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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 7: Regensburg and the Danube Gorge

There is talk of life after the ship. Yesterday we were given instructions by our tour leader about what will happen on when we disembark and are bussed to Prague: something about orange ribbons for this group and yellow ribbons for the other.... No doubt it will all become clear when the time comes. At breakfast guests are discussing the experience and comparing the Danube with other river cruises they have done. Our conversation partners think this ship is second to none, but have reservations about the river itself. They found their Rhine cruise more rewarding because, they say, there is more of interest to enjoy on the banks, and more traffic on the river itself than on the Danube. 'Those long boring stretches of forest - the Danube is a plain Jane among rivers compared to the Rhine' says one.

Meanwhile, the ship has sailed on through the night towards Regensburg. We are at the northernmost point on the Danube. We pass the huge folly called Valhalla, a copy of the Parthenon of Athens transplanted to the north shore of the Danube. I break away from breakfast to photograph it from a cold and rainy top deck. Its white marble gleams incongruously amid the lush dripping vegetation. But it creates a nice undulating reflection in the water which may prove worth getting damp for. 

This old imperial city escaped destruction in the war, so it has one of the best medieval town centres in Germany. We are moored downstream of the famous old bridge, but it's wreathed with scaffolding while repairs are carried out. So we won't get the famous view back from the bridge to the towers and spires of the city. I have worked out a circular walking tour (saves €18 on the official one) so we set off to begin at the Cathedral.

The Dom is an exquisite building. Its twin open work gothic spires are very German: echoes of Ulm, Cologne and Strasbourg. It is largely untouched by the Baroque embellishments you come to expect in Bavaria. In a crypt, Romanesque foundations and a couple of beautiful piers survive. The nave's noble proportions create a sense of peacefulness and harmony: you don't want to speak aloud in this holy environment. The medieval stained glass is outstanding. At the west end, in the centre of the nave, a huge bronze depicts a 19th century bishop kneeling in front of the crucifix, in itself perhaps a bit too rhetorical in taste, but effective in suggesting a sense of scale in this soaring gothic space. 

What moves us most is a small rough sculpture on the wall near the west door. It shows two women embracing, one very pregnant. The kiss on the lips is an audacious but endearing way of expressing the love of these two women, who must be the Blessed Virgin and her cousin Elizabeth at the Visitation. This naive but charming sculpture looks medieval to me, but who can tell? It is in the darkest corner of the building, so impossible to photograph without a tripod, though I try to steady the camera against the angle of a pier opposite. But a troupe of school children passes by, and I abandon the attempt. The memory will be enough.

Outside the Dom, a big stage is being erected. This is for the Katholischen Tag, a weekend of church-based activities inspired by the Berlin Kirchentag. We walk on into the heart of the Altstadt. By the Lutheran parish church we buy figs from a market stall. We visit another church, St Emmeram's, an abbey church at the core of a cluster of former monastic buildings that are now museums. This fascinating building has work of every age from early medieval to Baroque, including a beautiful Romanesque crypt. Then to the so-called 'Scottish Church', founded by Irish missionaries at the time of Columbanus. It has an amazing Romanesque North door, now glassed in to preserve it from erosion by wind and weather. 

It is a joy to roam the streets of the old city. As we reach the river again, we come across another medieval church dedicated to St Oswald. It is a pity that it's locked: we would love to know whether this is our Northumbrian Oswald or some other. A streetside Google search provides the answer and a lot more information besides. This is indeed our saint whose head lies interred with Cuthbert in the shrine at Durham Cathedral. It appears that alone among the North Saxon saints, he had a following in continental Europe in the Middle Ages. This is not principally because he instigated and promoted the Christian mission to Northumbria, but on account of his holy, chivalrous life which became an emblem of how a Christian knight should behave. In the brutalised era of the crusades, the memory of such a saint was evidently treasured. In Regensburg Cathedral, one of the medieval windows shows him feeding the poor in an episode related by Bede. 

The afternoon sees us on the coach for Kelheim. On the way we pass the house belonging to Pope Benedict XVI. As Joseph Ratzinger, he was a professor of theology at Regensburg. The coach slows to a pious crawl as our guide (an observant catholic) tells us reverently about it. It is now a museum devoted to his papacy. We walk through the undistinguished town and are regaled with the achievements of Bavarian King Ludwig I whose statue we pass. My memory of Bavarian history is sketchy, and I am prone to confuse this Ludwig with the mad Wagnerite of Neuschwanstein, a mistake our guide warns us severely not to make. 

This is the highest point at which the Danube is navigable by big ships like ours. So we board a smaller vessel to sail up the Danube Gorge. On the cliff top Ludwig I's monument to Bavarian freedom dominates. It commemorates the casting off of the yoke of Napoleon, but as one writer wittily observes, it resembles nothing so much as a carved gasometer. The river gorge is impressive, though we have to wrap up warmly as a fierce wind is blowing down it. The Danube is forced between high limestone cliffs in a narrow defile whose rapids, and bandits, made this a treacherous stretch of river for sailors bringing goods downstream to sell in the markets of Regensburg. A Franciscan hermitage is cut into the rock, a fitting place of prayer at a dangerous place. A small statue of the watery martyr St John Nepomuk stands alone on the rock face cutting a strangely comforting profile. Then the boat rounds a bend, the cliffs recede and we enjoy our first sight of the Weltenberg Monastery.

It is the oldest monastic site in Bavaria, founded like the Cathedral in Regensburg in the age of the Irish monks like Columbanus. These well-travelled men knew about the Egyptian desert monks and modelled their own religious practices on theirs. And while the Baroque buildings of Weltenberg are a world away from the desert hermits, the riverine site reminds me strongly of hermitages I have seen by the wadis of the Middle East. The rain starts to come down. Inside the courtyard, the scene is more like a bear garden than a monastery. A cafe under canvas is busy with large throngs of visitors. The place's claim to fame is that it brews its version of brown ale and has done this longer than any other monastic brewery. 

We head for the church. It takes a while for our eyes to adjust to the darkness. But then the extraordinary splendour of this building begins to be revealed. It is one of the best Baroque churches in Germany, created for the Benedictines by the Asam brothers who designed the more famous Asamkirche in Munich. One was a sculptor, the other a painter. The church is an ellipse with a small narthex at one end and the altar at the other. It is dedicated to St George whose colourful legend has fed to the full the imagination of the artists. This church is a perfect theatre, a drama of Ecclesia Triumphans, as we were reminded in a painting on the ceiling where we came in. But it's also a theatre of the soul, and in the exuberant profusion of sculpture and painting the message is the same: take religion to heart, listen, hear, obey, and let this foretaste of heaven inspire you to live in preparation for it. 

Our guide is good at explaining the complex symbolic world of this church but it needs longer than 20 minutes to do justice to it. The rain is unremitting. The group is despondent: it has forgotten what rain is like. We had expected to see more of the monastery than just the church, fine though it is. But apart from the museum and the shop, this appears to be the Weltenburg experience. Everyone heads for the tea tent. We joke with our guides about the English weather. I go back to the church.  Another English-speaking group has arrived so I listen to their guide and notice how good the acoustic in this building is. She starts with a joke that I can't believe I've never heard before. What Saint is always depicted with his mother in law? St George of course. But I have to think about it for a second.

I try to capture the marvellous trompe l'oeil effect the artists have created on the cupola above my head. Only it isn't a cupola at all: the ceiling is almost flat. One of the Asam brothers is shown leaning over the rim smiling down at us as from a distant balcony. It's pure magical realism. But it's likely that my snap-shot (which I won't dignify with the title of photograph - it's done in too much haste) will flatten out the curvature that has been so carefully contrived in this illusion. And that prompts the further question about this brilliant but seductive art. What is truth, and what is illusion? I want to say that Baroque tells lies for the truth's sake - like all art, of course, but there is something particularly blatant about the way Baroque does it. Romanesque and gothic seem more truthful, somehow, because their piers, arcades and vaults disclose their structural principles - and yet a great Romanesque space like Durham Cathedral still contrives to make itself look bigger than it really is. It's not just a question of the aesthetic. When we're talking about church architecture, it's fundamentally a matter of theology and spirituality. It would take a Von Balthazar to do it justice. But here is a note to self: research the theology of Baroque when you get home. Try to understand the principles on which St Paul's Cathedral is built, for there are illusions a plenty in that greatest of English Baroque churches. 

The ship is waiting for us at the entrance to the Rhine-Main-Donau canal. The original canal was an ambitious 19th century project deigned to allow cargo to be transported by water all the way from the North Sea to the Black Sea. But the narrow canal was unusable by the turn of the 20th century. The Nazis gave Europe her first motorways, and they also had ambitions to build a new canal across the watershed of Europe. It was only in the 1990s that the project was completed, a considerable engineering feat given the physical geography it had to traverse. So here is where we bid farewell to the Danube. The ship heads through the first lock less than a mile from the canal mouth. It's time for the farewell gala reception and dinner. The ship's crew are brought out one by one to be loudly applauded, and it is true that from bridge to galley, they have been outstanding. We say farewell to our fellow-passengers lucky enough to be cruising all the way to Amsterdam. Tomorrow we shall be back on dry land and head for Prague.

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