A Scenic Cruise Through the Wachau Valley

The Viking Lif set sail from Vienna just before midnight on Saturday July 6th. When we awoke, we were well on our way (westbound) toward the city of Melk, where we would be making a midday stop to visit Melk Abbey – a 900 year old Benedictine abbey that overlooks the town and the Danube from a dramatic hilltop location.

Before leaving home, a good friend of ours who is somewhat of a cruising afficianado, told me not to be surprised at the amount of cruise traffic on the Danube. He said, “while there are a number of cruise line brands that market to North America, there are countless more that talk directly to a European audience and you’ll see a lot of unfamilliar names on the sides of ships”. He wasn’t exaggerating, and here is an example of what he was talking about.

As we approached the town of Krems this morning, we passed this ship operated by A’Rosa Cruises – a German-based company that operates a fleet of 11 cruise ships. I lost track of how many different cruise ship lines we encountered on our journey, but there were certainly a lot of them.

Overnight, we had covered the 77 kilometres between Vienna and the town of Krems, and it was now time for Mary and I to venture out to the upper deck to claim a couple of chairs and soak up the scenery as we entered the Wachau Valley (check out the aerial photograph below)

The Wachau valley is one of the most prominent tourist destinations of Lower Austria and in addition to offering spectacular scenery, it is known for its high-quality wines. It is 36 kilometres (22 miles) in length and was already settled in prehistoric times. In December 2000, the entire valley was inscribed into the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in recognition of its architectural and agricultural history.

Our first “wow” of the morning was the huge baroque bulk of Goettweig Abbey which overlooked the Danube on our left.

There have been other structures on this hilltop, but the one we saw today dates to 1718, after the previous building had been destroyed by a fire. The abbey is said to have fine collections of coins and manuscripts, and derives much of its operating income from the vineyards around it. It also apparently has a really important library which thankfully survived WWII and some of the immediate aftermath without any losses.

The first large downriver town in the Wachau Gorge is Krems with a population of around 22,000. It has a modern harbour and various light industries that we could see from the ship as we passed by.

Its hard to imagine looking at it today, but in the middle ages it was bigger and more important than Vienna and derived its wealth from control of the wine, salt and iron-ore trade along the Danube.

One of the unique factors about the Wachau Valley is the complete absence of bridges spanning the Danube. We could see that there is a well-developed road network which follows the contour of the valley, but ferries and private boats are the only way to get from one side to the other.

In fact, the last bridge we encountered at the beginning of the valley was the one in the picture below, at the town of Mautern. It has twice played an important role in the history of Austria, but today it it the last link between the left and right side of the Danube for more than 15 miles.

Shortly after passing under this bridge, Program Director Leonard told us to be on the lookout off the left hand side of the ship, for what he described as “the strangest and ugliest statue we would see on our cruise”. He was referring to the Wachauer Nose which resides beside the St. Lorenz ferry stop.

To Mary and I, it looked as if a giant was buried underground with only his nose sticking out, and apparently the nostrils are big enough for people to stand inside. It is meant to represent the idea of breathing in the scents of the Wachau, from the flowers, to the fruit, to the grapes that the wine is made from. Who really nose why its there? (I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t insert a bad pun in my blogs every so often).

The next village we encountered was Loiben which gets its’ name from a slavic word meaning “love”, and is a reminder that Slavic people once inhabited this area until driven back down-river by later Germanic peoples.

In a battle described by Tolstoy in “War and Peace”, a combined Russian and Austrian force defeated a French army near this spot. He recounts how victorious forces threw the bodies of 5,000 soldiers into the Danube still wearing their blue uniforms. The Russian General is supposed to have remarked that the waters of the Danube had become blue.

Just as we passed the town of Loiben, Program Director Leonard announced “have your cameras ready as we come around the bend and the panorama of Durnstein, the “Pearl of the Wachau”, unfolds before you“.

On the left side of the picture below, you can see the ruins of Durnstein Castle, more commonly referred to as the Castle of “Richard the Lionheart”.

We would get much closer to it with more spectacular close-up views, but first we had to pass by the small medieval town of Durnstein itself. It is a pretty little town that is built on a huge rock-terrace that protects it from flooding, and it is surrounded by its’ old city walls and towers. Above all, the view we had of Durnstein was dominated by the blue and white baroque tower of the Monastery (pictured below). It was built between 1721 and 1725 and paid for entirely from profits made by the Abbot who very successfully dealt in the wine and wheat trade.

The King of England, Richard the Lionheart, really was held prisoner in Durnstein castle. He managed to offend the Duke of Austria during a crusade to the Holy Land and was subsequently arrested as he attempted to find his way home via Austria after having been shipwrecked off Italy. He traveled in disguise but apparently made the mistake of trying to pay for a meal with an English coin. He was arrested and kept in the castle for four months during the winter of 1192-1993 until the English paid a huge ransom which was used to build the city of Neustadt (“New City”) to the south of Vienna.

The castle has been abandoned and in state of ruin since the late 1600’s and is easily accessible by foot from the town below.

The Ruins of Durnstein Castle

Legend has it that Richard the Lionheart’s faithful minstrel, Blondel, toured Europe singing under the walls of all the castles he could, trying to find Richard. He is said to have sang a song that only he and Richard knew. As the legend goes, it was at Durnstein where Blondel finally heard his master’s voice join in the refrain. A statue portraying Blondel singing (seen in the picture below) has been erected on the shore of the Danube, just past the base of the castle.

Four kilometres past Durnstein, the ship passed by Weissenkirchen, a lovely wine-growing town with old houses, and a shoreline dominated by a rather large white church.

The church dates back to the 14th century, and the defense tower was added to it in 1531, as part of the town’s fortification to protect the village against the Ottomans.

A bit further along the river, we passed the Church of St, Michael which for centuries was the most important church in the Wachau valley. The building we could see dates back to the early 1500’s and it has a unique architectural element to it.

You’ll have to take my word for this, but in the area I have circled in the picture below, there is a series of small rabbit statues along the ridge of the roof. Mary and I could see them through her binoculars but I didn’t have a powerful enough zoom on my camera to get a good picture.

Our trip was filled with wonderful stories and legends that Program Director Leonard shared with us in a Ripley’s Believe-it-or-not-type fashion. In this case it is said that on a terribly cold winter’s day, a storm brought so much snow down the hill towards the Danube, the gap between the hill and the church was filled with it. One could literally step from the snowbanks onto the roof of the church. That evening, seven young rabbits hopped down from the hillside and settled on the roof to rest. They fell asleep on the roof and during the night, a warm wind blew through the valley melting all the snow away. When the rabbits awoke, they were stranded on the roof with no way to get down. Over the years they turned to weathered stone having never found a way off the top of the church.

Continuing west along the Danube, the next village of significance was Spitz with its vast terraced slope that resembles an amphitheatre. It is known as the “Mountain of a Thousand Buckets”, because it is said to produce a thousand buckets of wine in a good year.

Like many of the towns and villages we passed in the Wachau Valley, Spitz was a Protestant stronghold that suffered the consequences when it was plundered by the Catholic troops of the Hapsburg Emperor, Ferdinand II, during the Thirty Year’ War (1618 to 1648). Today it is a market town serving as an important stop for the wine trade along the Danube.

Beyond its importance to the wine trade, Spitz is most famous for the Fortress of Hinterhaus located on the top of hill that overlooks the town.

At the turn of the 13th century, the Fortress was home to Henry I of Kuenring, the man responsible for imprisoning Richard the Lionheart at Durnstein Castle. Henry was a German nobleman who for some reason was quite indifferent toward his wife Adelheit van Feldberg. According to yet another local legend, the ghost of Adel resides in the castle.

Adel died after a short marriage, and Henry married again after only a few months. Tradition at the time demanded that a man wait for a year before remarrying but Henry went against protocol. Adel is said to hold a grudge against her husband for such “unkindness”. Thus, on certain nights a woman in a white dress can be seen wandering through the ruins crying “Nit a Year! Nit a Year!” (“Not a whole year, not a whole year!”)

I’ve mentioned in previous posts how interested I am in “all things transportation-related”, so I was really intrigued to learn about the ferry that crosses the Danube at Spitz.

File:Spitz (Niederösterreich). Car ferry crossing the Danube. - panoramio.jpg

It is a cable ferry that has no motor or sail, and is powered by a rudder while anchored to a cable above the river. The captain uses the rudder to guide the ferry against the current .The ferry carries passengers, bicycles, cars, and motorcycles. (note: this is a photo from a Trip Advisor post as the ferry was not active at the point we passed by Spitz).

Just past the castle was a cliff of bare rock known as the “Devil’s Wall”. All of my pictures looked like an indistinguishable pile of rock, so I opted to include this 1844 painting by an unknown author to illustrate yet another local legend. There are in fact four different legends associated with the Devil’s Wall, but I will share with you the one that is most often repeated

Cascading down the side of a hill is a wall of boulders said to have been built by the devil. According to the legend, the devil felt obliged to get rid of St. Johann’s church on the other side of the Danube. To do so, he decided to build a dam across the river, thereby flooding the church. Because the devil could only do his evil work before the first rooster crowed at dawn, he bought up all the cocks in the area to prevent them from crowing before he finished his dam Still, one villager managed to hide his cock (sorry this sounds so rude), who promptly heralded the rising sun at dawn with an outraged crow after being pinched by his owner.. The devil had to abandon his work and flee–but on his way he shot the cock weathervane on the roof of St. Johann on the other side of the Danube.

Th viilage of Willendorf (pictured below) has become famous for prehistoric finds which indicate that the Wachau Valley was inhabited some 30,000 years ago by men who hunted woolly mammoth.

The most remarkable find to date has been dubbed the Venus of Willendorf and it was discovered in 1908 by a workman during excavations at a paleolithic site. It is carved from limestone that is not native to the area and tinted with red ochre. Very little is known about its origin, method of creation or cultural significance but it apparently never had feet and does not stand on its own. It was likely pegged into soft ground. We did not stop here but I was so fascinated by the story, I did a little more reading about her.

Archaeologists believe she was some type of fertility or mother goddess due to her exaggerated sexual features. The figure has no visible face, her head being covered with circular horizontal bands of what might be rows of plaited hair, or perhaps a type of headdress.

As we neared our mid-day destination, the city of Melk, Program Director Leonard mentioned that there were two more castles of significance that we would be passing by. The first was Aggstein Castle which is perched some 980 feet above the river.

It belonged to the Lords of Kuenring who expanded Austrian territories at the expense of Germany, but the Lords aroused the jealousy of the Dukes of Austria who twice stormed the castle during the 13th century. Considered impregnable by Hadmar III, it was only by methods such as starvation and trickery that the castle was ever successfully conquered.

In later years the castle passed into the hands of Georg Scheck won Wald who made it into one of the strongest on the river. Georg – according to legend – was a cruel man who often kidnapped people and held them for ransom. He is said to have placed his prisoners on the spur of rock at the foot of the castle and given them three choices: they could be freed on the receipt of a ransom, they could starve to death, or they could jump to their deaths onto the rocks below.

Last but not least, we passed by the imposing Schoenbuehel Castle which stands guard at the entrance to the Wachau Gorge, some 130 feet above the Danube.

The original castle dates back to the 12th century, but the one before us today was rebuilt between 1819 and 1821. Since that time the castle has been in private hands and is not open for sightseeing or guided tours. Pity that!.

Shortly after passing Schoenbuehel Castle, Captain Anne began slowing the Viking Lif in preparation for docking at Melk, and our tour of Melk Abbey. The Abbey slowly came in to view to our left and the two pictures below, show how it looked to us on the approach.

It certainly looked amazing and if the inside was anything like the outside, we were in for a treat. The only problem was, the sky was darkening, the winds were whipping around us, and for the first time on our trip, we were about to deal with nasty weather.

More on the weather and Melk Abbey in my next post.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Barbara Higgs says:

    I am impressed with how detailed your posts are. How do you remember all this? Do you take notes or is your memory just that good? I find I have to jot down names of places as I go along or I remember nothing but how much I enjoyed seeing things! I do keep a small journal every day so that I can remember where I have been and what I have seen and done, but certainly not as detailed as yours.


    1. I make bullet point notes on the fly in my phone or in a little notepad, and when and where I can pick up leaflets or handouts to fill in the holes. I try and flesh out the notes at the end of each day because there is no way I would remember it once I got home and started writing.


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