Newsletters  | Mobile

Roadside Attractions: 3 Architectural Drives in Central Europe

I had come for the altarpiece the Asam brothers had made in the 1720's: a dozen bigger-than-life-sized statues standing in immobile astonishment around an empty tomb, the apostles watching Mary fly up to heaven, her body seeming to float through the air. The rain stopped while I waited, and a late afternoon sun washed the sky clean. At five the church reopened and I went in, past a dozen children rushing out to their parents' Opels. An elderly couple followed me, but they stopped at a side chapel, and so I had the spectacle to myself—the angels with their beating wings, the soft folds of plaster clouds, the narrow-waisted Madonna in ecstasy. In his book Bavarian Rococo Church, Karsten Harries draws a comparison between the Rococo altar and the stage, and as I looked at the upflung arms and sublime confusion of those saints it was easy to see why. The Asams had created as powerful a moment of sacred drama as anything in Titian or Tintoretto, and yet Rohr is such an out-of-the-way place that my Blue Guide didn't even list it.

True pilgrims travel toward a devotional end, and in the Middle Ages were often warned against the distractions of the road. So I won't linger over the fact that Landshut, the city of 60,000 where I spent the night, struck me as one of the prettiest towns I have ever seen, or that my hotel there served me the only convincing German red I've ever had, a Pinot Noir—Blauburgunder from Baden. The next day's road lay due south at first; after an hour, when I raised my eyes from the road I could see the snowcaps of the Alps in the distance. Once past the tangle of roads around Munich, I headed west on 472, a roller coaster of sharp drops and long rising curves, and one that turned the next few hours into a parade of famous names. Though I did slow for a moment, my foot off the gas, I didn't let myself turn at the signs pointing the way to Oberammergau and Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Instead, I drove on through the open hills of the Allgäu, a landscape of icy lakes and slate-blue rivers and clearly a rural playground: on this June Saturday every other car seemed to be carrying a kayak or a bicycle. Then there was the road to mad King Ludwig's castle of Neuschwanstein, again not taken, as I sped north toward the Benedictine abbey of Ottobeuren.

If Kloster Rohr was a theater, then Ottobeuren was an opera house, its green towers presiding over a monastery that looked very nearly as large as Lincoln Center. Inside, an orchestra was setting up for a broadcast, and the cables of a temporary soundstage snaked across the floor. But what most sticks in my mind is a detail, probably invisible to anyone's naked eye and certainly to mine, that I saw through my binoculars high up in the crossing. Stucco had been worked into a frame that suggested a much flattened box at the theater, and painted on the wall within was a book, foreshortened to look as though it were balanced on the edge of the box itself. Next to it the artist had put a candlestick, and when I trained the binoculars on it I could see that its inch of wick was painted black, as though the spectator of this sacred show had just blown it out, and left.

The next day was Sunday, a morning of endless sky and more hills, and a fast road that brought me to the parking lot at Die Wies. Another pilgrimage church, another miracle. In 1738 a statue that stood here, The Scourged Savior, had been seen to weep, and by 1754 the church had been built, the work of the brothers Dominikus and Johann Baptist Zimmermann. It sits in a meadow—a Wies—paved with wildflowers, and walking toward it I thought of Pride and Prejudice and Jane Austen's description of Pemberley, "standing well on rising ground." They were of a date—the real church and the imagined house—a time when nature and architecture had fused into scenery. Inside Die Wies there's a frescoed vault made not of stone but of "timber, lath, and plaster," so that it seems, as Harries writes, to have a "tentlike lightness." The church's columns and piers look weightless, too—so pierced and carved and perforated that they seem incapable of bearing a load. There are filigree crowns and gilt plaster tassels, and borders done in a color chart of friendly pastels, reds and pinks and blues, a bit of lilac, and a kind of sea-swirl green. I felt as if I were standing inside a teacup.

Even more than Neumann's building, this place seemed at first to lack seriousness. Then the mass began. It was 11 o'clock and the pews were full, full not of tourists, nor even of Germans, but of Bavarians. I could hear their accent, the German equivalent of a Southern drawl—and of course there were the clothes. Many of the congregants were wearing the traditional regional clothing called Trachten: the women with dirndls rucked up on one side to expose the white lace of an underskirt, the men in gartered kneesocks and dark green lederhosen. Some of the kids had on the full rig, too, a Sunday best indistinguishable from that of their parents. Looking at them I remembered the children at Vierzehnheiligen, and as I stood in the back of the church I recognized the continued truth of what Professor Harries had said about the Bavarian Rococo. Its churches are the product of popular piety in every sense of the word.

For in this place—and wearing those clothes— the weekly mass could provide something like a family holiday, an excursion into a landscape in which there seemed no division between the beauty of the meadows and that of the building itself, both of them made by a single hand. Voices soared, and the altar boy swung his ball of incense and the smoke puffed out, filling the church with a haze that made its prettiness shimmer into an otherworldly life. Any theater looks best with a show on before a full house, and at that moment Die Wies was as churchy as churchy could be.


Sign Up

Connect With Travel + Leisure
  • Travel+Leisure
  • Tablet
  • Available devices

Already a subscriber?
Get FREE ACCESS to the digital edition