I grew up on a road that skirts the edge of the beautiful Susquehanna River in Upstate New York. Near my home, the Susquehanna is still a youthful, vibrant, quick-moving river. It isn’t nearly as large and silent as it becomes lower down, and it was this hurried sound of the river that lulled me to sleep each night as a child. An amble along a riverbank anywhere takes me home, if only for a moment. Fortunately for me, Europe is full of beautiful places to explore along the river banks.
The Danube River, the Donau if you’re in Germany, is the second longest river on the European Continent. Since moving to Germany, we’ve visited cities near and far along its banks, but one of my favorite places is one we’ve discovered since moving to Bavaria. Just outside the city of Regensburg is the Donaudurchbruch – the Danube Gorge. This area is not only one of the most picturesque places along the Danube River, it is the location of Kloster Weltenburg – the oldest monastic brewery in the world.
We’ve made the journey from Kelheim to Weltenburg, multiple times, by boat and by foot. No matter the mode of transportation you choose, you will find yourself surrounded by beautiful scenery and plenty of fellow travelers.
Our first visit was in the fall of last year. It was early October, and despite the grey sky and light rain, the red, yellow, and orange leaves of mid-autumn made for a beautiful day. On our first journey, we opted to take the river cruise. There are a limited number of ships authorized to run through the narrow Gorge, and over the course of the day they run continuously back and forth between Kelheim and Weltenburg. The ships have both indoor and outdoor seating, and offer a nice selection of food and beverages. My favorite item on the menu is the Bayerische Frühstück, a pair of Weißwurst (white sausage) served in hot water with a Bretzel (pretzel) and in this case an award-winning Kloster Weltenburg Barock Dunkle – a delicious dark beer brewed at Weltenburg.
At the appointed time, the ship departs the docking station in Kelheim and we begin the 40 minute cruise to the Kloster. Because you are going against the current, the trip to Weltenburg is almost twice as long the trip back. It provides you the perfect opportunity to enjoy the scenery. Along the way, the loudspeaker on the ship provides interesting facts about the river, the ships, the buildings and the stones in German and English. As you depart Kelheim you learn the story of the false steeple. Situated on the edge of town, two churches built side by side give the illusion of being a single church. The story has it that the monks of the larger church were forbidden to have a steeple, but they managed to figure out a loophole, incorporating the steeple from a pre-existing church into theirs by virtue of location. You will then pass the hermit’s cave and chapel, and once in the gorge, you will find rings still in the rocks, evidence of the earlier methods of transportation through the treacherous waters. The children enjoyed trying to find all of the rock formations as they described them on the loudspeaker, as well as trying to imagine how the pirates reached their cave and what the hermit did in his residence as we pass.
Our second trip through the gorge was on foot. It was a warm April day, spring came early this year, and the flowers and trees were already in full bloom. It was the perfect day to walk to lunch. We left Kelheim at 10 am giving us plenty of time to make the hike to Weltenburg. But as any parent knows, children wreak havoc on the best of plans, so despite the fact that it is a relatively short, easy hike from Kelheim to Kloster Weltenburg, it took us the better part of the day. We planned to be at the Kloster for lunch, but as mid-day approached we were nowhere near our destination. Instead we stopped for lunch at the small wursthaus and biergarten at the hermit’s cave and chapel along the banks of the river. While the children feasted on pommes and schnitzel (of course), we sampled the beer and saved our appetites for the Weltenburg Biergarten. After we finished our meal, we explored the chapel. The chapel’s outer façade resembles that of any other small church, but the interior is quite unique. The warm spring sun filtered into the gap where the edge of the rock wall and the front of the chapel nearly meet. The cave-like interior was fascinating, yet dark and cold. We also explored the outermost portions of the hermit’s cave, another dark, damp cavity in the rock wall. Although the location isn’t truly isolated, one can imagine the solitude of life here alone on the river bank. We finish up our wanderings and head out again along the trail. This little stop proved well worth it, fueling the children for the remainder of the hike. We continued along the banks of the river until we reached the Gorge. Here we turned away from the river, continuing uphill to enter the forest for the final segment of our journey.
These hiking trails, like majority of trails in Germany, are very clearly marked and easy to follow. The trail we followed was flat along the riverbank, but there was of course a moderate incline as it veered away from the river at the narrows. The trails are clearly popular. We met several fellow hikers and bikers along the way, enjoying the beauty and warmth of the forest in early spring. With the children well-fed, we were able to take our time through the forest trails. We stepped off the main path and followed the spurs on the trails to the scenic overlooks. The views above the river are stunning. Finally, our destination was within sight. We began a steep descent down a switch back trail to the road below. It didn’t seem heavily trafficked, and we continued to make our way cautiously down the hill. Finally we were once again along the river banks. This time we were on the opposite side of the river from the Kloster. In order to reach our destination, we needed to take the small wooden ferry-boat across the river. This small boat is a real treat, and brings to mind earlier days of transportation – if you allow your imagination to gloss over the small motor powering the ferryman’s boat.
Regardless of mode of transport, there is seemingly only one destination in mind. The Kloster. Hikers, bikers, and kayakers alike converge on the shores of the Danube at Kloster Weltenburg. The Kloster is both a working monastery and a brewery which has been in operation since 1050. Today, it is also the site of a wonderful biergarten.
The Kloster is worth a tour. The Church is beautiful, and a full history can be found here. During your exploration of the grounds, you are guaranteed to encounter a few of the resident monks. The Kloster is host to two gift shops, one for the biergarten and another for the church. There is a small visitors center, which is only worth visiting if you are fluent in German. They show a film of the beer brewing process, but it was difficult for me to follow, let alone translate for the non-German speakers with us. There are a few artifacts, but I didn’t find the visitors center worth the entrance fee. If you follow the path between the church and the visitor’s center, you’ll find yourself on the path leading to the frauenkappelle. The views up here are lovely and when the chapel is open it is worth peeking into. There are several more paths up here if you have time to explore them.
After all of the travel and sightseeing, we are usually at least little hungry. The last stop before our return trip is the Biergarten. Indoor and outdoor seating is available, and the Bavarian food is fantastic. Try one of the many beers they brew there, my favorite is the Barock Dunkel, which won the World Beer Gold Cup Award in 2004, 2008, and again in 2012.
There is a guesthouse on the premises run by the monks, if you are so inclined. More information and prices can be found here.
The Donaudurchbruch is a beautiful place to explore nature, sample the local cuisine and unwind on the banks of the beautiful Donau. We’ve been in the summer, autumn, and spring. It’s a perfect place to visit any time of year.
A schedule of the ships running from Kelheim can be found here. (The sight is in German, but if you click on the menu item for “Fahrplan herunterladen” it will bring up the ship schedule.)