Yesterday, I visited a glorious stretch of the Danube River known in Austria as the Wachau-Nibelungengau-Kremstal region. Wachau history dates back to the Middle Ages, and winegrowing, fruit, vegetables, and tourism are the primary industries. White wine comprises over sixty percent of wine production, and apricots (marilles) – an Austrian specialty – are the fruit of the valley.
We began at Vienna State Opera House at 9 a.m. and returned at 6:30 p.m. The area is about a 1.5-hour drive from Vienna. There were three major points of interest during the day:
- Danube River Cruise
- Melk Abbey
The large tour group was mostly European – German, French, Austrian, Spanish. I was the only American. As with most tours, except for the Danube cruise, we moved at a lightening pace and were given volumes of detailed information about the “medieval landscape“. The weather was blustery, with an occasional light shower. As Vienna transitions into fall, temperatures are getting cooler.
Wachau Cultural Landscape
This highly-touristed area in lower Austria is known as Wachau’s Cultural Landscape. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site. Notable landmarks include famous Benedictine Monasteries like Melk and Göttweig. It’s also a popular location for outdoor activities like hiking, kayaking, and bicycling.
We passed Krems an der Donau, the largest city (around 24,000) in the Wachau Valley. Our first stop, Dürnstein, is an agricultural and architectural gem. Its beautiful historical buildings and history date back to the 11th century.
In 1193, Duke Leopold V of Austria and Styria held King Richard the Lionheart of England captive in Dürnstein’s Kuenring Castle. He was imprisoned after “refusing to share spoils of war” from the crusades. The Castle was built between 1140 and 1145, and today, its ruins form a dramatic backdrop to the village of Dürnstein.
From its perch above the Danube River, Dürnstein looks like a picture post card. We only had an hour to explore, so there wasn’t time to examine the inside of Dürnstein Abbey or climb to Kuenring Castle ruins.
We drove from Dürnstein to the town of Spitz, and hopped aboard a riverboat for a picturesque two-hour cruise to Melk. Even with overcast weather, Danube scenery was magnificent!
We passed castles and monasteries along the Danube, including 12th Century Schloss Schönbühel – known by locals as “Keeper of the Wachau”. Renovated and built on rock along the Danube shore, the castle is visible to passing boats.
Venus of Willendorf
Further down the river, we passed the small village of Willendorf, where the Venus of Willendorf was found. It’s considered the “oldest piece of European art ever found“. Paleolithic Era research and analysis of the tiny Venus continues today. Other “figures of the Venus von Willendorf type are widespread from France to Russia”.
The tiny Venus of Willendorf is a 30,000-year-old fertility symbol discovered in 1908.
Above the entrance to Melk Abbey, the words “Glory Only in the Cross” are inscribed next to a huge copy of the Melk Cross. The Melk Cross is “considered the most precious treasure in the Abbey. It includes a fragment of wood which is supposed to have come from the cross of Jesus and is, consequently, one of the most precious relics in the Roman Catholic Church.”
Melk is a Benedictine abbey originally built in the 11th century. The abbey was destroyed by fire and restored as 18th-century Baroque. St. Benedict Monks have lived in the abbey for over 900 years. The abbey includes a school, and church services are conducted on Sundays and during religious holidays.
Photography is not allowed inside the abbey, and sadly, I was unable to hear most of the narrative provided by our knowledgeable but very soft-spoken guide. We spent several hours walking the abbey from the Imperial Corridor through the Museum, Marble Hall, Balcony, and Library, scaling spiral staircases and observing priceless treasures, like a copy of the Melk Cross and other antiquities, paintings, and objects of art. Of course, everything in the Abbey is highly symbolic. Our tour ended beneath the Abbey’s Great Dome, inside the spectacular St. Peter and Paul Church.
The ceiling frescoes by Austrian painter Paul Troger are phenomenal! Our tour ended in the breathtaking Baroque Church with its reliefs, frescoes, sweeping dome, and towers. Outside the Abbey, a park with lush gardens surrounds an area with views over the Danube River. The adjoining pavilion has revered frescoes by Johann Wenzel Bergl, famous artist of the late Baroque and Rococo periods.
It was an extraordinarily visual day in the beautiful Danube Valley!