From Poling to Punting

Water-rich festivals and traditions in SouthWest Germany

Tübingen, Stocherkahnfahrt auf dem Neckar

Punting ride on the Neckar River in Tübingen | © Verkehrsverein Tübingen, Foto: Barbara Honner

STUTTGART – Water has always exerted a magical attraction on people and provides material for legends, myths and rituals. Cleaning, decorating and blessing wells and springs is still widespread today in many communities in Baden-Württemberg. But there are many other customs, traditions and festivals in Southwest Germany related to water.


Salting and Shooting: Schwäbisch Hall Cake and Fountain Festival

The history of the “[Swaebisch] Hall Salt Boilers” goes back a long way into the past. The Celts already extracted salt from the salt spring next to the stove. In the Middle Ages, trade in “white gold” brought Schwäbisch Hall great wealth. The Salt Boiler's Festival, which is believed to have originated in the cleaning of the salt spring, also dates back to this time. The arduous work was rewarded with the celebrations. Today, the highly regulated “Cake and Fountain Festival” in honor of the salt boiling industry is considered one of the most beautiful local festivals in the south, which traditionally ends with a gun salute.


Turning and Grinding: German Mill Day

Every year on Whit Monday, the water wheels turn nationwide for German Mill Day. This is intended to remind people of the importance of the miller's trade. In Baden-Württemberg, numerous old mills resume operations on this day and open their doors to guests. The Stuttgart region offers a variety of options for a mill excursion: from the Siebenmühlental (Seven Mill Valley) on the edge of the Schönbuch Nature Park to the varied “Mühlenwanderweg” (Mill Hiking Path) in the Swabian Forest to the “Glemsmühlenweg,” (Glems Mill Path) which is popular with cyclists. In Upper Swabia, it is worth visiting the “Mühlenstrasse” (Mill Street) with over 100 stations.;


Stick and Pole: Tübingen Punting Race

“The stick stays with the man:” Anyone who doesn’t stick to this motto will follow the wooden stick into the Neckar. This has been true at least since the student associations took over the helm in the Tübingen punts. Previously, it was mainly Neckar fishermen who used flat-bottomed boats. Today, most of the more than 100 punts are owned by student organizations, but there are also specially certified “punters” who punt into the Neckar with guests. The barges rarely get in each other's way. Only when the annual punting race around the Neckar Island takes place on Corpus Christi, does it get crowded on the river. The costumed race is not exactly for the squeamish. Not surprising, because beer awaits the winning team and half of a liter of cod liver oil awaits the losers.


Bathing and Balancing: Ulm Oath Week

On the penultimate Monday in July there is a state of emergency in Ulm. The background is an oath from the 14th century with which the mayor solemnly vows every “Sworn Monday” to stand up for rich and poor alike. This is followed by the “Nabada,” during which citizens and dignitaries float down the Danube in inflatable boats, rafts and the flat boats known as “Ulm boxes.” The historically documented jousting also takes place every four years during the “oath” week. The spearmen standing on the stern of the boats aim the leather-padded tips of their spears at their opponent's chest. Whoever stays standing, wins. Anyone who falls into the water, or falls into the boat, is considered “wet” and is eliminated. The “Serenade of Lights” has also been an integral part of the festival week since 1967. Around 12,000 floating candles are placed on the water from the “Ulm Boxes” and transform the Danube into a sea of ​​lights.


Cracking Jokes, Amusing Antics and Posturing: Schramberg’s Da-Bach-na-Fahrt

“Canal full,” “Batsch wet,” and “Fart dry!” These are the battle cries that you should definitely master when visiting Schramberg on Rose Monday - otherwise watching the “Bach-na-Fahrt” is only half as much fun. The parade of the teams with their decorated wooden tubs through the city center is followed by the actual spectacle on the Schiltach. The approximately 500 metres long stretch of water presents some difficulties for people and boat materials, especially as it is narrow, high, and has treacherous rapids. The participants have three weeks in advance to prepare and design the tub assigned to them by lottery for the adventurous river trip. At the finish line, if not before, it becomes clear who has mastered their craft or who will be punished for “two left hands.”


Towing and Staking: Black Forest Rafting

Rafting has a centuries-old tradition and has been part of the “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity” since December 2022. Up until the 19th century, thousands of fir trees were transported over streams and rivers from the Black Forest and they reached the Netherlands via the Rhine. In the Kinzig and Nagold valleys, the tradition is maintained and can be experienced in museums, on themed hiking trails, and at festivals. The international rafting festival at the Monhardter “Wasserstube,” or river, in Altensteig provides an insight into historic forestry jobs and crafts, including the turning of the logs. Members of the Oberes Nagoldtal rafters' guild demonstrate their skills as they travel through the watery “streets” of the Wasserstube.


Rowing and Praying: Allensbach Lake Procession

Every child knows Santa Claus. Today, however, only a few people know that the saint is also the patron saint of seafarers. In Allensbach on Lake Constance, a small church was dedicated to the martyr around the year 1300. Since the community belonged to the Reichenau monastery, the believers still had to continue by boat across the Gnadensee (sacred lake) to the island church of St. Peter and Paul in Niederzell to attend Holy Mass and on the high holidays. Today, the lake procession leads to the Reichenau Minster of St. Maria and Markus in Mittelzell on the first Sunday in July, but it is still a reminder of the togetherness of Allensbach and Reichenau. The festival ceremony was given a theological upgrade by being linked to the religious custom of venerating the Holy Blood relic. It has been exhibited in the cathedral on a specific Sunday each month since the 1970s.