This river boat ride through the romantic Wachau Valley is a chance to immerse yourself in the rich history of this portion of the Danube River, from a working abbey established in the 1st century to a ruined castle steeped in myth.
The excursion begins at Melk Abbey, a gold, ivory and rust monument to Baroque architecture built on a rocky outcrop. After the abbey tour, board a large river boat and slowly motor through Austria’s vineyards, apricot orchards, and sleepy villages with castles at their peaks.
A stop at the village of Dürnstein, where King Richard the Lionheart was held prisoner during the Crusades, is a chance to link history to legend. And speaking of history, the merchants’ town of Krems is known as the oldest Austrian town.
The total experience takes eight hours and happens year-round, barring winter weather too difficult for the boats to operate.
Begin your day at Melk Abbey, a massive, stately institution situated above the Danube River. The Benedictine abbey, first founded in 1089, has survived fires, wars, and changes in government over the nearly thousand years since. But since it’s been in continuous operation during that time, the abbey’s assets and architectural details have been lovingly preserved, rebuilt and restored.
The current 18th-century structure is a fine example of Baroque architecture, with distinctive golden-yellow outer walls, red peaked roofs and ornate domes and spires of patinaed copper. Inside, the glories of the period are even more evident, with a grand hall built of brown marble, gold leaf accenting every pillar and statue, and frescoes adorning every ceiling. The abbey is also home to an extensive library, known as a scriptorium, and its monk-preserved manuscripts line the towering wood and gold walls.
After the grandeur of Melk, climb aboard a Danube river boat that glides at a leisurely pace through the deep-green hills and glittering water. Along the way, you might sip a glass of Austrian wine as you view the vineyards that produced it, lining the steep banks. Apricot orchards dot the landscape, whose microclimate results in the exceptional taste and smell of the Wachau variety.
Sleepy, red-roofed villages line the lower banks of the river, while beyond the dense trees carpeting the hills above, the gray stone ruins of castles loom. From the boat you’ll see the city of Krems, whose records mark its founding around 995 AD. Next, stop off in Dürnstein, the valley’s most popular destination. You’ll know it by the distinctive blue church spire, visible from the river, that rises out of the red-and-gold landscape of the other buildings.
Dürnstein’s history has made its way to legend — King Richard the Lionheart was imprisoned in Kuenringerburg, the castle above the town, during the Third Crusade. Legend has it that a servant named Blondel searched across Europe for his king, singing the first stanza of a song only he would know. Outside the fortress of Dürnstein, the tale goes, he finally heard the second stanza sung back to him and rescued his liege.