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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Saturday, 31 May 2014

A Danube Journey Day 6: Germany and Passau

There is a lot of noise in the night, accompanied by lurid sodium lights behind the cabin curtains. This is due to the locks we have passed through, and to the industrial environment of Linz. It's a poetic name for a city, with the added lustre of having a Mozart symphony named after it, but the literature does not linger here and neither do we. No one seems to have slept well, so insomnia is a conversation topic at breakfast. There is smoked salmon to enjoy with our scrambled eggs, also much commented upon.  We lament the weight we must be putting on. 

The morning finds us gliding through a steeply wooded gorge. The river is narrower here, and not so energetic. It is not unlike the Durham river gorge, except for the profusion of evergreens and the houses with their large Alpine-style overhanging roofs. Onion dome spires slip into view, and gently out again. At the lock at Jochenstein, we notice a little shrine to the Virgin Mary perched on a rock at the end of a jetty. It's a reminder of the deep-rooted Catholicism of Austria and Southern Germany. The Rhine myth of the Lorelei singing from their rock to lure ships to destruction is told here too. In earlier times, there would have been dangerous rapids at these places, and boatmen would offer devout prayers to the Blessed Virgin for protection as they hurtled downstream on white water. At another lock there is a chapel where votive masses were once said for the same purpose. 

This stretch of the river marks the border between Germany and Austria. This was never a linguistic or cultural frontier, but across the Danube two world empires once faced each other: Prussia and Austria-Hungary. Today as we glide gently between two European nations, we learn of the EU election results across the continent. It is alarming that nationalist parties have made big gains almost everywhere, especially in our beloved France, seduced by the Front National into  blushing deep blue. In North East England, the region has returned two Labour members and one UKIP: not as good as I'd hoped, not as bad as I'd feared. 

On board ship, few seem to be much troubled by this news, even if they have heard it, though we talk to another couple from the North who share our dismay. The ship sails dreamily westwards. There is talk of playing quoits on deck, though we see no evidence that it happens. Novels are read, card-games played, snapshots taken, and in the library, jigsaws are worked on. Some speculate about Passau and what it will have to offer. But underneath the river's tranquil surface are powerful currents and dangerous shoals. All along its length the Danube calls for good navigational skills if ships are to avoid disaster. It's a grim metaphor of how Europe seems to be at the moment, just like it was a century ago and again in the 1930s. Someone tweets that in this Great War centenary year, it is a bleak irony that we are not remembering why the League of Nations was born. Here on the Danube, this river that has both divided and joined together continental Europe at different times, even the most superficial sense of history must make you wonder about the Eurosceptic amnesia that is overtaking the continent, and what the cost may turn out to be. How the peace-seeking founding fathers of the European project would lament this drift away from their noble vision. 

We leave chocolate-box Austria as we pass under a railway bridge by a grimy industrial town. This marks the point at which the Danube becomes a wholly German river. Germany is its birthplace, and it is German speaking culture that defines so much of its character. Along the bank runs a road called the Nibelungenstrasse, a reminder of 'holy German art'. It was news to me that the origins of the Nibelung sagas belong mostly not to the Rhine but to the Danube. It was Wagner, one of the 19th century's great myth makers, who transferred the legends northwards, perhaps because even he could not envisage Danube-Maidens singing rapturously about Donau-gold. It would have been nice if the ship had played excerpts from The Ring to give cultural depth to this Danube journey. Instead, we are treated to songs from the 50s and 60s which someone must think suits the age-group of the cruise. 

Some don't like their Danube trip sullied by industry and commerce along its banks. To me, it not only contributes variety and adds to the photographic possibilities: it also prevents the cruise from being simply a voyage through a theme park. Stretches of the river like the Wachau and the Danube Bend are (cliché alert) breathtakingly beautiful, but this great watery highway across Europe is so much more than that. It's important for the integrity of travel, any travel, to try to see it in its wholeness. Durham Cathedral is magnificent on its own, but it is all the better for being understood against its wider background of the industrial North East, the pit villages and their mining traditions. As a bishop said to me in my first year in Durham, attend the Miners' Gala service and understand what the Cathedral is really about. 

No sooner are we in Germany than the ship rounds a bend and Passau comes into view. Here is another city that needs to be approached by water to get a sense of its historic importance as well as its incomparable setting. It stands at the confluence of three rivers, the Danube, the Inn and the Ilz. From a distance, it sits above the water like an improbable vision of towers and onion-domed spires, a heavenly Jerusalem surrounded by the rivers of Eden (well, three of them), the waters of life. The old city with its cathedral is built on a peninsula, like Durham. Also like Durham, its bishopric had palatinate powers, and in a final Durham correspondence, the bishop lived in a grand castle, the Veste Oberhaus that stands guard over the Danube-Inn confluence. Our ship parks directly below this striking bastion. Once off the gangplank and we are on to the cobbles of the medieval city's streets.

Passau is full of good things, but the Cathedral outshines them all. Like Melk, it is exuberantly Baroque, but there is a lightness and restraint at Passau that allows the outstanding spatial awareness of the Baroque style to be seen to full effect. Baroque is often supposed to be a decayed Renaissance style in which the understanding of space and the way different volumes interact with one another has been sacrificed to a busy profusion of detail which, however fine in itself, has compromised the unity and integrity of the architecture. I don't see it that way. To me, Baroque is a theatre of illusion, an intelligent and subtle manipulation of space to exalt its dramatic qualities.  Scale and perspective are everything: a great Baroque church should beckon to the imagination and invite the worshipper to give it full reign. No wonder the Jesuits fell for it in such a big way (perhaps our young guide at Melk didn't quite appreciate this when he jokingly said he would rather be a Jesuit than a Benedictine). Perhaps it's more surprising that the Benedictines in Southern catholic lands fell in love with Baroque as well. But apart perhaps from Ottobeuren and the incomparable Asamkirche in Munich, I have never seen it done so well as here. 

One detail touches me. At an altar to St Joseph we see a 17th century painting. It's of no great merit, but its subject matter is unusual. It shows St Joseph and the Holy Child in a loving embrace. No doubt it was commissioned for this altar. My book Lost Sons was about fathers and sons in the Bible and this painting might have made an ideal cover for it. I try to remember whether I've ever seen Joseph and Jesus as the centrepiece of an old master before. Nothing comes to mind. 

Back to Baroque. It doesn't please everyone. I overhear another visitor say, pointing to the marvellous pulpit festooned with gilded angels and saints, 'I know what I would do with all that gold, and it wouldn't be building temples like this'. Another visitor from a different ship asks if we speak English, and can we please explain why that man is carrying a scallop shell. So we talk about St James and the pilgrimage to Santiago. Then he starts comparing Passau with Melk. 'An obscene and tasteless waste of money' he says, and makes a gesture. I protest that Baroque is playful and celebratory but he is not having it. 'To blow all that cash in that way - it's like a spoiled child with a paintbox who's emptied all the contents at once without caring'. Out of my hearing, though still in Jenny's, he likens it to a brothel. I ponder for a bit. I've learned that this sort of dismissive comment, however crudely put, does sometimes hold a kernel of truth - our young guide at Melk was perhaps saying something similar, if a bit off-message. I sometimes say at Durham that if we claim to follow the humble Carpenter of Nazareth, we should not have too easy a conscience about our great cathedrals. 

We walk through the medieval city. The Pfarrkirche of St Paul is fine too, more lightly Baroque, with elegant ebony woodwork against which the profiles and colours of the sculptures stand out to brilliant effect. There is a modern side-chapel for silent prayer, a womb-like cave with stylish light-oak seats that are among the most comfortable we have sat in, and much better for prayer and meditation than most church pews. In front of the Rathaus whose ornate tower presides over the waterside, children are playing.   Visitors are photographing something on the wall. It is another hydrometer, showing the levels to which the river has flooded in recent centuries. Last year, 2013, it rose to an extraordinary 4 metres above ground, nearer 6 or 8 above normal. This has only been exceeded once in recorded history, in 1801. But no doubt he inhabitants of Passau are learning that with climate change, it is bound to happen again. Soon, probably. 

I reckon I have time to climb up to the Veste Oberhaus on the opposite bank for the view. The rush hour traffic swirls relentlessly round the end of the suspension road bridge where I have to cross. I head up the steep steps noting a plaque paying tribute to Prince Ludwig. Near the top, there is a lightning flash. The sky to the east is ominously black. I take a few photographs of the old city below, don a lurid purple waterproof to cover my camera, and head back down in haste. It will not be long before the ship will set sail. Gin and tonic awaits.

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