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Austrian Treasure on the Danube River

by Bonnie Carroll

A short Viking River Cruise bus trip from the Melk landing on the Danube began an unforgettable afternoon delight experience at the historic Melk Abbey. The Benedictine Abbey, located above the town of Melk, a small riverside town (population 5,200) on south bank adjoining the Danube River and the Wachau Valley. Located 86 miles west of Vienna, the Wachau Valley it is a warm and sunny 30 km long valley between Krems and Melk.

The abbey was founded in 1089 when Leopold II of Austria gave one of his castles to the Benedictine monks of Lambach Abbey. A monastic school, the Stiftsgymnasium Melk, was founded in the 12th century, and the monastic library soon became renowned for its extensive manuscript collection. The monastery's scriptorium was also a major site for the production of manuscripts. In the 15th century the abbey became the center of the Melk Reform movement which reinvigorated the monastic life of Austria and Southern Germany. The abbey contains the tomb of Saint Coloman of Stockerau, the remains of several members of the House of Babenberg, Austria's first ruling dynasty, and a treasury of priceless religious objects.

Priceless Religious Artifact

Today's Baroque abbey was built between 1702 and 1736, and was designed by Jakob Prandtauer. Particularly noteworthy are the abbey church with exquisite frescos by Johann Michael Rottmayr and the library with countless medieval manuscripts, including a famed collection of musical manuscripts and frescos by Paul Troger. The frescoed ceiling of St. Benedict's triumphal ascent to Heaven by Rottmayr on the ceiling of the church is simply amazing.

Melk Abbey Library Fresco

Due to its fame and academic stature, Melk managed to escape dissolution under Emperor Joseph II when many other Austrian abbeys were seized and dissolved between 1780 and 1790. The abbey managed to survive other threats to its existence during the Napoleonic Wars, and also in the period following the Anschluss in 1938, when the school and a large part of the abbey were confiscated by the state. The school was returned to the abbey after the World War II and now educates 900 pupils of both sexes. Among its alumni was the 19th-century Austrian dramatist and short-story writer, Friedrich Halm.

Grand Hall Fresco

A visit to this historic and revered abbey is something travelers will never forget. The architecture, art, beautiful grounds and historic details make it one of the most desired tourist destinations in Austria. The entrance provides an upper view of the abbey down the steps to the entrance to the immense inner Prelates courtyard of the abbey, where countess royals and guest would have entered with their carriages and entourage to enjoy visits while traveling through the region. The exhibits containing jeweled crosses, furniture, religious items, sculptures and portraits of historic abbey residents provide a Villages along the Danube with wonderful wineries hosting some of the best Austrian wine include Emmersdorf, Spitz, Aggsbach, Weissenkirchen, and Dürnstein. The Melk Abbey houses a well stocked gift shop featuring wonderful signature wines, along with unique condiments, printed copies and photographs of abbey art and architecture, art clothing items, signature bookmarks and keepsake gift items.

Melk Pavilion in the Garden Frescoes

The Abbey landscape is artistic and perfectly kept, and includes many unusual flowers and geometric hedge designs. Every view from this Melk location is amazing, making this abbey one that visiting photographers delight in. I especially loved the landscape surrounding the Pavilion Cafe, a charming pastel building with inside walls and ceiling covered with captivating frescoes, where visitors stop to enjoy local delicacies of home-made desserts like apple strudel with vanilla sauce with unique coffee creations or a pot of tea. The Baroque Pavilion was built in the 18th century in the Abbey park, and it is filled with historical frescoes which show the then known continents and their inhabitants as well as their flora and fauna as imagined by the painter Johann Bergl.

Melk Abbey Pavilion in the Garden

The great hall and the library (which contains 80,000 volumes) are fascinating in every detail, and contain documents and artwork that leave visitors in awe. The church with its 200-ft dome and symmetrical twin towers, dominates the abbey complex and emphasizes its sacred purpose. Damaged by fire in 1947, the church is now almost completely restored, even to the gold-bullion gilding of statues and altars. I spent some time taking photos and saying a few prayers; it is heavenly in design and obviously a place where for centuries religious have devoted their lives to God, and many prayers have been shared by visitors.


                       Melk Church                                   

The baroque spiral staircase, located between the library and church was like something from a dream sequence in an Alfred Hitchcock film, showcasing elegant architectural detail and surreal color. I was told by our guide that these buildings were originally colored in pastels like yellow, lilac and blue, and many portions have been restored to their original lovely pastel hues. The spiral staircase has been viewed as a metaphor for both personal growth and historical development. Rather than ascending along a linear plane, we find ourselves tracing circles along the staircase as we move inevitably upward.

Melk Abbey Spiral Staircase

If you are traveling to Austria I highly recommend you include this treasure on your list of things you must see. English Tours of the Abbey: daily mid-March through October at 14:55; cost: € 11.50 including tour and admission to the Abbey. Buy tickets at the south side of the Abbey For assistance planning a tour to Melk Abbey contact www.wien-info.com, or www.MelkAbbey.com. If you are considering a river cruise that includes the Melk Abbey visit: www.vikingrivercruises.com.



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© 2008 Bonnie Carroll, All Rights Reserved