The boat trip from Melk to Dürnstein (20 miles) takes a little over an hour. If you are travelling upstream it will take longer. It passes through the most scenic part of the Danube valley, the Wachau, the last foothills of the Bohemian massif. This is a romantic land of pretty villages, terraced vineyards, thickly forested slopes, fields of corn, tobacco and fruit trees (peaches and apricots), and ruined castles. On midsummer night, June 21st, bonfires are lit all along the riverbanks in this region for a spectacular festival called "The Danube in Flames." The visit to Melk Abbey beforehand is marvellous, and Dürnstein at the end of the cruise easily repays 45 minutes or so to wander and explore. The sights in between that you pass on the boat are skipped through fairly briefly below. From time to time there are tiny beaches along the banks.
The Danube is the longest river in central Europe. It begins in the Black Forest in Germany and empties out in the Black Sea 1,794 miles later. It borders or runs through 9 countries (Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Rumania, Bulgaria and the Ukraine). Three capital cities (Vienna, Budapest and Belgrade) are built on its banks. For what it's worth, it has an average daily flow of 2,320 million gallons. It is difficult to navigate in some sections and freezes over for about two or three weeks every year. For this reason it has never quite been the massive trade artery that, say, the Rhine has been. It may be a dull grey in Vienna but around here it's blue. LB stands for left bank, RB for right bank.
Stift Melk (RB) Melk may well be the oldest town in Austria. It was the original power base of Austria's first rulers, the Babenbergs. This was the family who founded the monastery here in 1089. This has been a working Benedictine abbey now for over 900 uninterrupted years. Today it also houses a school. Umberto Eco's book The Name of the Rose is set here. The enormous yellow edifice of Melk Abbey dominates the town and overlooks the arm of the Danube from a height of 150 feet. Napoleon made his headquarters here during his Austrian campaigns. The present building is one of the gems of Austrian baroque, built between 1701 and 1726 by Jakob Prandtauer. Baroque in Austria is essentially a religious art, the style of the Counter-Reformation. The intention behind an Austrian baroque church was to re-establish in people's minds and then reinforce the supremacy of Catholicism. Visually this was achieved through incredible splendour, lavish decoration, abundant gilding, colourful ceiling frescoes, cherubs and other sculpted figures everywhere, exuberant ornamentation on any architectural feature. The culmination of the visit to Melk Abbey is the church, the most spectacular example of baroque art in the country. The other highlight is the extraordinary trompe l'oeil ceiling of the library.
NB. Abbey visits are guided and take about 50 minutes. If you are visiting check the times of English tours and book. It can get very busy. Within the complex there is a good cafe/restaurant, loos and a shop.
Schloss Schönbuhel (RB) At this point, in the shadow of this romantic C19 castle, you enter the Wachau.
Schloss Aggstein (RB) C12 castle, built by the Kühnringer family or robber barons who used to imprison their enemies on a ledge of rock called the Rosengärtlein. There they could starve or throw themselves to death 1,000 feet down in the river below.
Willendorf (not visible) This small village is famous for the archaeological discovery of the Venus of Willendorf, a 25,000 year old sandstone statuette. Also found was a sculpture made from a mammoth's tusk.
Spitz (LB) A pretty little village dominated by the rows of vines above on the Tausendeimerberg (Thousand Bucket Mountain), so called for the amount of wine it can supposedly yield. The ruined castle is called Hinterhaus.
Weissenkirchen (LB) Pretty rows of painted houses, and more terraces of vines above. The C15 church was fortified to resist the threat of attack by Turkish forces in 1531.
Dürnstein (LB) This is a perfectly picturesque little town. Parts of its old town walls still survive. It has a very quaint Hauptstrasse with some old C16 houses, charming wrought-iron signs and well-kept flower boxes of geraniums. The parish church has a lovely light-blue baroque steeple which dominates the lower town. There are several Heurigen if you have the time. The ruined castle that towers over the town from above is a dramatic sight. (If anybody wants to climb up it's a good 20 minutes' walk.) It is most famous as the place where the English King Richard the Lionhearted was held prisoner in 1192-93. In the Holy Land during the Third Crusade King Richard insulted Duke Leopold of Austria. On his way back to England he had to pass through Austria so he went carefully disguised to hide his identity. Nevertheless he was recognised just outside Vienna, arrested and locked up by Leopold in Dürnstein castle. The story goes that he was found by his loyal minstrel Blondel who attracted the king's attention by his music and then set about rescuing him. In fact it was only on payment of an enormous ransom that Richard was freed after 18 months in prison and allowed to return home.
Your boat trip may finish here or may continue as far as Krems and Stein at the eastern end of the Wachau.
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