They’re perched along the Danube River like bookends of the Wachau Valley. The powder blue church tower of Dürnstein peeks out at the beginning of this stretch of the Danube, just beyond the town of Krems, official start of the 24-mile Wachau Valley. At the other end sits the apricot-colored abbey of Melk, majestically marking the end point of this beautiful part of the river.
Both towns are small – Dürnstein’s population is a mere 900, with Melk’s a little larger at 5,000. Both are touristy and tourist-filled. And both feel like they’re from another place and time, towns where you find yourself using words like cute and charming at every turn.
As we headed up the road into town, the ruins of Dürnstein Castle loomed overhead. Most famously known as the spot where Richard the Lionheart was held captive in 1192 by the Duke of Austria, the castle seems to be as much a part of Dürnstein as the town itself. It’s an easy walk, past vineyards, hidden views of the Danube and the Ferry Station. Our guide explained that there is no ferry schedule. When you need to cross the river, you simply ring a bell!
The streets of Dürnstein seem like they could be taken from the pages of a fairy tale book. Cobblestoned streets, pretty shuttered houses painted in pastel tones, flowers cascading from window boxes, quaint signs marking the entrance to shops and cafés. It’s a place that I simply wanted to take in rather than be guided around, and I was happy that most of our time there was on our own.
An organ concert was echoing through the courtyard when we arrived at Dürnstein Abbey. The former Augustinian monastery, formed in 1410, was rebuilt in 1710 in the Baroque style and today serves as a local church. We stepped inside and listened to the music for a little while before taking in the views from the church’s terrace.
We wandered back through town, stopping in various shops along the way. Wine and apricot-related goods are the big draw in Dürnstein. I truly believe this tiny town may have more artisan shops per capita than anywhere in the world! We picked up a couple of souvenirs before heading back to the Mozart.
The Dürnstein ferry station was empty when we reached the path near the river. A wooden boat with a blue and white striped awning was making its was across the river.
Someone had rung the bell.
It was late afternoon when Melk Abbey began announcing its presence on the Danube horizon. At first, only its towers appeared through the trees, but as the Mozart turned around the bend, the abbey in all its grand Baroque-ness began calling out from the hillside above. Like the palaces and cathedrals we’ve visited on this trip, Melk Abbey is a larger-than-life architectural feat. But its location on the river – above us – makes its size seem a little more formidable.
We waited for our tour to begin at the top of a magnificent double-sided stone staircase with views overlooking the abbey gardens and the valley beyond. I immediately got the feeling that Melk Abbey’s spectacular setting would be rivaling the abbey itself.
Beyond the garden lies the entrance to the abbey. And beyond the entrance is a sprawling courtyard anchored with a center fountain.The abbey was founded in 1089, and the Baroque structure was built between 1702 and 1736.
Our guide Lisa Marie welcomed us and began the tour in a the abbey museum. She told us that thirty monks and priests between the ages of 31 and 93 live at Melk Abbey, and that although it seems like an old-world existence, the abbey is clearly connected with the twenty-first century.
“Will you please tell your guests that we use Facebook, Instagram and Twitter?” the abbot asked me to tell you.”
~ Melk Abbey tour guide Lisa Marie
We toured the Marble Hall, Abbey Church and beautiful old library, but I found myself – and my camera – being drawn more toward the outside spaces. Most disappointing, photography is forbidden in the library, which I thought was quite ironic after practically wearing out my camera in Prague’s Strahov Monastery Library and Vienna’s Austrian National Library!
Just before the tour ended, I left the group and stood at the edge of a terrace that wraps around the abbey. That night we would be leaving the Wachau Valley, and I wanted one final picture of this lovely swath of the Danube planted firmly in my mind before moving on.