the aforementioned Innstadt.

  • Löwenbrauerei is right in the middle of the city. Incidentally, its beer has absolutely nothing in common with some of the brands that are sold with the same name in the US. If you don't believe it, try it out for yourselves

  • Peschlbräu is a small - by Bavarian standards - family brewery.

  • Hacklberg is the biggest one.

  • Andorfer only makes wheat beer. Their Weizenbock is really strong stuff.


This can be a problem. During the summer months, Passau can be really crowded. Many People who take river cruises on the Danube disembark at Passau, at times causing unbearable bus traffic havoc. However, if you are able to avoid these focal points, you'll find quiet alleyways, romantic places to sit down by one of the rivers, an intact and charming environment and all kinds of hiking paths. The town may not be extremely spectacular, but it's definitely worth a visit. A very special tip; the nature-sanctuary Halser Ilzschleifen (Hals Ilz Loops), where the Ilz has to make its characteristic double loop before it flows into the Danube, is absolutely stunning.

How to Get There

  • Plane - The nearest airports are in Munich (about 200km) and Linz, Austria (about 80km).

  • Car - The Autobahn A3 passes Passau and offers three exits.

  • Ship - The Danube, one of the main waterways in Europe, flows through the town.

  • Train - Passau has a train station, of course. Although there are no borders anymore (officially), it is still a kind of a border train station, where all the trains stop.

1This is the 'official' number, dating from December 31, 2000.

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