River Cruise and on to Melk then Salzburg

Trip Start Jul 13, 2011
Trip End Jul 22, 2011

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Saturday, July 16, 2011

We had about a 1 hr bus ride to catch the river boat in Krems and cruised 3 hours down the Danube to Melk. We cruised about 24 miles through the Donautal and Wachau Valleys, which is in southern Austria, and saw ancient monestaries, castles and ruins along the way. I hope I have identified them correctly.

Johann Strauss wrote his famous waltz, titled "Blue Danube," which is widely used as a lullaby. However, to call the Danube blue is not accurate. The river is a greenish murky river, but still it is a very picturesque ride. The Danube is Europe's second longest river, over 1,800 miles long. It either flows through or acts as a border for 10 countries and flows through 4 capital cities. This valley is known for its vineyards that produce over 120 varieties of wines. Green terraced vineyards and apricot orchards grow along the riverbeds and up the hillsides.

We saw the Gottweig Abbey from our bus just before we disembarked in Krems to catch the river boat. It dates back to 1083 AD. In 1718, the monestary was burnt down and lavishly rebuilt. Unfortunately, we did not have time to tour the city of Krems but I understand the Steiner Tor, the only remaining medieval gate, is a part of the walled city here. Krems is an old city dating back to 995 AD, is in the Donautal Valley and is the fifth-largest city in Lower Austria.

The town of Stein is actually a suburb of Krems. The Frauenberg Church (the taller steeple) is now a memorial and can be entered through the neighboring church, St. Nicholas, the first parish church in Stein. St. Nicholas is the patron saints of sailors. There is a statue of St. Johan of Nepomuksaule in the town hall square.

The next town we see is Durnstein and it has a story to go with it! Durn means "dry" and stein means "stone" so the town was probably named after the medieval castle (Castle Duerrstein) that stood on the hill top and stayed dry. Only the ruins are left of this castle that held King Richard I, the Lion-Hearted, imprisoned in the dungeon in 1193 for showing disrespect to the Austrian flag during the Third Crusades. A ranson of 35,000 kg of silver was paid to free King Richard so the story goes. The castle was destroyed in 1645 by the troops of the Swedish Empire in the 30-years war.  Down along the waterfront is the 15th-Century parish church which was formerly an Augustine monestary. In 1289, a nunnery was founded at the site of the abbey and later, a convent, the Convent of St. Claire, was added.  During the 15th-Century the complex became an Augustine monestay and the nunnery dissolved in the 16th-Century. A renovation during the first half of the 18th-Century included adding late Baroque architecture which includes statues and putts (angled statuettes). The notable blue tower, an example of the Baroque influence, is an easliy identifiable landmark (and it is here that we enter the Wachau Valley). The last monk died in 1787 and the monestary was closed. It is now a parish church and the former convent is now an inn.  

Time for a Viennese snack. I bought this apple strudel yesterday and never found time to eat it. It was pretty tasty even if it was a day old. At least now I can say I tasted a pastry treat from Vienna!

Our next town is Weisenkirchen and in the center stands a Gothic fortified church, Wehrkirche Maria Himmelfahrt, which means Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. It was built during the 14th-Century and fortified against the Turks in 1531 AD. In a square in front of the church stands an 18th-Century statue of St. John Nepomuk (he has many statues in Europe). Behind the church you will see terraced vineyards of grapes for wine production. Riesling began here and Gruner Veltiner is another popular wine made from the grapes grown here.

We saw many touring groups biking their way along the river on the Danube Cycle Track. The bike paths are old towpaths, called treppelweg, where horses walked these paths pulling barges from the Black Forest to the Black Sea. Some of these paths are inaccessible for cars so biking is definitely a great way to see this area. Kayaking is another way to enjoy the Danube River.

Another church we saw along the way was St. Michael, also called Wehrkirche, in a hamlet of 13 houses. I always wanted to see a hamlet - it is such a cute word!   St. Michael was built on the site of a small Celtic sacrifice and dates back to 987 AD. It is considered to be the originial parish in eastern Austria that served the Wachau Valley and the southern forests of Austria. The current church was built between 1500 and 1530 and strenghtened a few times by the end of the 17th-Century. The parish was dissolved in 1784 and today the church is mostly used for weddings and community events. The complete complex includes the church, a cemetary chapel and a round tower. Wehrkirche is the German word for a church that was also used as a castle during the times of war. Notice on the roof top of the (middle) church building there are 7 terra-cotta rabbits. I have not been able to find any information on why rabbits are on the roof of a church. However, I did discover some interesting facts about the cemetary chapel. There is very little cemetary space in this church complex because of the hilly terrain so Joseph II ordered two coffins, called "wiedervewendbare" coffins be built, one for an adult and one for a child. These coffins have hinged bottoms because people were buried for only a short amount of time and then they were removed  so their bones were stored in the 1395 Gothic ossuary/charnel house (bone depository) next to the church. The bones are neatly arranged and you can "Google" to find pictures on other people's travel blogs that actually visited this complex. The only way to enter this church is through the round tower.

The vineyards continue along the river banks and lead us to Spitz, an old market village. The hill above the village is known as Tausendeimerberg, the "Hill of a Thousand Buckets" which refers to all the grapes that will produce about 56,000 liters of wine in a year. High above the town is the ruins of Hinterhaus Castle, a 12th-Century stone castle. An interesting tidbit - this castle was built to be approached with the right side of the body exposed to the castle defenders. This is interesting in that the shield does not normally protect the right side of the body, leaving the attacker unprotected as they stormed the castle. The castle was abandoned in the 1460's.

We decided to share a lunch and chose wiener schnitzel (and beer). It was delicious but I am glad we split it.

We are almost at the end of our river trip but there are still a few sites to see. I think I missed the Ruine Aggstein while we were eating lunch (it was on the other side of the river). It is high up on the hill and not too much can be seen from the river. It was built in the beginning of the 12th-Century and it was besieged and conquered a number of times. In 1436, the castle had permission to charge tolls to ships that traveled the Danube, but the greedy owners also began to rob the ships and thus became known as the robber barons. In 1529, the castle was burned down by the Turks and rebuilt as a defense castle. Sometime during the 1600s the castle fell into neglect, sold a few times and finally, after the last resident Anna Frelin von Polheim und Parz died, the castle was seriously neglected. In fact, the timber and stone pieces were taken and used to erect a Servite Order convent down by the river front. Recently, safety measures have been taken to preserve the ruins.

Servite Schonbuhel was built on the river's edge at the site of the former Teufels Schloessel (Devils Castle) and modeled after the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. It was finished in 1667. If you stand on the balcony, you will have a wonderful view of the Danube River. In fact, priests used to stand here and wave to the nobility traveling along the river. This can be seen in the movie "Sissi" - Austria's favorite lady. Next to the church stands a chapel and the Monestary of Schoenbuehel run by the Austrian Order of the Servites. A shell grotto was also built next to the chapel.

Lastly, we come to Castle Schonbuhel, sitting majestically on a craig at the end of our river cruise. Apparently, a Roman Fortress once stood at this very same spot. In the 12th-Century, the castle was built by Marchwardus de Schhoenbuchele. In the 14th-Century the castle was sold to various people, even to the Monestary of Melk but in 1396 is was sold to Casper and Gundaker von Starhemberg. After nearly 400 years it was sold once again to Count Franz von Beroldingden. By now the castle had run down and Beroldingden rebuilt it so it was inhabitable. In 1930 it was sold to Count Oswald von Seilern-Aspang who lost it to the Nazis and Russians for a short time but regained it in 1955 and has stayed in the family since then.

Our river journey ends in Melk which is on the left bank of the river. Emmersdorf is on the right side and a beautiful old church stands tall above the other buildings. All the information that I am able to gather is the name of the church - St. Nicholas. 

We disembark around 1 pm at Melk and catch up to our bus for a 5 minute ride to the Melk Abbey - a huge monestary complex.  Melk, a slavic word for "border,"  sits along the Danube River and has always been an important spiritual center for this  part of Austria. The people here have built a culture based on St. Benedictine's writings and each day begins with these teachings - pray and work and read. In 976 AD, Leopold I made this site his home. Then, in 1089, Leopold II gave the castle to the Benedictine Monks and ever since then Benedictine Monks have lived and worked there uninterrupted. During the 12th-Century, a secondary school was added to the monestary and today over 900 boys and girls attend this school. Over time, as is usual with older buildings, major renovations are needed. Most recently, the funds came from a sale of the Abbey's copy of a Gutenburg Bible that was sold to Harvard. Today, the Abbey funds come from agriculture items and tourism.

First, we are taken up the Imperial Staircase to the Imperial Corridor. 

At one time Kaiser Franz Stephen von Lothringen was commander and ruler of the German-Roman Empire between 1745 and 1765, and lived here with his wife, Maria Theresia, who is related to the Castle Schonbrunn we saw in Vienna. This area is now a modern museum with exhibit halls. I found an interesting website that has some beautiful pictures of the modern museum inside the Abbey complex. http://www.stiftmelk.at/englisch/frame_museum.html  My pictures just were not clear enough for you to see these exhibits well and this site has some great information.

If you happen to visit this abbey, check out the optical illusion displays, too. There is a portrait of Leopold II whose eyes follow you around the room. Even the shoes seems to move as you walk by. There wasn't any way I could have taken a picture of this unless I took a movie and it was too crowded for that. In another room, the ceiling is flat but appears to be a domed ceiling because of the way it is painted. One of the most treasured exhibits is the Melk Cross, or Melker Kreuz. It contains a fingernail-size piece of the Cross of Christ and was brought to Melk around 1040 by Margrave Adalbert. The cross should be seen from both the front and the back sides. The front of the cross is set with jewels (diamonds, emeralds, rubies and freshwater pearls) while the back side is plainer with the crucifix of Christ and four Evangelists at each of the rounded points. The cross can only be opened by simultaneously turning the aquamarine stones at the four corners of the cross.  

The room with the model of the complex isn't large but the model rotates so the viewer only has to stand on one place to see the entire model. Click on the above mentioned web link and go to Room 11 to read about this exhibit and the symoblism of the moving table exhibit .


Next, we entered the Marble Hall with the fresco ceiling painted by Paul Troger (1731). Pallas Athena is on a chariot drawn by lions as a symbol of wisdom and moderation. Hercules can be seen to her left, symbolizing the force necessary to conquer the three-headed hound of hell, night and sin. Both Pallas and Hercules allude to Emperor Karl VI, who liked to be celebrated as a successor to the Roman emperors in the Hercles legend. This quest shows the essence of the House of Habsburg: The ruler brings the people from dark to light, from evil to good. This room served as a dining hall for the Imperial family as well as a festive hall. The upper circular windows even open. The door frames are genuine marble and the walls are stucco marble. The architectual painting on the ceiling fresco is by Gaetano Fanti.

We step out to the balcony and take in the wonderful view of the countryside. The Danube River can be seen in the far right inf the picture.  This balcony sits over the Coloman Courtyard. St. Coloman was Austria's first patron saint and is still the patron saint of the town and the monestry in Melk. A mass is celebrated on October 13th in his honor and the town celebrates with a big festival on this day.

We leave the balcony and enter the library. Besides the Abbey Church, this is the second most important place in the monestary with 12 rooms housing many manuscripts and printed works for a total of over 100,000 volumes. 16,000 volumes are housed here at the abbey (not sure where the rest are). They are organized (but not by Dewey Decimal) with Bible editions in Row I, theology in Rows II to VII, jurisprudence in Row VIII, geography and astronomy in Row VIIII, history in Rows X to XVI and ending with the baroque lexica in Row XVI.

The ceiling fresco is by the same artist that painted the Marble Hall, Paul Troger (1731-1732) and symbolizes "Faith." In the center, you might recognize the female figure is Faith and she is surrounded by four groups of angels, who stand for the four Cardinal Virtues: Prudence, Justice, Fortitude and Temperance. The four wooden sculptures are depictions of the four faculties: Theology, Philosophy, Medicine and Jurisprudence.

An interesting object/display cabinet is the Mobius/infinity display. Items on this display belong to the Waldzell collection which recognizes individuals that have made outstanding contributions in the fields of science, art, politics, business and spirituality. The combination of a mobius strip and the infinity icon represents self-reflection and the boundlessness of our knowledge.

From the library we head to the Abbey Church where flowers are still on display from an art exhibit by Stefan Strauss in memory of his brother Martin Strauss. The National Apprenticeship Competition is for leading florists artists from Austria, Germany and Switzerland and the flowers have a symbolic meaning for each particular saint. The same website I mentioned before has additional information and the legends to go with the displays.   For example, the flowers on St. Michael's Altar are called "angels trumpets" and the flowers on St. Coloman's Altar are elderflowers (see the legend on the website). St. Nicholas' Altar has three buttercups and an interesting legend to go with it. More than 12,000 orchid buds are connected to gold wire and seem to fall out of the dome like a waterfall.



Then, we headed to Salzburg for two nights at Hotel Belmondo. I found we have an Internet connection there but as you might guess I was too tired to update the blog in a timely manner. It was cool enough that we did not need airconditioning but we were glad to have the fan as a back up. It wasn't cool enough to need the heated towel bars but I thought that was special. I'll go ahead and mention it - the toilets have two flush options (a little and a lot of water). How economical of valuable resources! 

We did an evening tour of the town just before our 8 pm dinner reservations. Dinner was good, the salad wonderful and dessert was an Austrian apricot treat, I believe.

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