Traveling Through Time: Down the Danube Narrows to Weltenburg Abbey

Weltenburg Abbey was more than four centuries old before the monks first began brewing ale—or at least ale worth noting–in 1050. Now vying for the title of the oldest monastic brewery in the world (Weihenstephan Abbey also claims the honor), they set their claim on maintaining the original brewing process. Like the beer, much is as it was remains at the Abbey, the somewhat plain exterior of the cathedral opens onto an elaborately ornate and gilded interior. Services are still held regularly, and monks still live and work on the premises. And just as abbeys were places for gatherings for a millennium and more, Weltenburg also remains a destination. Located 25 miles west of the charming Bavarian city of Regensburg, a UNESCO World Heritage City and just three miles from Kelheim, it is accessible by car. But I totally like immersing myself in history and my goal today is to replicate—as much as I can—the 1050 experience.

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Long Wall and St. Nepomuk

On the ferry from Kelheim, I watch as the boat’s wake cuts through waters reflecting the dark greens of dense woods and whites of limestone rocks of the Fränkische Alb mountains, some rising 300-feet high. Winds, water and time have carved caves and nooks in the limestone and in one of these crannies on an expansive stretch of stone called the Long Wall someone has tucked a statue of St. Nepomuk, the patron saint of water and bridges who was drowned when he refused to reveal the confessions made to him by the Queen of Bavaria. Her husband must have really wanted to know what she was up to.

The Danube Narrows

Today it will take 40 minutes to travel the Danube Narrows, an ancient waterway to and from Weltenburg Abbey or if you want to be really German about it, Weltenburger Klosterbrauerei, a sprawling complex of Baroque stone buildings surrounded by the lush rural beauty of Southern Bavaria.

There are times when the river is a lively place with small boats passing by and bicyclists and hikers making their way along the riverbank. Then suddenly, navigating a bend, it’s all calm waters and quiet.  I imagine this is how it was when pilgrims and tradesmen (and hopefully tradeswomen as well) came to the abbey to retreat from the world, rest or conduct business. It was a time when travel was mainly by water as roads barely existed and their trip would have taken much longer without our gas powered engines. But the sight they saw when making the final curve is much the same as today—Weltenburg’s blue tower roof and the washed pink walls.

Weltenburger Klosterbrauerei

The abbey sits on a bend of the river and in front is a small sandy beach and shallow waters where people play. It’s hot today—a heat wave is moving across Europe—and I envy them as the water looks cool and refreshing. But history calls and instead I move up the walk leading from the dock to the entrance already awed by the size and beauty of the place.

There are always hard choices and today I need to decide whether to tour first (there are self-guided and guided tours available) or take a seat in the sun at the biergarten, It appears that most people have chosen the latter and rather than wait for a table or sit inside the restaurant, I enter the church.

St. Georg Church

We’re talking seriously rococo inside, an overdrive of theatrical flourishes mixed with more Gothic elements. Paintings date back to the 1300s, a statue of the church’s namesake St. George or St. Georg as its spelled here, sculpted in smooth, sleek marble, rides his horse most likely on his way to slay the dragon. The main room, its ceiling 65-feet high, has alcoves off to the sides, each one just as ornate. It’s hard to take in everything at once, the artistry, pageantry and craftsmanship are so amazing.  Standing near a group tour, I hear phrases like “eight ionic columns, Weltenburg marble and gold fresco” and hurriedly write the words down as it helps sort out this wonderment of riches.

Bavarian Fare

Back outside, I spot an empty table and grab it. Addicted to German fare (yes, really), I order pigs’ knuckle known as schweinshaxe, schnitzel and even though I’m in Bavarian and not the Black Forest (hey, it’s nearby) the famous cake from that region. Of course, I need a glass of their Kloster Barock Dunkel—an almost black in color ale which is still made on site in a rock cave and then sent by pipeline to the monastery taps. Also available—to drink or take home, there is a gift store of course–are other brews and such medicinal spirits as their Weltenburg monastery bitters and liqueurs. And if you want to go full abbey, there’s their klosterkas and monastery sausage both based on ancient Weltenburg recipes.

Maybe I shouldn’t have eaten that last schnitzel and definitely not the cake. To assuage my conscience, I climb the mountain path as it winds past the Stations of the Cross. It’s steep but the gaps in the woods offer commanding views of the valley, abbey and gorge below. I briefly contemplate spending the night at the St. Georg Guest House to be able to walk the abbey grounds late at night when all the visitors are gone but I don’t have a reservation. Next time for sure.

The Oldest Wheat Beer Brewery in Bavaria

          Returning to Kelheim isn’t exactly like entering the 21st century. In the old town I wander the narrow streets snapping photos of perfectly maintained Medieval-era buildings just a short walk from the docks and on the way to where I parked my car, I let my friends talk me into stopping at Weisses Bauhaus Kelheim.

It’s a beautiful place, all wood, vaulted ceilings and archways leading from room to room. Outside we sit in, yes another beer garden, this one next to a small stream, and order a round of their wheat beer. Really, I had to since they’ve been brewing beer here since 1607, making the Weisses Brauhaus the oldest wheat beer brewery in Bavaria.

 

I’m not typically a beer lover but both the Kloster Barock Dunkel at the abbey and the TAP7 here, made from the original 1872 recipe, are robust and flavorful without bitterness or an overly hoppy taste. I’m driving so instead of more beer, I listen to the live music, enjoy the myriad of colorful blooms cascading from window boxes, baskets and containers and contemplate how I’ve spent the day moving through history and only now have reached the 17th century.

Silver & Tequila in the Sierra Madres: The Tale of San Sebastian de Oeste

High in the Sierra Madres, we follow the twisting road from Puerto Vallarta and the seaside on our way to San Sebastian de Oeste. Crossing the long spanned bridge over Rio Ameca, the road curves around a ridge and into the tiny village of La Estancia and Hacienda San Sebastián, a family owned raicilla and tequila distillery (for raicilla think tequila only much stronger and likely of inducing hallucinations in anyone who drinks too much).San Sebastian street

Founded in the 1930s and still family owned, their vast agave fields – called green plantations — can be seen on the surrounding hillsides. Besides making organic and flavored tequilas such as Licore de Café with its hints of coffee, chocolate and vanilla as well as almond tequila made from nuts grown in Durango and roasted here, the family also makes agave sugar and syrup, all without electricity. The peñas or agave hearts roast over an open fire as they were centuries ago and what power there is comes from solar panels.San Sebastian Comedor Lupita exterior

Sampling and then stocking up on organic tequila we continue on, taking a turn on a dirt road where cows, unconfined by fencing, have to be shooed out of the way, to San Sebastian. Here we stop at La Quinta Café de Altura, an organic coffee farm owned by Rafael Sanchez, his wife Rosa and Lola, Rafael’s sister. Five generations of the family have grown coffee here.

The family, in a building dating back more than 120 years, tend 11 acres of coffee trees, some as old as the house, handpick 30 tons of beans each year, dry, roast and grind them, making blends such as a mixture of ground beans with cinnamon and sugar for the traditional, and now often hard to find, Mexican coffee. Tastings are available and so are Rosa’s homemade candies such as guava rolls and sweets made from sweet goat’s milk. In an interesting aside, we learn that the Sanchez’s parents married early (the Don was 15), a 68-year union that produced 21 children. Their grandfather did even better, having 28 children, though that took both a wife and several mistresses.jalisco_destinos-principales_san-sebastian-del-oeste_int

Settled in 1605, San Sebastian was nominated as a World Heritage site by UNESCO. Lovely in its vintage charm, the surrounding pine covered mountains were bonanzas of silver and gold. Aristocratic families from Spain made the perilous travel across the sea and then land to oversee the mining of these treasures. Once here, deigning not to marry locals, they married each other. It made for interesting relationships, uncles were also cousins, sisters also grandchildren or whatever.

We hear the tales when we stop at the museum, housed in the 200-year-old Hotel Jalisco. It’s a very crowded museum–more like a fascinating  attic full of family heirloom items and the curator is a direct descendent of the founding families.In the museum, we see trunks inlaid with silver, 19th century lace gowns and jewelry boxes, china and silver that came from Spain.SS raicilla

It’s a story of glory and loss–at one time San Sebastian des Oeste had a population of 40,000; now there are about 600 and the occasional tourists. Silver was transported by horses and mules through treacherous mountain passes, robbers waited in wait. Pancho Villa and his men showed up regularly stripping away the wealth.

There were interesting family traditions. When a family member died, before they were buried (and remember it’s very hot here), a photographer had to be sent for from Puerto Vallarta to take a photo of the deceased. It could take days, but that’s how it was done.San Sebastian Cafe La Quinta Mary

Walking along the cobblestone road, past a massive 300 year plus ash tree and cascading white frizzes of el manto de la virgin, we enter Comedor Lupita. Here terra cotta platters loaded with chicken mole, fresh handmade tortillas (in America they’d be called artisan tortillas), refried beans and something I’ve never tasted before – machaca, a dish of dried beef mixed with spices and eggs, are heaped in front of us. As we eat, we watch the family busy behind the tiled counter, making even more food.

Through the windows we see splashes of bright purple from the masses of bougainvillea that drape the stone exterior walls and here the sounds of caballeros, their horses’ hooves striking the centuries old street. We sip our sweet agua de Jamaica water and feel time passing in reverse.

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Machaca Marinade:

1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce
Juice of 4 limes
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tablespoon cumin
1 tablespoon chili powder
1/2 tablespoon salt
1/2 tablespoon black pepper
1/2 cup olive oil

Machaca:

2 lbs. skirt steak, cut into strips
1 large sweet onion, diced
1 green bell pepper, chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 jalapeno pepper, chopped
1 14 ounce can diced tomatoes with green chilies
1/2 cup beef broth
1 tablespoon oregano
1 tablespoon cumin
1 tablespoon hot pepper sauce (Tabasco or a Mexican brand, such a Valencia)
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons oil

Whisk all the marinade ingredients together, and then add the skirt steak. Marinate at least 6 hours or overnight tablespoon Remove meat from marinade, drain, and pat dry. Bring to room temperature. Discard marinade.
In a large heavy pot, heat oil. Sear the meat well on both sides, in batches so as not to crowd them. Remove the meat as it is browned and set aside.

Drain fat. Add in the onion, peppers, and garlic, cook until tender, then add tomatoes, broth, pepper sauce and spices. Bring to a boil, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pot. Return beef and simmer, covered, for two hours, stirring from time to time until tender. Cool and shred.

Lay meat on a single layer on a baking sheet. Bake at 250º for 20 minutes or until meat is dry.

Machaca con Huevos

2 chopped scallions (white part only)
1 hot green chili
2 tomatoes
1 cup dried machaca
2 eggs
Chopped cilantro

Sauté scallions and peppers in oil until tender, add tomatoes and beef until heated. Remove from pan, add eggs and cumin. Scramble, then stir machata mixture. Garnish with cilantro and serve with hot tortillas.

Search: San Sebastian de Oeste, Hacienda San Sebastián, agave fields
Keywords: San Sebastian de Oeste, Hacienda San Sebastian, agave fields, organic and flavored tequilas

Description: In San Sebastian de Oeste, near Puerto Vallarta is Hacienda San Sebastian where you can taste the organic and flavored tequilas such as Licore de Café with its hints of coffee, chocolate and vanilla as well as almond tequila.