People gather and line up in rows. Together they make their way along paths and across fields – and use their processions to give thanks to the saints for their gifts. Catholics in Bavaria still follow these traditions in line with their ancient customs. No two processions are the same: Depending on the region and its history, people hold their own distinctive parades – individual yet always highly traditional.
Light Procession in Pottenstein: Once a year the cliffs are lit upThe procession is led by altar boys carrying the cross and various flags, and followed by religious believers and a brass band. Behind them come the priest and the prayer leaders, with members of the local community bringing up the rear. “The festival follows a clockwise route through the old town. Fires are then lit on the hillside and the procession moves in that direction,” explains Thomas Bernard, director of the Pottenstein Tourist Office. Eventually the whole town is lit up – now as in days gone by.
On the Feast of Epiphany, when the sun goes down, people parade through their historic old town – surrounded by more than 700 fires. They are celebrating their Festival of Light, a procession of Perpetual Adoration. It dates back to the year 1759. At that time, Bishop Adam Friedrich von Seinsheim decreed: In the archbishopric of Bamberg – which covers Pottenstein – each day prayers were to be said in one of the communities. The festival was originally held on St. Bartholomew’s Day on 24 August. In 1905 it was moved to the winter. And for good reason: “Summer is harvest time. The farmers are busy and don’t have time for the Perpetual Adoration,” explains Thomas Bernard. Moreover, the magnificent hillsides in the region are often dry in August, posing a real fire risk.
For local inhabitants, the Light Procession is the highlight of their winter and a lovely way to end the Christmas period. On 5 January they come together in the morning after the opening worship to pray together – and again the next day, which is Epiphany. When the bell of the church of St. Bartholomew sounds 5 o’clock in the evening, the procession gets underway.
Bad Kötzting Pfingstritt (Whitsun Ride): On horseback towards SteinbühlThe people of Bad Kötzting also hold a procession – but in their case it is the local men who get involved. Traditionally on Whit Monday more than 800 riders on horseback follow the cross from Bad Kötzting to Steinbühl. In festive dress, they pay homage to the day more than 600 years ago when a man lay dying near the village of Steinbühl. He begged to be given the last rites, so a priest set out from Bad Kötzting to comfort him.
“In those days the terrain was almost impassable, so a couple of lads accompanied him to Steinbühl. When they all returned safely home, the people promised to repeat their pilgrimage each year to honour their achievement. This was the origin of the Whitsun Ride,” explains Fritz Bummer, who has been participating in the ride himself for many years. Since then, the festival has symbolised the priest’s journey.
“At eight o’clock precisely the clergyman says a prayer, blesses the horses and riders and wishes everyone a good ride,” says Fritz Bummer. Then they’re off – across the market square towards Steinbühl before returning to Bad Kötzting at midday. Just like the priest and his lads did all those years ago. There the men are greeted by societies, councillors, locals and visitors, who celebrate their arrival.
However, the Whitsun Ride in Bad Kötzting is more than just an impressive spectacle. It is one of the oldest traditional events in Bavaria – and that’s what Fritz Bummer finds so fascinating about the ride: “I really value the sense of community and the solidarity of young and old coming together every year from all parts of society. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you are from, everyone celebrates this tradition together.”
Colomansfest in Schwangau: In honour of the patron saintFour months later the people in the village of Schwangau celebrate the Colomansritt – a horseback procession in honour of St. Coloman. During his pilgrimage to the Promised Land, he rested in Schwangau from 1012 to 1014. The Church of St. Coloman now stands on that exact spot, and this is where the ride takes place. He is the patron saint of livestock and is therefore particularly celebrated by the farmers in the region. “They ask for the blessing of St. Coloman – so the procession originated for existential reasons,” explains Andreas Helmer, Chair of the Coloman Society.
According to ancient tradition, around 200 riders in typical Alpine dress gather early on the morning of the big day behind Schwangau Town Hall. Then the brass band strikes up and the festival known as the Colomansfest begins. The route takes them to the church, where a service is held and the horses are blessed. After that, the procession goes round the church and then locals and visitors gather in the market square to eat, drink and celebrate together – whatever the weather. The Chair of the Society is particularly pleased by this attitude: “It shows me that the weather doesn’t matter – it’s all about the tradition.”
Leonhardifahrt: Riding high on the historic wagonsHardly has the Colomansfest in Schwangau finished than it’s time for the festivities in Bad Tölz to begin: Here on 6 November they celebrate the Leonhardifahrt – on the feast day of St. Leonhard, the patron saint of beasts of burden. With 80 wagons from Bad Tölz and the surrounding area, each pulled by four horses, the procession goes from the Tölzer Bäderviertel district to the church of Mühlfeld. “Tradition dictates exactly how the wagons have to look,” says Lisa Steinbacher. She is riding on one of the procession wagons for the fifth time – a real privilege. “You are only allowed to take part if you have the right outfit. You either have it because you are a member of a local costume organisation or you have inherited it,” she explains.
The largest procession in Southern Bavaria has been going for 162 years. In the past, the farmers went to church at different times to get their animals blessed, but over time they have fixed on one particular day. Since then, the people of Tölz have celebrated it in great style. The festival begins at nine o’clock on the dot when the bells of the church of Mühlfeld ring out. Across the Isar, along Market Street, through the old town, the procession winds its way up to the Calvary – where the priest blesses the horses and the participants. After that, the procession returns to the church – surrounded by countless spectators.
The 22-year-old is passionate about the emotions stirred up by the journey: “I love dressing up in beautiful clothes with my friends and sitting on these historic wagons. I also love watching the smiles and enthusiasm of the spectators.”
Bringing Christian Bavarian traditions to life in a way that is both ancient and modern – that is something that locals and visitors all across Bavaria know how to appreciate.
Personal tips from Thomas Bernard:
We have a slogan that explains a great deal: “Franconian Switzerland is a place of castles, caves, mills and cliffs.” These four keywords are associated with Franconian Switzerland. Our landscape is truly impressive: We have a lot of cliffs, narrow valleys and some tiny hamlets. The roads are very winding and you never know what you will find round the next corner – this sense of constant surprise is unique. We also have some of the largest caves in Bavaria, including the Devil’s Cave in Pottenstein, and many castles, each of which has its own distinct character. In terms of scenic settings, the villages of Pottenstein, Gößweinstein and Egloffstein are hard to beat – you should definitely try to visit these places. As the names suggest, they have beautiful rocky settings.
As well as the Light Procession, it’s well worth going to other church festivals such as the Corpus Christi processions and the Johannisfeuer. Many local communities celebrate this on 24 June. When of an evening you climb up high and look across the landscape at all the lights of the Sonnwendfeuer (the fires of the Midsummer Festival), it’s a beautiful sight. There is another reason to come to Franconian Switzerland: we have the greatest density of breweries in the world. Trying so many different beers in such a small area is something you can’t do anywhere else except in Franconian Switzerland – and they all taste different.
Personal tips from Fritz Bummer:
We have lots of things that are well worth seeing: for example, a wonderful fortified church complex with a Pfingstritt museum. I’d also recommend a trip to the pilgrimage church at Weißenregen with its famous Fisherman’s Pulpit. In Bad Kötzting we also have a wonderful spa park and the AQACUR pool and sauna complex. In Ludwigsberg you should definitely go to the annual Forest Festival productions. We also have a lot of festivals with beer tents, but for us the Whitsun Ride is the fifth season of the year. On the last weekend in August we play host to the Rosstag, an event staged by the Haflinger- und Kaltblutzüchtervereinigung (horse breeding association), which is definitely worth a visit.
Personal tips from Andreas Helmer:
If you haven’t seen Neuschwanstein Castle you should definitely include this in your itinerary, and also the village of Hohenschwangau. There you can walk round the very lovely Lake Alpsee. If you take the time to follow this trail you will enjoy the peace and calm of the lake and the surrounding scenery. We have a lot of lakes in our region, such as Lake Schwansee and Lake Bannwaldsee. It’s a great place to get in touch with nature. Visitors to the region should also go up the mountains on the Tegelbergbahn cable car. From the top you get marvellous views across our impressive landscape.
Our church of St. Coloman and the nearby church of Wieskirche in Steingaden are also lovely to visit. The Wieskirche was declared a World Heritage Site in 1983. For a cultural outing, I can recommend the following destinations: Neuschwanstein Castle, Hohenschwangau Castle and the Wieskirche.
Personal tips from Lisa Steinbacher:
Bad Tölz is well worth a visit not only during the Leonhardiritt but all the year round. Being so close to the mountains and with a wide variety of leisure activities, there is always plenty to see and do in Bad Tölz. My absolute favourite place in Bad Tölz is the Isar Bridge. Here the Isar is really blue and beautiful. From the bridge you can see the Calvary and the wonderful Market Street with its special architecture. I also recommend our wine festivals and especially our Christmas Market – held right on Market Street. In 2018 the Gaufest festival will be held in Bad Tölz from 26 to 30 July. This really is an event not to be missed.