“Picturesque” Personified: The Wachau Valley, Austria
Dürnstein Stiftskirche and Burgruine Dürnstein
The distinctive blue and white tower of the Durnstein Parish Church, the Stiftskirche, with the ruins of the the Kuenringer Castle high overhead, is considered a principal landmark along the picturesque Wachau Valley in Lower Austria.
It’s hard to imagine how the Wachau Valley could be any prettier!
“The Wachau” is the name given the narrow gorge where the Danube River runs between the Bohemian Massif on the northwest, and the Dunkelsteiner Woods to the southeast. For roughly fourty kilometres between the Lower Austrian cities of Melk and Krems, the hilltops are dotted with castle ruins and the hillsides are covered with vineyards and apricot orchards punctuated by delightful towns.
The best way to appreciate the area’s charm is by boat. We were lucky: my husband and I were enjoying a seven day cruise along the Danube, starting in Nuremberg and stopping in Regensburg, Kelheim and Passau. We’d spent the morning exploring Melk Abbey, and had returned to our boat for an early lunch, and the much-anticipated cruise along the Wachau.
UNESCO-listed as “a landscape of high visual quality”, the Wachau is recognised for its “medieval landscape which has evolved organically and harmoniously over time”. People have lived here since the Palaeolithic age: the Venus of Galgenberg (about 32,000 years old) and the Venus of Willendorf (approximately 26,000 years old), two priceless examples of stone-age art, were discovered in the region. The early Celtic settlers started clearing the forests here during the Neolithic period and planted grapes. In 15 BC, the Celtic kingdom of Noricum became part of the Roman Empire, and the Romans elevated the local wine production to a real art. By the Renaissance, 31 monasteries in the Wachau owned vineyards. Today, the Wachau continues to attract connoisseurs and epicureans for its high-quality white wines.
I think we had a glass or two with lunch…
We caught sight of Castle Schoenbuehel from our cabin window as our boat left its moorings in Melk. That signalled the start of our cruise through the Wachau Valley; it was our cue to go up to the decks to watch the scenery roll past and to listen to the purser’s explanatory commentary.
Canal Boat on the Danube River
Our boat heads into the gorge that forms “the Wachau”.
Castle Schoenbuehel sits 40 metres (130 ft) above the bank of the Danube; it was begun in the early 12th century as a defensive fortress.
Small communities and tourist enterprises nestle in the bends of the river.
Hotel Donauterrasse – Aggsbach Dorf
A few minutes further down the river, we come to the ruins of the 12th century Aggstein Castle.
Sitting 300 metres (980 ft) above the right bank of the Danube at the Wachau’s narrowest point, this castle was once home to robber-barons who plundered passing ships.
Another Village, Another Church
This charming church in the district of Rossatz-Arnsdorf is St. Johann im Mauerthale.
Vineyards and Villages, Wachau Valley
While we watch the passing scenery, the men in the wheelhouse keep track of our progress.
Terraced Vineyards – Wachau Valley
The Wachau is a source of Austria’s most prized dry Rieslings and Grüner Veltliners. The region has it’s own strict internal guidelines for wine classification and labelling.
Hinterhaus Castle Ruins, Spitz
The hillside behind the old market town of Spitz is dominated by the ruins of the 12th century Hinterhaus Castle. The ruins are said to be haunted by Adelheid, the dead wife of ‘Henry the Iron’, who married a little too hastily after Adelheid’s death.
Church of Saint Rupert, Hofarnsdorf
Through the Tunnel to St. Michael
Wehrkirche St. Michael
Around the year 800, Charlemagne erected a sanctuary to St Michael here, supplanting a small, much older, Celtic sacrificial site.
Wehrkirche St. Michael
The foundations of the fortified gothic church of St Michael which stands here now, were started in 1395 – although most of the building and it’s defence systems were built in the 1500s.
Fishing on the Danube
Wösendorf and Weißenkirchen in the Vineyards
Wösendorf an der Donau
The late Baroque church in Wösendorf was one of my favourites.
Weißenkirchen in der Wachau
Creamy-white buildings with red tiled roofs feature in the pretty little town called – appropriately enough – “White Churches in the Wachau”.
Statue of Richard the Lionheart and Blondel the Minstrel
In the 12th century, Richard the Lionheart, King of England, was imprissioned near here at the Kuenringerburg Castle (now in ruins) for showing disrespect to the Austrian flag. His French aide Blondel is said to have helped negotiate his release, which cost “a kingly ransom of 35,000 kg of silver.”
The ruins of Kuenringerburg Castle can just be seen on the hillside as we approach Durnstein.
Durnstein Parish Church and Castle Ruins
The distinctive blue tower of the Dürnstein Stiftskirche (“Pen Church”) is one of the best known landmarks of the Wachau Valley. The blue colour is from smalte, an early cobalt pigment much loved in ancient Egyptian decoration, in Venetian glass production, and in Baroque painting.
Pfarrkirche – Parish Church – at Unterloiben
Krems an der Donau and Benediktinerstift Göttweig
Göttweig Abbey, sitting up on the hill behind Krems, was founded as a monastery in 1072. The current abbey replaced the monastery that burnt down in 1718.
Donaubrücke Stein-Mautern Krems a.d. Donau
When we approach the Mauterner Bruecke between Mautern and Krems, we know we are coming to the end of the Wachau, …
The end of the Wachau Valley, …
… but not the end of our trip.
We navigated through the locks and continued downstream to Vienna.
More about that some other time.
In the meantime,