I was alone in the church, and the two people I saw as a reached the summit had gone when I came out. A slight breeze tousled my hair away from perspiring neck, a mother’s caress; I was still slightly breathless after the climb. Birds sang and the sun shone on Mariahilf, deepening the colors of the buildings that lined the Inn River and hid the Danube from view. A “Worried Man,” what the Lithuanians call Rupentojeli, held his heavy thoughts in the shade of beeches.
It had been a long walk from our moorage at slot 14 on the Fritz Schaffer Promenade in Passau, down the Grabengasse, across the Marienbrücke, left on Nestorgraben and right on the Instadkellerweb, then up that steep hillside. My map didn’t delineate the route to the enclosed staircase of some 321 steps, the Mariahilfstiege that was both the shortest and most traditional route of access. The bottom of the stair—and presumable entrance—seemed to hover in the middle of nowhere.
A sign—merely a photocopied picture with arrow—tacked to the side of a garage, however, directed me off the Instadkellerweg and down a graveled path that felt like private property, to the opening that led down and a doorway to the steps going up. Intermittent sun from arched windows illuminated an austere, white passage, and as I turned a corner, that blank space became a gallery of votive offerings. I counted off the Stations of the Cross and perused windowsills and walls piled with pleadings of need and expressions of gratitude.
When I was almost ready to leave, a brown bird drew my attention to a path descending through the cool green woods, and I took her advice. It returned me to a bend higher up on the Instadkellerweg than I had reached before. Above me, an onion-dome-topped tower of Mariahilf waved from behind a faded yellow house. I saw the violet of lupine-like flowers. I stepped carefully over a snail camouflaged in the tan-marbled pebbles underfoot; its antennae quivered and its ruffled foot shrank as I bent over and took a picture.
I felt both old and young. Walking alone, exploring some place on my own, keeping my own pace, indulging my own whims, that is what reminds me that I have not really changed, that I am still the me that I got to know when I was a teenager and that I understand best and protect against the tides of time. I felt old as my bursitis flared and I remembered my irritation only a few hours earlier at young children whose voices pierced the rumble of the organs at the Dom, at St. Stephen’s, during the noontime concert. Their infant behaviors were part of that world I had wanted to leave behind.
“Mariahilf” means “Oh, Mary, help.” Maybe she did help me. I like to think that She did.