Since we’ve been on the Danube, three days, all of our cruising has taken place at night. Today, however, we enjoyed the river’s beautiful scenery in the Wachau Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Our first stop this morning, for only a few hours, was in Dürnstein, which means dry rock. The picturesque, small town in Austria’s Wachau Valley, was established in 1150 by the ruling Kuenring family who built a fortress on the hill (different from Kuenringerburg, the current hilltop ruins). Dürnstein is known for its wine and apricots, and vineyards can be seen across the landscape.
In Dürnstein, Krisitin and I climbed the up to Kuenringerburg. There are two ways to the castle. We completed a horse shoe loop, starting just at the eastern edge of the village. We followed a road to a dirt path which led us to magnificent views of the valley below. Our return led us down some stairs that ended toward the western side of Dürnstein. The roundtrip took about 45 minutes.
Kuenringerburg, a fortress from the 1200’s is now a bunch of ruins atop a hill overlooking the village. The castle was damaged by Swedish troops during the Thirty Years’ War in 1645 and left to crumble.
Legend has it that the King of England, Richard the Lionheart, was imprisoned here in 1192, by Leopold V of Austria. In search of King Richard’s whereabouts, his minstrel, Blondel, traveled through Europe singing one of the king’s favorite songs until he heard a voice sing the second verse in return.
While it is true King Richard was captured, he was locked in a different fortress in Dürnstein, not Kuenringerburg, as its construction began after his 1192 imprisonment. Eventually, the king was released for a ransom of a third of England’s wealth.
Next, we strolled Hauptsrasse, Dürnstein’s charming main street. Dürnstein is tiny, so it doesn’t take long to amble the festive avenue lined with restaurants and cute shops with more than just tourist trinkets. The shops feature nice jewelry and clothes as well as all things apricot (or Marille); apricot brandy, chutney and bath soaps, just to name a few.
Between the river and the main street, sits Dürnstein’s Augustinian Abbey. The abbey complex, which includes a nice courtyard, was built around 1725. The abbey’s blue and white tower is striking and largely contributes to the scenic view of Dürnstein from the Danube. The best photo of the tower is from the boat, so don’t spend a lot of time trying to get down to the “highway” as it is blocked off to pedestrians.
Having said that, I walked up and down all the stairs on both sides of the abbey and still managed to miss the Parish church ruins, cemetery, and crypt. In such a small town, I don’t know how I overlooked them as I meandered through the quaint, narrow alleys, one of my favorite things to do in medieval villages.
I really enjoyed our two hours in Dürnstein and could have easily stayed longer to enjoy an afternoon tea on the terrace of Schloss Dürnstein, an old castle converted into a luxury hotel or to taste wine at Kellerschlössl on the eastern end of town.
Sailing the Danube
From Dürnstein, we sailed upriver through the Wachau Region, known for its Grüner Veltliner (dry white wine). The idyllic scenery featured snow dusted vineyards, old fortresses, churches and other small towns.
The first town we passed was called Weisenkirchen is regarded as the prettiest wine village in the Wachau Region. Its fortified church captured our attention.
In fact, many churches along the Danube captured our attention. Another fortified church, Sankt Michael stands alone on the bank without a surrounding town. Fortified churches were common in the Middle Ages when the valley wasn’t so peaceful. While the churches fulfilled their spiritual duties, they also served as a well-defended place of refuge during the threat of Ottoman attacks.
Sankt Michael is closest to a town called Spitz, home to such a lovely town center, that it has served as a backdrop in several romantic films. While its gothic style church, St. Maurice, dominates the town, the ruined fortress, Burg Hinterhaus, highlights a nearby hilltop. Next to it, is “The Thousand-Bucket Hill”. So named, as in a good wine year, this hill yields one-thousand buckets or 13,000 gallons of wine!
History of the Abbey
After three hours of cruising, we arrived at our next stop, Melk, for a tour of the impressive Melk Abbey. The Melk Abbey sits atop a promontory where the Melk and Pielach rivers converge. Originally this site served as an important trading route. As such, the Romans built a fortress here over 2,000 years.
By 950, a small castle overlooked the town and Duke Leopold III of Babenberg gave the building to the Benedictine monks who converted it into a fortified abbey. Eventually, the monks took control of the town too.
Turkish troops destroyed the abbey, but Abbot Bertold Dietmayr ordered it rebuilt in 1701. The project took 45 years to complete! In the early 1800’s, Napolean I, after defeating the Austrians, made his headquarters here.
The monastery acted as a learning center and as a hotel for nobles. The 800-foot long corridor includes 20 rooms on each of its three floors so that the king’s and queen’s staff could be housed. Overall, the giant building includes 497 rooms and 1,365 windows!
Currently, the Abbey includes a school, a museum, an AMAZING library and spectacular church.
The school accommodates 900 students and is considered the best school in southern Austria. Children may attend for 96 euros a month, and a discount is provided for multiple siblings.
After passing through the abbey’s main gate and into the courtyard where each window is decorated for a different day of the advent calendar, we entered the museum portion of the abbey. The museum’s exhibits, located in rooms off the long corridor, cover the history of the monks and display robes, crosses, books, and other items in a chronological order. It was interesting to see how prevailing thoughts changed from extravagance to simplicity over time.
We exited onto the terrace for a lovely view of Melk before entering the two most amazing parts of the building, the libraries and the church.
The monastery holds 100,000 books from the 16th-18th century in twelve libraries. We saw two of the rooms, one which held 9,000 books from floor to ceiling and had six secret doors leading to small, reading areas! (No pictures allowed)
The monastery’s ornamental church features a magnificent high altar gilded in gold. Marbled walls, frescoed ceilings and numerous sculptures complete the sanctuary.
Austria is a Catholic state, and at the abbey 29 monks who range in age from 34-93, represent 23 parishes in the country.
While the Melk Abbey is the main attraction, the town includes a lovely pedestrian street lined with cafes and shops where we enjoyed a nice, evening stroll before returning the ship. ETB
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