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.
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.
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.
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.