There are four things that I enjoy most about river cruising. The first is the opportunity to sit back and let the scenery unfold before my eyes – no crumpled maps or driving arguments, long bus journeys or missed trains. The second is the luxury of unpacking only once and having my belongings float with me along the river (on this cruise we visit four countries: Hungary, Slovak Republic, Austria and Germany). The third is that no sea legs are required; it’s impossible to get seasick on a river cruise. And the fourth is the little gems that I manage to discover along the way.
On my cruise from Budapest to Nuremberg, there are excursions and guided walking tours each day. Most last about one hour and provide an orientation of each place with ample opportunity to wander around and explore on my own after the organised tours.
I explore cobblestone villages, gaze at magnificent medieval churches, admire splendid Gothic, Romanesque and Baroque buildings, sip schnapps in Durnstein (where Richard the Lion Heart was held captive by Duke Leopold V in 1193) and fill up on sausages and beer at Germany’s oldest sausage kitchen in Regensburg.
By the time the ship docks at Melk, many of the guests have taken up the mantra: “oh no, not another bloody church”. And some decide to stay on board.
If you’ve seen Umberto Eco’s monastery mystery Name of the Rose, you might think that Melk Abbey, where the author researched his book, is filled with damp dungeons and dusty books.
The first inkling I’m on the wrong track is the impressionistic contemporary art frescoes painted on the outside walls of one of the courtyards. It’s not quite what you’d expect at a Benedictine monastery that has been home to monks for over 900 years.
I follow the museum guide into the Emperor’s Gallery, where the cream of European society who visited the abbey throughout the centuries was once accommodated. These days, the former VIP rooms are now occupied by the Abbey Museum, a 21st century showcase of Benedictine grandeur.
The museum is a treasure trove of ancient relics displayed behind modern glass cases. Rooms are bathed in soft luminescent lighting; the first room is blue, the next lime green, then gold and so on.
The Austrian word hore (listen) is projected on some walls. Video presentations and laser projections of ancient words give the museum a kind of space-age ambience. Mirrors are used everywhere for effect. The result is a combination of technology and old European grandeur. I feel like I’m walking through the set of a Star Wars sequel.
The museum’s story starts with Saint Benedict who founded the Benedictine order.
Melk Abbey was built as a castle for Austria’s Babenberg rulers. In 1089, Leopold II gave the castle to Benedictine monks and throughout history the Babenbergs donated relics and works of art to the monastery.
Interesting items on display include a 16th-century steel strongbox with twenty locks that snap shut at the turn of a tiny key and a medieval painting of Christ’s Passion depicting Pontius Pilate in the turban of a Turk.
The Marble Hall is a marvel of ornate imperial baroque style. The 18th century ceiling fresco by Paul Troger shows Greek goddess Pallas Athena on a chariot drawn by lions.
Between the Marble Hall and the Great Library is an open-air terrace with a view of the town and the Danube River.
The library was once one of the greatest in medieval Christendom and is housed in a baroque building of similar decor to the Marble Hall. Around 100,000 manuscripts, incunabula (printed works before 1500) and books fill the floor-to-ceiling bookcases.
There are carved wooden reading tables in the centre of the library, bay windows and display cases for some of the library’s most treasured items.
The next stop is the abbey church, which is a spectacular baroque affair with twin onion-domed towers, a high cupola and gold pulpit. Mass is conducted on Sundays and there are midday prayers here each day.
Melk Abbey is a gem that survived the days of Emperor Joseph II, the Holy Roman Emperor who closed down many other Austrian abbeys during his rule. It survived the Napoleonic Wars and the Nazi Anschluss where Austria became part of Nazi Germany in 1938.
To those who stayed on board, all I can say is Melk Abbey is definitely a gem worth visiting.