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A Pilgrimage in Bavaria: Regensburg Diözesanfußwallfahrt to Altötting

Regensburg Diözesanfußwallfahrt to Altötting

Regensburg Diözesanfußwallfahrt to Altötting – Bavarian Pilgrimage

As usual, I have no idea what I’m getting myself into. With information only available in German, I’m leaning on faith.

My host, Ihsan, so kindly makes me a map and walks me to the city bus stop at 6 AM, setting me on my way with a hug and a kiss and above-and-beyond kindness.

Let the Games Begin

With crystal-clear instructions and by following pilgrim-looking people, I arrive at the church at 7 AM. Looking around the crowd, I see no professor, so I munch on free sandwiches and coffee provided by pious old women in pink. There is a celebratory feeling in the air.

Nun Terror

I immediately see nuns.  I have nun-phobia, which is similar to clown-phobia in that it’s so wrong.  A nun, like a clown, should only inspire warm, happy feelings and yet when one has had a bad experience with a clown, or in my case a nun, a terrible torsion of confusing brain signals causes the lizard part of my brain to believe a hawk is overhead. Is this my first test on the pilgrimage? Well guess what?  I will not run, nun!  But I will walk the other way, thanks.

We Meet Again

A tap on the shoulder spins me in the direction of the professor and the students. And the surreal begins. Big hugs all around. How did I get here, again?  I’m in Germany?

And thus begins one of the more unusual experiences I’ve had; walking 75 kilometers through Bavaria with 8000 devout Catholics.  I don’t do this everyday.

My closest company includes:

  • One male Catholic German professor,
  • One male assistant to the professor, a non-Catholic, born and bred in the country of Georgia,
  • One male Catholic German surgeon born 100 kilometers from my grandmother’s birthplace in East Germany,
  • One male, young, German, non-Catholic student with a Japanese father and a British mother,
  • One male young American (NYC in the house!) non-Catholic student studying in Germany,
  • One male Bavarian Catholic born and raised on a farm.

And then there is me: One female, non-Catholic, American nomad. The makings for a great sitcom.

As we leave the city of Regensburg, I have no idea that for three days we will be staying in tight procession listening to amplified sermons, songs, and prayers blasting from speakers carried by devoted, stoic young men.  Not understanding German, for me this is merely aggravating noise.

Exhibit A:

Uh-oh

About five hours into the journey I feel that maybe I’ve made a horrible mistake. Again. Was this another Nepal?  Should I have researched more?

The highly-regimented and organized nature of this pilgrimage, with everyone walking at the same pace, with no breaks for hours, the constant bone-bruising pavement, and the “noise”, frankly made me want to stab my eyes out.

The contrast between the only other pilgrimage I knew, the quiet, contemplative solitude of the Camino de Santiago, and this, could not have been greater.

But, given that I was in the Middle-of-Nowhere, Bavaria, there was no turning back.

“Accept it and walk”, I said to myself.  And so I did.

The Beauty of Bavaria

Wheat fields of Bavaria

Wheat fields of Bavaria

The countryside is shockingly beautiful with the super-saturated green color of ripe wheat fields and tidy rows of romaine lettuce.

Little children wave and wait by the side of the road for the candy that pilgrims throw at their feet.  Old people in wheelchairs, handmade knit blankets covering their withered legs, wait with their caretakers to observe the procession. Certainly, 8000 pilgrims walking through town is the most exciting thing to happen all year.

I’m amazed at the absolute tidiness of the homes and gardens that we pass. Every flower in it’s place, not a speck of garbage to be seen, each fencepost painted carefully – it’s like a fairyland.  It seems to me impossible that this world, and that of a Kathmandu or Phnom Penh exists on the same planet.  The human experience is so varied.

After 38 kilometers (23.5 miles) and enough cursing to send me to hell forever, we arrive at our destination and take a bus to another town, drinking beer all the way. The pain-numbing effect of the beer is excellent and I want more. That will soon be no problem.

Our hosts for the night welcome us with beer and food (pretzels!!!). The man of the house, Wolfgang, has worked at the local BMW factory for 35 years.  The factory employs 20,000 people.  Wolfgang is set, with a beautiful wife and daughter, a job he likes, a fat pension and lovely home. And he knows it. Big and fat and happy. I wonder what it’s like to be him. In any case, he and his wife couldn’t have been more hospitable.

While the stereo plays “Amanda” by Boston, we sit down to a meal of potato salad, pasta salad, pretzels, and Leberkäse (translated Liver cheese) which comedically is not liver, nor cheese. Germans! My vegetarianism, while an almost nonexistent phenomenon in Bavaria, is accepted politely. The beer continues to flow, then schnapps, and soon we are a yawning. blistered bunch and beds are calling.

Day Two

Bavarian pilgrimage.

Bavarian pilgrimage.

Thankfully, someone merciful turned down the volume of the speakers and the amplified sound of the rosary does not make me want to commit a grave sin. Still, as we walk through the morning hours, the speaking is incessant. Fortunately, I can now tune it out because every brain cell is preoccupied with the searing pain emanating from my feet. Blisters have sprouted like alfalfa seeds in a wet dish. Each step is a penance that a good Catholic would likely embrace.

It’s not that I’m not religious.  I do pray:

“Dear God, please make these people take a break.”

“Dear God, please send me a beer.”

“Dear God, please deliver me to a pretzel.”

I am in the rhythm now. Having accepted the nature of this pilgrimage as different than what I imagined, I focus my attention on the positive. We are all united by pain. Nothing is as bonding as shared suffering and it feels to me that we are a closer group – all 8000 of us.

We continue winding through small villages where farmers and locals wave. Strawberries, just coming into season, burst with ripeness and their sweet fragrance is carried on sunbeams for miles.

A Miraculous Vision

Helmut and the life-saving beer.

Helmut and the life-saving beer from the vantage point of a nearly-dead person on the grass.

Finally, we stop for lunch in a town where the local women bake cakes for the pilgrims.  Seeing all those oozy, gooey, creamy delights is a religious experience; a cake paradise if you will. I get a slice of strawberry cake which sends my taste buds into a dance of ecstasy.

The last ten kilometers (of the thirty-something for the day), I fear I might die. The sun is roasting my skull like a New York City chestnut and relief comes only with the occasional breeze. My feet are on fire. No. Worse than fire. Magma feet.

Thankfulness

Dropping to the cool wet lawn at our destination induces a thankfulness that one rarely experiences – except perhaps when averting a shark attack or having the parachute open in the final second. Helmut, the Bavarian man, delivers ice-cold ceramic steins full of the best beer I have ever tasted. The Lord provideth! Or Helmut did. Your choice. 

Soon, I am told that it’s just three more kilometers to walk to Helmut’s family farm, a bucolic wonderland surrounded by wheat fields. Walking there, I talk with one of the students about the concepts of guilt and shame. We both agree, we need less of each, thanks.

Helmut’s farm is stunning. What must life be like living here?  The sky is crystal clear and in the distance we see the Alps, about 100 kilometers away.  Wheat fields, heavy with their harvest, bend and sway. The garden bursts with peonies and roses and raised beds of lettuce.

Inside, Helmut’s mother welcomes us. About four feet tall, she is clearly a woman of strength and has been working tirelessly preparing her home for pilgrims as she does every year.

mmm Strawberry cake.

Mmmmm…strawberry cake.

She cooks in a wood-fired oven, laboriously preparing the pig for the evening’s meal. But before the meal, we have beer, and coffee, cake, and more cake.  Thank you Jesus!

More pilgrims arrive, old friends of the professor, and in no time we are a laughing, jovial group with aching full stomachs and blood liberally diluted with alcohol.

The Final Push to Altötting

The truly devout wake at 1 AM, to walk by candlelight for hours until dawn. I opt instead for the 6 AM departure and feel no regret. Helmut’s mother drives me and the professor to the starting point. Now, the professor urges me to get medical attention for my feet at one of the numerous first-aid stations. Begrudgingly, I agree, and my blisters are tended to by a volunteer nurse who does not wince at the nauseating smell or the oozing sores on my feet. A saint! He lovingly wraps my feet like tiny King Tuts and I am ready to go!

Some 12 kilometers later, we arrive in Altötting, Germany. Church bells ring at our arrival and we file past the Bishop of Regensburg as well as an ancient Black Madonna statue. I believe she is the star of this show and the reason I just walked 75 kilometers.

I learn later that this chapel is considered the Lourdes of Germany, known for it’s healing powers and it is also the national shrine of Bavaria.

I’m surely supposed to be having a religious experience but I am more fascinated with the man wearing a Pinocchio hat in front of me. I did not know that real live people wore these, as I’ve never seen one before, except on the lying wooden boy! If God does exist and doesn’t appreciate my child-like interest in hats then I’m probably about to be banished to a boiling cauldron for all eternity. It was nice knowing you.

Exhibit B:

The group continues on to church for a special service, but I pass, wanting to commune with a pretzel, a beer, and the cold grass instead. I am intrigued by the Elvis impersonator casually standing by the fountain.  Or maybe that’s no impersonator at all!  Maybe Elvis has been in Bavaria this whole time.

An old nun grabs my hand as I waddle down the street in search for coffee.  She stares at me intently as if she knows I fear nuns. That’s exactly the type of frightening behavior I would expect from a nun. Fears validated yet again!

She speaks German softly and rapidly and I simply stare back, squeaking out the incorrect words: “No sprecken sie Deutsch.” She won’t let me go and continues with doe eyes. I am focused on her false teeth which rise and drop with her words. Frightening. I will never know what she was trying to tell me. But I do know that I mistakenly told her that she does not speak German, so maybe she was trying to prove to me that she did. Somehow, I survived this terrifying encounter. A miracle!

Seventy-five kilometers walked, reunification with new friends, the kindness of strangers, natural beauty all around, great food and drink, some German language learned, and a slice of Bavarian life that I would never had experienced on my own leads me to a state of gratefulness and wonderMaybe I had a religious experience after all.

8 Comments

  1. Thank you so much for sharing! I’m trying to plan a pilgrimage of my own- do you mind directing me to the website or phone number you used to set this up? Thank you!

  2. Enjoyed your story. Googled the walk after having read the December 2016 story in National Geographic. Just added to my list of walks to do when time allows. Thank you for the chuckles about your nun-phobia.

    • I’ll have to find a copy of National Geographic as I haven’t seen the story. Glad you enjoyed my story. Thanks for commenting.

  3. As a German/American, I thoroughly enjoyed your travel story! I love reading about others experience when traveling to Germany and yours was definitely a special kind of experience here!

    • Thanks Siggie! Yes, it was a unique experience – one I (and my feet) will not forget anytime soon! Thanks for reading.

  4. Great stories! Great photos! Odd as it was it is really cool that you had this window into a whole set of people doing something very specific to their place.

    • Thanks. Yes, I am glad I went.

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