Someone once mentioned in passing that a somewhere in Bavaria was the largest horseback procession in Europe. They didn’t mention much more than that, but my curiosity was immediately piqued. At the time we lived quite a distance from Bavaria, so I tucked the information away and forgot about it. Until this year.
Bad Kötzting is a quaint small town in the Bavarian Forest, not far from the Czech border. Every year, one tradition sets it apart from other quaint towns nearby. Each Whit Monday it is the start point of an annual pilgrimage, on horseback. A journey that was first taken in 1412.
Legend has it that the local priest was unable to make a journey to provide last rights to a dying parishioner. The seven kilometer journey through the countryside was not safe to make alone. The priest could only make the journey when several parishioners decided joined him, thus ensuring his safe arrival. From this, an annual tradition was born, growing into what is today the largest procession on horseback in Europe.
Each year, the town is transformed into a horse-lover’s paradise, culminating with the Pfingstritt where between 800 and 950 men on horseback make the Whit Monday pilgrimage through the countryside to the town of Steinbühl.
Over the years, the ride has transformed growing into what is today a week-long festival.
The heart of the festival remains the Pfingstmonntag procession. Thousands of spectators line the pilgrimage route, which commences in the square in front of the Catholic Church. The parade through town is led by the drum corps of the fire department, followed by the town’s band.
The procession is led by a rider carrying a large wooden cross, followed by members of the church, including the altar boys and clergy members. This year, Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Mueller again led the procession. According to a brochure, he first led the procession in 2004 as a bishop. This was the first time a bishop participated in the ride. That same year, he issued a directive allowing the Holy Eucharist to accompany the pilgrims on their journey, which had been forbidden since 1869.
Following the members of the church are the men on horseback (and only men, women are not allowed to participate in the Pfingstritt). Standing there watching the procession I noticed a few things.
Many of the horses were adorned with rosettes in their manes and tails. They were perfectly groomed and the riders were dressed in a variety of Trachten. The horses looked fantastic, and enormous. Most, but not all, of the horses in the procession are draft horses with hindquarters that towered over me. Many of them were breeds I had never seen before.
Once I recovered from the size and numbers of the horses involved, I began to notice that as the men rode past, they were engrossed in prayer. Rising above the whinnies and the clatter of hundreds of hooves along the cobblestone streets was the low chant of a repeated prayer. In the background the bells of the church continued to toll as the procession wound through the streets of town. (It wasn’t until we returned from the procession that I would learn which prayer they were repeating. It was the rosary, which they repeated through the entire procession. My son was the one who made the connection, when he pointed the prayer out to me in his school religion notebook.)
It took an hour for the entire procession to pass us, and with few exceptions, the horses were incredibly well-mannered and remained largely unaffected by the enormous crowds. The parade is not the only event on Pfingstmonntag, but that was all we made plans to attend and we headed home shortly after the parade ended.
We stayed about 10 minutes outside of Bad Kötzting in Grafenwiesen at the Jagdhotel Christopherhof. The room was small, but clean, and the view was lovely. It was a relatively inexpensive hotel, with ample parking and a full breakfast buffet. This is one of the few places I’ve stayed that does not have rolladen (heavy rolling shades), so at this time of year, the rooms were very light in the evening and early in the morning.
In recent years, a Volksfest has become a part of the Pfingsten celebration, and as we passed the Volksfest on the way to our hotel, the children decided they’d like return for dinner. The fest was small, but offered a generous assortment of foods, rides and midway games. It was also the setting of one of the biggest beer hall tents I’ve seen. We ate a little and explored the fest, finding ourselves wishing we’d brought our Dirndls and Lederhosen!
Overall, it was worth the trip and I would recommend it to anyone looking for a unique experience. Some of the other events include a horse market, several concerts, a Pfingstl-Spiel (a Pentecost play), a torch parade through the town, a horse show, several Masses, and a Pfingsthochzeit (A symbolic wedding and reception lasting two days).