Dear fellow travellers
It rained last night on the hills above the Inn Valley in Bavaria. Lucky were those pilgrims who had the luxury of a bed in one of the many small inns and guest houses which are to be found along the route of Saint James. Theirs was a scallop shell of comfort. Others who camped in the forest had it less good. Dawn was damp, but brought its fair share of blessings. Hill top meadows and the sweet smell of nettles after rain, and after an hour on the trail the pilgrims stopped for freshly baked rolls in the last village before the Inn Valley. There is hardly a community in Germany where it's not easy to find good fresh bread, even early on Pentecost morning.
Nourished in body if not yet completely in soul, the small groups of pilgrims wander south towards Altötting. Many stick to the marked route of Saint James (Jakobsweg in German) which beyond Altötting broadly follows the Inn Valley upstream into Austria. But no-one today is bound for the Austrian Tyrol, for Altötting is goal enough for a Pentecostal blessing.
This small town in Bavaria, less than a day's walk from the border with Austria, may not be a Rome or Jersusalem, but it certainly offers more than a mere scallop shell of grace. There are those who pause at Altötting on the long trail to Santiago de Compostela, but for many pilgrims Altötting is a destination in its own right. The town ranks as one of the great Marian shrines of Europe, a member of a family of Catholic towns which include Loreto (Italy), Fatima (Portugal) and Czestochowa (Poland).
Yesterday, several thousand pilgrims arrived on foot in Altötting's main square, the great majority of them having walked from parishes across the Diocese of Regensburg. Some had walked for two or three days from the banks of the River Danube to celebrate Pentecost in Altötting. The town's magnetic appeal extends even unto those who are not especially drawn to Marian devotions. Altötting is more than a sanctuary for prayers and sore feet. It is a town of brightness and light - yet there is also the shade and shadows of cloisters and the mysterious darkness of the small innermost sanctum of the Gnadenkapelle (Chapel of Grace) in the town square.
The notion of a geographical region, even a German state, having a heart does not come easily to most of us. But we are not Bavarian. The interior of the octagonal Chapel of Grace at Altötting is first and foremost a sacred space, but many see it as the very heart of Bavaria. The chapel's Black Madonna, carved from lindenwood in the fourteenth century, pulls men and women of great faith.
But there is something more to this precious space. It houses more than a dozen urns containing the hearts of Bavarian kings, princes and bishops. Yet more hearts are entombed within the masonry and under the floor of the chapel. The majority of the Altötting hearts once beat in the bodies of members of the Wittelsbach family, who for more than 700 years presided over local affairs as the rulers of Bavaria. The last Wittelsbach monarch was Ludwig III whose short reign came to an unhappy end in the German Revolution in 1918.
Prayers will be offered today in Altötting to Our Lady Queen of Heaven. But Altötting is about more than liturgical drama. For at least for some of those who visit, the town captures the heart and soul of Bavaria.
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)