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window on the Wachau

Our final day in Austria, our friends organized a day trip out to the Wachau Valley, famed not just for its wines and picturesque scenery, but also its architectural elegance and rich history.

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The valley extends for 40 kilometers (25 miles), spreading languidly on both sides of the Danube, and has quite a number of attractions, from the Benedictine abbey in Melk to the various castles that dot the vineyard-covered landscape. Our hosts suggested we spend the day in Durnstein, whose picture-perfect location on a gentle bend of the Danube river rightly makes it the most visited of the Wachau’s small towns.

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We spent the morning slowly ambling through the streets, taking in the views and sampling the apricot delights for which the town is known. We tried apricot liqueur and schnapps as well as various sweets, including chewy little sugared nuggets that were ironically marketed as “rabbit shit.”

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While the group took a break to sample some local wine, D wandered off to see the colorful church. The skeletal remains of two priests were prominently displayed in the chapel space in their adorned glass caskets. There was also a wine barrel that had been placed in the nave to collect alms — a unique touch emphasizing the region’s vinicultural importance.

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After the wine tasting, we ascended to the remains of a small castle, which occupied a prominent position on a rocky hilltop above the town and once briefly played a prominent role in European history.

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Towards the end of the twelfth century, Austria’s Duke Leopold V captured King Richard the Lion-Heart, whose ship was wrecked on his return journey from the Crusades. Richard was forced to traverse central Europe on his way home to England, a route that posed considerable peril given Richard’s cavalier attitude towards the Austrian nobility, some of whom had died at his behest. Leopold imprisoned Richard in the Durnstein castle, where he languished for several months before being handed over to the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry VI.

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Both Duke Leopold and the Emperor were excommunicated by the Pope for their troubles, it being contrary to public law to detain a crusader. Nevertheless, Richard spent more than a year in captivity, only regaining his freedom when Henry VI received a hefty ransom for his release. The 65,000 pounds of silver it took to liberate the Lion-Heart was more than double the Crown’s annual income, forcing Richard’s brother to levy heavy taxes and confiscate the gold and silver treasures of the English church.

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The lunch hour arrived while we were still enjoying the view from the castle ruins, and we headed back down to the town, albeit at a much slower pace than we wanted. After being confined in his carrier on the way up to the castle remains, Munchkin was loath to give up the freedom he had regained at the top. He must have been hungry too, but for the moment he was much more interested in climbing up and down the stone stairs than in lunch.

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We learned long ago that once Munchkin becomes engrossed in an activity, it is very difficult to get him to voluntarily abandon it. Difficult, but not impossible. The silver bullet D has discovered is Munchkin’s love for his mama. After imploring Munchkin to come along to no avail, S headed down the hill alone. D waited for S to disappear around a bend in the trail and then deployed the secret weapon.

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“Come on, let’s go eat.” No response. “Come to papa, I’ll carry you down the hill.” Nothing. His focus unbroken by D’s entreaties, Munchkin continued climbing up and down the stairs. D took some pictures, then asked innocently, “Where is mama?” At the mention of his mama, Munchkin’s head immediately snapped up and he scanned the path for her. “Mama?” he asked, “Mama? MAMA?” With a hint of panic in his voice, he reached out his arms, allowing D to scoop him up and carry him down the hill.

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Our friends had chosen a local restaurant famous for its fish. D snuck away as the group sat down to lunch, taking a slow one-car train across from the Wachau to St. Polten for the last day of the Frequency Festival. After a leisurely meal, S and her friends walked around the vineyards, ending up at an heurige — a traditional, family-owned wine tavern. Afterwards, our friends collected D in St. Polten so that we could all return to Vienna together.

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