"Regensburg is so beautifully situated, the surroundings were bound to attract a city."
-Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
The countryside around Regensburg invites exploration into a hilly landscape of cliffs, rivers, forests and woods. No car is needed. Just six miles down the Danube—about 45-60 minutes by boat—the Walhalla rises 358 steps above the river. This Doric marble temple erected in the style of the Parthenon between 1830 and 1842 for King Ludwig I stands as a monument both to the glory of the heroes of the German-speaking world and to the excess and nationalism of the period. (Boats leave from the Steinerne Brücke and cost about $12 round-trip; one-way ticket, about $8). Allow three hours. The climb to the temple is strenuous; some may prefer to go to Walhalla by taxi (about a $30 ride) then descend to the river and return by boat.
In the opposite direction, a four-hour upstream journey ends at the Kloster Weltenburg, Bavaria's oldest abbey. The boat runs from Regensburg only 11 times each year. Otherwise, travel 30 minutes by train to Saal, continuing 10 minutes by bus to Kelheim, connecting there by boat to Weltenburg. The train/bus-connection runs almost hourly, and tickets cost about $7 each way. Most of the trip covers the relaxing stretch between Regensburg and Kelheim, a medieval village at the confluence of the Altmühl River (here part of the Main-Danube Canal). From there, cameras start clicking for the scenic 30 minutes to Weltenburg.
Shortly after Kelheim, the Befreiungshalle (Liberation Hall) looms atop the Michelsberg, a classical rotunda built by Ludwig I to commemorate Bavarians who had died in the Wars of Liberation against Napoleon. From here, the river narrows and curves between limestone cliffs, and the captain points out unusual stone formations. It narrows further as the boat passes the gorge of the Donaudurchbruch, where the Danube broke through the limestone plateau millennia ago.
Moments later, the walls of the abbey appear, the boat docks, and it's a five-minute walk to the inner courtyard for lunch and a half-liter of Asam Bock (a dark beer from the world's oldest monastic brewery). The adjacent abbey church belies its drab exterior with brilliant paintings, stucco and statuary that epitomize the Baroque period.
Boats also make the six-hour voyage from Kelheim up the Altmühl Valley past medieval towns, castle ruins and craggy cliffs to the postcard-perfect village of Berching. (about $20 one-way, $26 round-trip). Consider Berching to be an undiscovered Rothenburg, its peaceful and walkable, with little traffic and few tourists. The town is ringed by 30-foot walls and protected by towers and turreted gates. Visitors can walk along the top of the wall or explore the maze of alleys and passageways. A perfect stopping point along the wall is the Wehrmauer-Stub'n (Badturmgasse 2), an intimate, out-of-the way restaurant that attracts more locals than tourists. When innkeeper Hans Danler learned that one of his guests that evening was American, he brought his wife out, introduced her, and gave the American a huge embrace that was almost as endearing as the venison steak with Spätzle and wild mushrooms.
Shorten the trip back by taking a half-hour bus trip to Neumarkt and connecting with German Rail for the 50-minute ride to Regensburg.