Between Passau and Regensburg in the east of Bavaria, the highway runs rather straight through arable fields and crosses the meandering Danube several times. To the right, you see the ridges of a string of hills, the last foothills of the Bavarian Forest. Shortly before you can spot the gothic spires of Regensburg cathedral, you’ll see the most unexpected building on one of these hilltops: overlooking the Danube, there is a Greek temple just like the Parthenon in Athens. Its name, however, is not Greek at all. The majestic temple is called “Walhalla”.
There are sights and tourist attractions that completely make sense. To everybody. At once. Like the Eiffel tower, for example. It is a gorgeous tower, an architectural masterpiece and when you take the elevator up, you have the most magnificent view over Paris. There is not much of an intellectual challenge in visiting the Eiffel tower. And then there are places that only unfurl their captivation and their splendor when you know the background story and the meaning of it. The Walhalla certainly belongs to the latter category. Without knowing the background story, you take a picture because it is a pretty building, shrug and move on.
So, why is there a Greek temple with a Germanic name in the middle of Bavaria?
The story takes us back into the days when Bavaria had just become a kingdom and was allied with the most powerful man in Europe at the time: Napoleon Bonaparte. The centuries-old Holy Roman Empire had just fallen apart in the turmoil of the Napoleonic Wars and was about to end. For Napoleon, an alliance with Bavaria was desirable as the princedom borders on Austria and was the perfect concentration area for the French emperor’s troops in his wars against his most important adversary: the Habsburgs. Bavaria, on the other hand, had this old fear of being annexed and swallowed by Habsburg Austria and needed a strong and powerful collaborator. So, in autumn 1805, Napoleon and Maximilian Joseph of Bavaria entered into an alliance. Napoleon elevated Bavaria to the rank of a kingdom. King Maximilian I. Joseph, in return, promised Napoleon troops for his never-ending campaigns. In 1812, over 33.000 Bavarian soldiers marched with Napoleon’s “Grande Armée” to Russia. Barely 3000 returned from this ill-fated adventure. Bavaria’s crown was paid for in blood…
The later king Ludwig I. of Bavaria was 20 years old when Bavaria became a kingdom and Ludwig became crown prince (no, he is not the one who built the fairytale castles. Altogether, there were 3 Bavarian kings named Ludwig which makes it easy to mix them up. The one with the castles was Ludwig II., grand-son of Ludwig I.) The sensitive young man was a fervent advocate of the German National idea that was born in the Napoleonic Wars: all Germans should unite and form a strong confederation. Instead, and completely against Ludwig’s own will, his father formed an iron-clad alliance with the enemy and young Ludwig was forced to march across Europe and fight along Napoleon’s troops against fellow Germans. It left a deep, traumatic impact on him and it was during the war against Prussia and Russia in 1807 that Ludwig first had the vision of building a particular national monument: a hall of fame for great minds of German origin, tongue and culture. A reminder for all Germans of what they had in common – language, culture, history, spirit.
Many years later, these visions became real. Ludwig succeeded his father to the Bavarian throne in 1825, four years after Napoleon had died on the far-flung island of St. Helena. The idea of a German nation was still dear to him and together with his favorite architect Leo von Klenze, Ludwig finally designed his temple. Originally, Ludwig planned to name the temple “Pantheon of the Germans”, but when the Swiss historian Johannes von Müller suggested “Walhalla”, Ludwig was at once convinced. After all, Walhalla is the place, where Germanic heroes go after their death on the battlefield – what an apt name for a German hall of fame!
In 1826, after a pretty long search for the right location, Ludwig decided that the lovely rolling hills along the Danube east of Regensburg was the right place. The slope in question was owned by the Prince of Thurn und Taxis who assiduously hastened to present the terrain to his king as a gift. Work began in on October 18th, 1830. This date for laying the foundation stone was chosen by Ludwig for its symbolic meaning: October 18th, 1813 had been the main day of the Battle of the Nations in Leipzig when the united German armies had first defeated Napoleon after which the French troops were driven out of Germany once and for all (Bavaria had broken off the alliance with Napoleon only 10 days before this important battle). 12 years later, the magnificent temple was completed, and the opening ceremony took place again on October 18th, 1842.
But why a Greek temple? Both Ludwig and Leo von Klenze followed a popular theory of 19th century historians that all European peoples as well as their culture and their architecture are linked and rooted in ancient Greece. If you follow this chain of thought, it is not only logical, but even compulsory to model a German national monument on a Greek temple.
In fact, the Walhalla follows the outline and measurements of the Parthenon temple in Athens nearly to the inch. Like its famous paragon, the Walhalla has 8 columns at the front ends and 17 on the sides which makes the Walhalla a classic Doric hall temple. The similarities with ancient Greece end when you enter the hall through the wooden, bronze-clad, 22 feet high doors. Large windows in the roof shed soft light on the marble inside the hall and on the busts on the little pedestals along the walls. The hall is magnificently yet reservedly adorned so your focus is not distracted from the main purpose: the busts and plaques of the great spirits who are commemorated here.
The first 160 persons were still chosen by Ludwig himself. There are plaques for those of whom we don’t know what they looked like, marble busts for all the others. The Walhalla is still in use: every few years a new person is admitted into this venerable hall of fame. So, who is worthy of having a bust in the Walhalla? According to Ludwig, they must be men or women who contributed something extraordinarily meaningful or important to the well-being of the German nation or German culture. You see military men, rulers, scientist, artists, composers and poets – a “marble who is who” so to speak.
Today, the illustrious assembly comprises 196 persons of significance, among them 12 women. Ironically, the last person admitted so far, was the poet and writer Heinrich Heine – he was a contemporary of Ludwig I. and commented on the construction of the Walhalla in the press, denouncing the whole idea of a German hall of fame as pathetic and ridiculous…
German history comes alive in this stunning monument and there are so many more stories to tell– our Black Forest tours also operate here, and our expert guides won’t fail to enchant you even this far beyond the Black Forest.