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Germany's 'City on Three Rivers' is in one of the most beautiful locations on the waterways of Europe



For a while the sheer power of the organ held my attention but as the sombre religious music droned on my mind and eyes begin to wander. A gaggle of unlikely statues perch on narrow ledges among the plaster leaves and flowers that adorn the vaulted ceiling high above my uncomfortable pew - a bare-breasted young woman clutching a flowering twig, a bearded old man patiently holding up a portion of the roof and a tall-hatted bishop sharing his perch with a comely young angel. Each, seemingly oblivious to the laws of gravity, gaze into the void with the benign unearthly expression of those who have found salvation and are lost in private communion with some higher being. I marvel at how the chubby infants are able to sustain flight with such tiny wings sprouting from their plump naked bodies. The sculptor that fashioned them in 1668 could be forgiven for having no knowledge of aerodynamics but I wondered how he imagined the flowing drapery stayed discretely in place where one would expect to see a diaper. The child in the pew in front of me begins to squirm. His mother shushes him and my mind returns from the ceiling to the numbness of my bum.

With 17,774 pipes and 233 registers the organ in St. Stephan's Cathedral is among the largest in the world and no visit to Passau would be complete without attending one of its recitals. Even if very loud religious music is not your listening preference a visit to St. Stephan's is a worthwhile experience.

Unlike so many of Europe's baroque churches where traditional stained glass filters out most of the light, the interior of St. Stephan's lofty chancel is bright with sunlight streaming through its modern windows and illuminating the statues and paintings that adorn its elaborately decorated walls and ceiling. But it's hard to ignore the organ. Somewhere in the recesses of the church the organist pulls out all the stops and launches into a thunderous finale. The child in the pew in front of me covers his ears and starts to cry. As the rumbling base pipes send reverberations through the church I find myself looking back at the ceiling and wondering how many more decibels it will take to dislodge the plaster angels from their precarious perches.

And then it is over. In the silence that follows people sit numbly in their pews for several seconds before gathering themselves up and streaming out into the narrow streets of the city.

The drone of the organ was still reverberating in my head as I left the church and set out to explore the city. It was a treat to stretch my legs and work out the kinks inflicted on my body by the unyielding oak pew. Having done my penance for the day I set out along Fritz-Schaffer Promenade and followed the river out to the narrow point of land where the Danube and Inn meet. The walkway alternately hugs the bank of the Danube and swings through stretches of woodland before entering the public park at "Conjunction Point" where a lookout provides a view of all three rivers. The "Blue Danube" long ago ceased to be blue and its water here in Passau is a muddy brown. The much smaller Inz is almost black from the peat in its headwaters, and the water of the mighty Inn is yellow with clay. For as far downstream as I can see the three colours can be distinguished as the river slips south into Austria.