Thanks to Viking River Cruises for inviting us along and providing this adventure! As always, all opinions are our own.
We have sung the praises of river cruising as a wonderful way to visit some of the great cities of Europe, mainly because the ships dock right downtown.
It's like having a floating hotel right in the heart of the action.
In this region -- far removed from any modern hustle and bustle -- the river winds beneath church towers, vineyards, and ancient castle ruins as it passes the hamlets that dot the hillsides along the banks.
No wonder the entire area has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Our first stop in the valley, Dürnstein, is a classic example of one of these villages. The most prominent feature is the blue and white Baroque bell tower that crowns the Dürnstein Abbey.
We could see it rising above the ancient fortifications that line the waterfront as we sailed up, practically insisting that we come in for a closer look.
That was an invitation we were not about to turn down, so we made our way along the ramparts and through a dark tunnel leading inside medieval walls.
We found ourselves in a labyrinth of cobblestone paths leading every which way. Luckily we had the tower in the center, hillside above, and water below to give us some bearings.
Honing in on the tower, we came to the ornate, baroque gates of the abbey.
These were added in the early seventeen hundreds, along with the exceptional tower, but the building goes back at least six hundred years.
The site began as a nunnery in 1289, then became home to an order of priests, the Canons Regular of St. Augustine. Emperor Joseph II decided to close the abbey in 1787 and now the refurbished landmark serves as the parish church for the town.
As we made our way up to the main street, we found ourselves passing from the sublime to the silly when we spotted a sign proudly proclaiming the availability of (pardon our French, or German in this case) "rabbit-shit."
Effective advertising, since we really couldn't pass by without checking it out, but like most gags for tourists, moose poop, cow pies, even edible rocks, it turned out be candy.
Dürnstein's other main attraction is Kuenringer Castle, or what's left of it.
Storming the Castle!
The ruins overlook the town from a rocky outcrop high above, in fact the rocks gave the town its name, which means dry rock.
It was a pretty good climb up to the former fortress, but we found several signs along the way informing us that it is most famous for housing King Richard the Lionheart in 1192, against his will we might add.
It seems the king and Duke Leopold V of Austria had a bit of a feud going - or at least in the duke's eyes.
He felt that during the third crusade Richard had snubbed him at the Battle of Acre and ordered the assassination his cousin, Conrad of Montferrat, who had just been chosen to be King of Jerusalem.
As Richard was returning from the holy land, Leopold snatched the king and held him for ransom in the castle. But once the ransom was paid, Leopold was excommunicated by the pope for messing with a hero of the crusades and he died soon after. All things considered, the episode did not go well for Leopold.
There is not much left to see of the castle these days, the Swedes came down and destroyed it in 1645 and it has not been used since, but the site does offer sensational views of the town and the valley.
The climb took a bit longer than anticipated, so we had a bit of a scramble back down to catch the Skadi for our next stop of the day, Melk.
The small village of Melk has one claim to fame, but it is a doozey!
The Benedictine Abbey has dominated the town for nearly one thousand years, although the amazing Baroque version that stands today was built between 1702 and 1736. It is still an active monastery, and also houses a school for about nine hundred students.
Blown away is the only way to describe our reaction - and that was before we got to go inside. Part of the interior serves as a museum, with amazing artifacts, but the sections that are still in day-to-day use, the library and the church, were even more fascinating to us.
The incredibly impressive library holds one hundred thousand volumes that are still in use by the monks, some over ten centuries old.
The monks have rebound most of the manuscripts, not only to preserve the precious volumes, but to give the shelves a uniform look. Being in the room with all of these great works of science and literature gave us quite a charge.
Before we could get too excited though, we were off to the focal point of the abbey, the Stiftskirche.
The church is dedicated to Saint Coloman of Stockerau, who is interred there, and is considered one of Austria's finest.
While the outside is beautiful --if somewhat conventional --inside we were in for a real eye opener. The monks really went for baroque, they didn't skimp on the gold leaf, marble, or the frescoes on the ceilings… and the pipe organ, wow!
In spite of all that, the highlight for us was the two "catacomb saints" on display.
During the 16th and 17th centuries the desire to display relics in churches became so great that the Vatican ordered numerous unknown skeletons be brought up from the catacombs under Rome and declared them to be the remains of saints. Then they sent them off to eager churches in Germany, Austria and Switzerland.
The thinking seemed to be that since they came from Rome, they must have been a martyr or great Christian of some sort. On arrival to their new homes, the "saints" were adorned in jewels and gaudy finery and proudly given places of honor.
It was a little unclear to us why this would happen at this church, considering they have had the remains of their patron saint on the premises for a thousand years.
Earlier in the day we had been in a hurry to see the abbey before it closed, so we took a bus up to its perch above the Danube.
But the ride had bypassed the town, so in order to see some of Melk we opted to walk back down. It was immediately obvious why the bus had taken another route, there was certainly no room for any large vehicles on the ancient stone streets.
The town seemed as untouched by time as the abbey, and as centered on St. Coloman. His statue tops the fountain in the main square, Rathausplatz.
Time may have seemed to bypass these hamlets in the Wachau Valley, but it was marching forward on us.
Soon darkness chased us back to our ship.
We ended the day on a high note, as a reward for our walk we got our best view of the abbey just as we were getting back to the river.
David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com
Thanks to Viking River Cruises for inviting us along and providing this adventure! As always, all opinions are our own. See our entire Christmas cruise along The Danube with stops in Budapest, Bratislavia, Vienna, Durnstein & Melk, Salzburg, and Passau.
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