Durnstein, Melk and Austria’s Wachau Valley
Aaron Saunders, Live Voyage Reports
Our Danube Delights itinerary aboard Emerald Waterways’ Emerald Star went into Austrian overdrive today as we called on two very small but beautiful towns nestled within the country’s picturesque Wachau Valley.
At 0800, we arrived in Durnstein, a picturesque little village located at Kilometre 2000 of the Danube that is notable for its blue-and-white cathedral and the medieval ruins of Kuenringerburg Fortress that dates back to the 12th Century. Kuenringerburg is rather interesting: it was almost entirely destroyed in 1645 by – of all people – the Swedes, who razed it during the Thirty Years’ War, toasted Skål, and caught the next minstrel-carriage back to Stockholm. Today, you can still hike up to the ruins of the fortress, which held Richard the Lionheart in 1193. Being imprisoned in wine country must have been terrible…
Emerald Waterways provides a guided walking tour of Durnstein, which I do recommend taking even though the village itself is quite small and home to just 950 year-round residents. You can walk it yourself, to be sure –but then you’d miss out on the fascinating history of the town.
Because I’ve been here before, I went half-and-half on the tour, sticking with our guide for the first 30 minutes and then peeling off when I saw one of my favorite stores open: Wieser. The Wachau Valley, where Durnstein is located, is noted not only for its fabulous wines, but also for what I like to call “apricot everything.” You can buy apricot schnapps, apricot liqueur, apricot-infused gin – even jars of apricot liqueur-infused gummies. For €12, I picked myself up some fantastic apricot liqueur that I plan to enjoy when I return home.
I also visited Stift Durnstein (Durnstein Cathedral) for the first time. All you have to do is pay a simple entry fee of €3, which is more than worth it to see the Baroque-style cathedral that was constructed between 1715 and 1733. If you follow the sign labelled “Kirche”, you will be taken to the church. Choosing the opposite direction takes you to a balustrade-lined observation deck in the shadow of the blue-and-white Clock Tower that overlooks the Danube.
All too quickly our time in Durnstein came to an end. I would personally have loved to have had even just another hour in Durnstein; two hours was a little bit rushed, I felt. On the other hand, most cruise lines don’t visit Durnstein and Melk on the same day; indeed, none of the ships we were docked with in Durnstein (a German and a French vessel) sailed on to Melk with us. In fact, I counted over six separate river cruise ships that sailed past Durnstein entirely. If I had to choose between a short call in Durnstein and no call in Durnstein, I’d pick the short call.
For what it’s worth, I didn’t hike up to the fortress where Richard the Lionheart was imprisoned on today’s visit, but I did so two years ago, and here’s the verdict: the views are amazing, and the hike takes 20 minutes. It’s very ambitious, though, with lots of loose earth, steep inclines and large boulders and tree trunks. In other words, you can get there – but you’ll work for it. Don’t attempt this on a hot day without bottled water. I’m pretty active, but it wore me out on a trip here one October. Hiking it on a day in mid-July where the temperature at nine in the morning pushes 25°C might be asking a lot of your body!
Back onboard Emerald Star, we set sail up the Danube and through the gorgeous Wachau Valley. During our scenic cruising, the bar staff came along and offered guests complimentary glasses of a local Wachau Valley Riesling. It was a nice – and unexpected – touch, particularly as lunch – with its complimentary wines and beers – was still another hour away.
Lunch in the Reflections Restaurant was one of the best so far this cruise. Lunch is served buffet-style, and there are numerous options for those who wants salads, soups, meats, and everything in between. Perhaps more importantly, lunch buffet selections change daily. Today, a spectacular split pea soup was served, and I was egged on to try the cheese-stuffed Bratwurst that was devilishly good.
By the time lunch had finished, Emerald Star had drawn silently into Berth 9 in Melk, Austria, and guests began to assemble to disembark for an afternoon of guided touring.
Melk is a bit of a conundrum as a town. After all, it largely owes its existence to the massive Stift Melk – or Melk Abbey – that sits perched nearly 200 feet above the village. When you approach the town from the pier, it’s not difficult to imagine it as it must have looked centuries ago, with the Abbey lording over the town like a King surveying his fiefdom.
Emerald Waterways includes a guided walking tour of Stift Melk, coupled with ample free time in which to explore the quaint little village of Melk. Because the Abbey is situated so high above the town, four coaches met us at the pier and whisked us to the parking lot at the top and rear of the Abbey. From there, we made our way down the steps of the terraced entryway while our Cruise Director, Daniela, purchased our entry tickets and got our local Museum guides together.
Stift Melk was founded in 1089 when Leopold II of Austria gave one of his castles to the Benedictine Monks as a bit of a morale-boosting exercise. The abbey that currently sits on the site, however, “only” dates back to 1702 when construction began. That process lasted for the next 34 years until 1736, when it was finally completed. The Abbey then managed to survive both World Wars, the Napoleonic Wars, and a massive fire.
This was my fourth visit to Melk Abbey, and I was surprised to see that changes are continually being made to the Abbey, even since my last visit a year and a half ago. The inner courtyard that borders the Marble Hall and the Abbey Library is in the process of being ripped apart – for what purpose, though, no one will say. There are also new, electric sliding glass doors positioned on the exit of the Marble Hall to the outdoor promenade. Presumably, this helps keep the room cool in the summer, and warm in the winter; my first visit in December 2011 was memorably drafty.
Even after being here many times, I still find the Abbey endlessly impressive – but I wish they’d let me loose in the library that houses over 10,000 titles. I don’t read Latin, but I think an afternoon browsing the shelves of the Abbey Library might be good incentive to learn!
Before returning to the Emerald Star, I took the opportunity to have another pint of Austrian beer at a small, cottage-like hotel and bar situated adjacent to the main berthing space in Melk. I’ve seen this particular building several times, but my travels to Melk have always been in the off-season, so I made an on-the-spot decision that a cold beer there would be both refreshing and experiential.
I was not disappointed; service was fantastic, the views were superb, and the beer was – as expected – suitably tasty. The wasps were all over my pint, but I even dealt with that, too. I hate wasps, bees, pretty well anything that can buzz or sting. But there’s something about Austria that I feel is good for me; Austria relaxes me.
Speaking of relaxing, the Daily Program onboard Emerald Star for Wednesday, 16 July 2014:
- 08:00: Our ship arrives in Durnstein, Austria
- 06:30 – 10:00: Light Breakfast, Horizon Lounge.
- 07:00 – 09:00: Breakfast, Reflections Restaurant.
- 08:30 – 09:30: Walking Tour of Durnstein. Bring your receivers.
- 10:15: All Aboard! Emerald Star sails at 10:30 to Melk.
- 10:30: Sailing the Wachau Valley (with bridge commentary). Sun Deck.
- 12:45 – 14:15: Light Lunch, the Terrace.
- 12:45 – 14:15: Lunch, Reflections Restaurant
- 13:00: Emerald Star arrives in Melk, Austria.
- 14:45 – 17:15: Melk Abbey Visit with four busses, four guides and some free time.
- 16:00 – 16:30: Tea Time. The Terrace.
- 17:15: Transfer from the Abbey to the Ship.
- 18:45: All Aboard! Ship Sails at 19:00.
- 18:45 – 19:00: Port Talk with Daniela. Horizon Lounge.
- 19:00: Dinner is Served. Reflections Restaurant.
- 21:15 – 22:00: The One and Only Emerald Star Crew Show! Horizon Lounge
- 22:00 – 22:30: Late Night Snack, Horizon Lounge.
Tonight, Emerald Star’s fabulous crew performed their very own talent show for us. I’m starting to form the opinion that big-ship cruise lines could learn a lot from the variety entertainment that river cruises offer; I’d rather see four Indonesian gentleman belt out a Bob Marley tune, or see our Hotel Director portray an overzealous Russian border official than watch “A Tribute to ABBA!” again, as on a mainstream cruise ship.
Finally, I want to highlight two things I have enjoyed most about Emerald Waterways. First, the passengers onboard are universally fantastic. There’s an interesting and diverse group of people here on this sold-out sailing, and they hail from the United States, Australia, the United Kingdom and Canada. What’s more fascinating to me is that many of these folks are on their very first river cruise, and the comments I have heard are universally fantastic. These guests aren’t just enjoying their vacation; they’ve fallen head-over-heels in love with it.
It reminds me of my very first river cruise, nearly three years ago.
Secondly, the crew here are absolutely stunning. Of course, most ships crews are stunning; I’d be hard-pressed to think of one that isn’t anything otherwise. For a line that just began true operations two months ago – and a ship that has only been in service for mere weeks – the level of polish and professionalism they exhibit is nothing short of impressive. I’d imagine there’s still a learning curve to be worked out, details to polish, and little nagging things to fix. There always are; such is the nature of launching any new ship or line.
Hearing this kind of positive feedback from my fellow guests, though – and so consistently, too – really made an impression on me today. If you sail with Emerald Waterways in the future, chances are good it will leave a lasting impression on you, too.
Emerald Waterways, Budapest to Nuremberg
|Saturday, July 12, 2014||Budapest, Hungary||Embark Emerald Waterways' Emerald Star in Budapest; Welcome Aboard Dinner|
|Sunday, July 13||Budapest, Hungary||Guided tour of Budapest including Fisherman's Bastion and Castle Hill|
|Monday, July 14||Bratislava, Slovakia||Old Town walking tour; EmeraldPlus excursion for tea with a local Slovakian family|
|Tuesday, July 15||Vienna, Austria||Panoramic "Ringstrasse" tour of Vienna; free time and optional Schonbrunn Palace Tour and Viennese concert.|
|Wednesday, July 16||Vienna / Durnstein / Melk, Austria||Guided tour of Melk Abbey; guided tour of Durnstein|
|Thursday, July 17||Linz, Austria / Passau, Germany||Walking tours & free time in Linz and Passau; Optional full-day tour to Salzburg, Austria|
|Friday, July 18||Regensburg / Weltenburg, Germany||Guided tours of Regensburg & Weltenburg Abbey; optional traditional Bavarian entertainment excursion|
|Saturday, July 19||Nuremberg, Germany||Disembark & onward journey home.|