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April 2001

Simply Divine

Eichstätt — this is the town that the Catholics built

History has been rather hard on one of Eichstätt’s most beloved saints, St. Walburga. While she holds a deserved place in the Catholic Church’s pantheon of saints, she has achieved greater renown through her feast day, Walpurgisnacht (Walburga’s Night), which is celebrated as the pagan night of witches. Held in the Harz Mountains in northern Germany on the eve of May 1, the day on which the saint’s relics were taken to Eichstätt, the festival celebrates the approaching summer. St. Walburga was, however, an English missionary known for humility and charity, who came to Germany in the eighth century and eventually rose to the influential post of abbess. What the exact connection between poor St. Walburga and the heathen night of witches is, no one knows. One commentator has speculated that the link may be only the similarity of her name to Walborg, a pre-Christian fertility goddess. Then again, it may simply lie somewhere in the mystic realm of magic and miracles, for even today pilgrims come to pray at her graveside and collect the “oil” that seeps from the stone sarcophagus containing her relics. This oil is used during prayer for the sick and, it is said, countless numbers have been healed in body or spirit through her intercession.

St. Walburga is just one of many Catholic figures who belong to Eichstätt’s rich history. In fact, if you were to forget for a moment that Bavaria is a land characterized by staunch Catholicism, you’d be promptly reminded by a visit to this town, about 90 minutes’ drive north of Munich. Eichstätt contains an incredible number of churches for such a small town, the only Catholic University in the German-speaking world is based here and the various pilgrimage churches throughout the region still draw large numbers of the devout every year.

Located in northern Upper Bavaria, in the middle of the Altmühl Valley National Park and straddling the Altmühl River, Eichstätt is one stunningly beautiful spot on Germany’s map. Graced with predominantly Baroque architecture, it features whitewashed walls, cobbled marketplaces and the regular ringing of church bells. In all, it has the air of a well-scrubbed, well-loved rural town in which the residents take obvious pride.

Like many Bavarian towns, Eichstätt has its significant historical buildings: an attractive Schloss (palace), quaint onion-domed churches, an impressive Rathaus (town hall) with a fountain and an elegant Altes Stadttheater (old town theater). But Eichstätt also offers something special, something that exists nowhere else — the monumental fortress of the Willibaldsburg.

Dominating the horizon during the day, and illuminated at night, the imposing hilltop castle now houses the Jura Museum, a fascinating natural history collection that focuses on geology, particularly that of the southern Franconian Alb.

The area around Eichstätt is full of fossils embedded in limestone that date back to some 150 million years. The Jura collection features many examples that have been found in local quarries. These range from delicate crustacea and insects to huge fish, a four-meter-long crocodile and small pterosaurs. The most unusual exhibit is a specimen of the primitive bird Archaeopteryx. As these fossils reveal, the area around Eichstätt teemed with coral reefs and an amazing diversity of life forms in the Jurassic period. The aquarium hall in the collection provides a link between the fossils and living animals, with large tanks of coral, fish and crabs. Further themes explored in the exhibition include the geology of northern Bavaria, the Altmühl Valley landscape and the meteorite crater known as the “Nördlinger Ries.”

While the Willibaldsburg now serves as a museum, for much of its 1,200-year history, it was the heart of the episcopal see. And here we are back at religion. While evidence of human inhabitation in the area dates from 10,000 B.C., and both the Celts and the Romans have left their mark, present-day Eichstätt has been almost entirely shaped by the Catholic Church.

The first written record of the town dates back to A.D. 740, but its history really began when St. Willibald was ordained first bishop of Eichstätt the following year. Willibald, an Anglo-Saxon, was part of a wave of missionaries who came to Europe from England in the eighth century. He was responsible for the construction of the first cathedral in Eichstätt, establishing it as a Catholic stronghold.

Also joining this wave of missionary zeal were St. Wunebald, Willibald’s brother, and St. Walburga, his sister, who was a nun skilled in medicine. Wunebald became the first abbot of the double monastery of monks and nuns at Heidenheim. On his death in A.D. 761, St. Walburga was made abbess of the monastery. “She is quite a significant figure not only for what she achieved in her own life, but also for what she has become since then,” explains Louise Merritt, a Munich-based academic who has studied the development of the cult of Walburga. “She was one of the few examples of a woman achieving a position of importance at that period in history and the cult attached to her has survived throughout the Middle Ages. In fact, veneration of Walburga has spread throughout Europe — throughout the Alps, into Poland and northern Germany — and survived up until the modern era.”

St. Walburga died in A.D. 779. Sometime between 870 and 879, her remains were transferred to Eichstätt and entrusted to a community of Benedictine nuns. Almost immediately, her tomb became an important place of pilgrimage, especially when the aforementioned oil leaking from her tomb was first noticed. The “oil” has been explained by natural phenomena, from precipitation caused by the change of seasons. “But logic does not necessarily override devotion. And many people still believe strongly in the power of Walburga,” says Merritt. In 1035, St. Walburga Abbey was established on the site and monastic life has continued, with only intermittent interruptions, ever since. It is still possible to obtain a small bottle of “Walburga Öl” for a small donation. Testaments to its effectiveness are plastered all over the walls of the abbey’s small chapel.

Buildings stood on the site of the Willibaldsburg before Willibald arrived in Eichstätt, but the existing fortress, erected by Bishop Berthold von Zollern, and the buildings surrounding it date from 1353 to the 18th century. The impetus for the construction of the fortress was the dying out of a local line of lords, the counts of Hirschberg. When the last count died, in 1305, the family’s office and inheritance passed to the Church, and the prince-bishops of Eichstätt became the religious and worldly authorities in the region — which lasted until the see was secularized in 1802.

The bishops constructed the castle as a sign of their newly acquired power, as well as for protection. Although its impressive fortifications were continually modernized, the Willibaldsburg was far from impenetrable. While it resisted a siege by Count Ludwig of Bavaria-Landshut in 1460 and the Swedish in 1633, the castle was seized on a number of occasions in its history, notably by the French in 1796.

Much of Eichstätt was destroyed and looted during the Thirty Years’ War, when the town was conquered by Hessian and then by Swedish troops. Rebuilding took more than a century. The glittering, new Baroque capital was completed by such noted 18th-century architects as Jakob Engel, Gabriel de Gabrieli and Maurizio Pedetti.

There is far more to Eichstätt than simply the Willibaldsburg — though it is hard to escape its dominating presence. Sights to see include the Dom (cathedral), the Hofgarten (court garden) and the beautiful Lady Mary Chapel on Frauenberg Hill. The cathedral stands at the center of Eichstätt and incorporates numerous building styles, ranging from Romanesque to Gothic, Baroque to Rococo.

The Residenzplatz and Bischöfliches Palais (Bishop’s Palace) are also worth a look if only to see the manner in which the other half lived. All the diocese’s highest-ranking officers and officials, and the vicar general’s and canonical offices, were centered around the Residenzplatz, as was the prince-bishop’s residence. The buildings in this square, constructed between 1725 and 1736 by Gabriel de Gabrieli, constitute a unique architectural ensemble.

Eichstätt is the type of place where a walk through the streets can be just as rewarding as a visit to any museum or historical site. The marketplace, which is the town’s main square, provides one of many ideal photo opportunities. A large stone fountain stands in the middle of the triangular marketplace, featuring a statute of — you guessed it — St. Willibald. The nearby town hall dates from 1444, while most of the other medieval build-ings lining the square are graced with Baroque facades. Narrow passages and small shops evoke the Middle Ages. The Altstadtfest (street festival) in July and the Brauereifest (brewery festival) in August are only two among many festivals held in the town every year.

One way to see Eichstätt and the surrounding area is by bike. The Fahrrad-garage on Herzoggasse (08421/21 10) rents bikes for DM 13 a day. Get some exercise and see some of the famed Altmühl Valley National Park, with its lush meadows and forests full of wildlife — quite a lot of which ends up listed on local restaurant menus. The Information Center of the park, which is the largest in Germany, is located in the former Notre Dame monastery. It houses a permanent local history exhibition and a biotope garden.

One place that should feature prominently on any flora-lover’s list is the famed Hortus Eystettensis. In the 16th century, Prince-Bishop Johann Konrad von Gemmingen renovated the Willibaldsburg, creating a more modern, Renaissance palace. As part of these changes, he had a garden laid out on the ramparts that became known as the finest German garden of the day. The Hortus Eystettensis comprised eight separate areas and featured a remarkable variety of plants, including rare tulips, hyacinths, crown imperials, fruits, vegetables, herbs and succulents.

After the prince-bishop’s death in 1613, Nuremberg apothecary Basilius Besler published the Hortus Eystettensis, a “thorough and careful identification and lively illustration of all its plants, flowers, trees.” Even today, this work is widely acknowledged as one of the great treasures of botanical literature. Though the original garden was destroyed during the Thirty Years’ War, a section of the Hortus Eystettensis was painstakingly reconstructed and opened to the public in 1998. Known as the Bastionsgarten, it is open from Easter to mid-October.

The wider Altmühl Valley provides many leisure opportunities. The area abounds with bike and footpaths, as well as hiking and climbing opportunities. Five lakes for swimming, sailing, fishing and water sports have been created as the result of a huge hydro scheme. Around the biggest, the Grosser Bombachsee, is an 18-km bicycle track. The Altmühl provides some 160 kilometers of easily navigable waterways — great for canoeing. The slow-moving Altmühl River is ideal for leisurely one- or two-day trips — even for the completely inexperienced. Canadian canoes can be hired for DM 50 a day from Eva-Maria Glas in Industriestrasse 18 (08421/30 55) or from the Fahrradgarage, who will also arrange to pick you up from a particular location.

One great activity is fossil hunting, which is permitted in the Eichstätt-Blumenberg area in a quarry about 3 km west of the town. Admission is free, though it costs DM 2 to rent a hammer and chisel. Fossils found at the quarry can be kept and are relatively easy to find. Those who do not have any luck can purchase fossils at the Fossilenmuseum Bergér in Harthof, where free information is provided on any fossil you may find. The museum houses an impressive collection, which includes a fossil that shows a predatory fish devouring its prey.


>>> BY CAR: A9 toward Nürnberg, exit 58 Altmühltal/Eichstätt. Secondary road then leads to Ingolstadt-Nord. Take exit 61, then B13 to Eichstätt.

>>> BY TRAIN: Train service operates hourly and takes about 90 minutes.

Eichstätt Tourist Office
Tel. (08421) 988 00

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