August 7, 2011
This morning, we took a more leisurely breakfast on the Gartenhotel Pfeffel’s terrace overlooking the Danube. This is supposed to be a vacation, after all. After checking out, we double back a bit to the town of Durnstein. Don’t blink or you might miss it! We pay for parking just outside the old town, across from a vineyard (weingut). A short tour of the medieval town brings us back in time, except for the electronics stores and refrigerators in the bakeries.
Once again, we’re struck by how clean everything is—even the road and the parking lot.
We find a mistake in Frommer’s and Lonely Planet’s guidebooks: “apricot” in Austrian German is not “apricose,” but “marillen.” There are marillen brandy, schnapps, jam and preserves available everywhere. Comparison shop, though, to get the best price.
The hotel Richard Lowenherz (Richard the Lionheart) is in the middle of the village—actually, there’s only one street—right next to Sanger Blondel hotel. That’s fitting. On his way back from the Crusades in the 11th century, Richard was imprisoned in Austria by Duke Leopold. No one knew where he was. Blondel, Richard’s “close friend,” so the story goes, searched for him. Blondel would sing or whistle one of Richard’s favourite songs as he went. When Blondel sang below the Burg Durnstein, Richard sang back. Blondel had found him, and reported back to England, which eventually paid a huge ransom.
The Burg is now the “Burgruine Durnstein,” on top of the hill above the town and the blue-painted monastery. It’s a tiring climb up a path, especially with the hot sun beating down. But it’s well worth the climb. The ruin has towers and loopholes, even a room with a cage-door. It can’t be the same bars that held Richard a thousand years ago—the iron is in better shape than the remains of the stone! But it’s fun to fantasize about the Lionheart in there.
From the ruins, you can also see the hiking paths that follow the high ground. You can hike from hut to hut in Austria, so you don’t have to lug a tent or campstove.
Back down in Durnstein, we go down to the river and dip our feet in the Danube.
We drive back upriver to Krems, another medieval town with modern appendages. We have a very nice lunch just outside the old walls and take a look at the towers. Since it’s Sunday, though, the shops are closed.
We then head upriver for the monastery of Melk. One of our guidebooks described it as “cherubs run amok.” This is an immense abbey at the top of a hill that commands the town and the river, as well. Just in terms of real estate, it’s amazing. It shows how much wealth you can accumulate by making and selling wine. The monks apparently had quite a vineyard, as well as a dairy and a complete farm.
The architecture achieves the heights of baroque decoration verging on the rococo. There are pink or marble cherubs everywhere, and every inch of every ceiling and wall is sculpted or painted. Gold is not in short supply here.
Melk’s church has one of the most bizarre displays I’ve ever seen: along the shrines in the little alcoves along the sides of the church are displays of skeletons dressed in medieval armour and honourary clothing, inside glass coffins. Signs explain that the skeletons came from catacombs and were donated by Empress Maria Theresia in the 18thcentury. That doesn’t explain anything.
The library is very interesting, too, so don’t miss it. There’s an old globe, and record books of noble families going back a millennium.
The sky is getting lower as we leave Melk for a drive through the lake country as it rises toward the Alps. We arrive in St. Wolfgang on the Wolfgangsee to the best value of all hotels we’ve stayed at so far: the Hotel Peter. If you come, make sure you say hello to Maurice, the hotel’s cat.