Mike Yardley: Wonders of the Wachau Valley

Mike Yardley,
Publish Date
Wednesday, 16 December 2015, 11:41a.m.

It’s the postcard-perfect pocket of the Danube, a winding sweep of vineyard-cloaked hillsides that drip down to the water, best enjoyed on-board a river cruise. I had been eagerly anticipating my rendezvous with the wine-wreathed Wachau Valley, as part of Uniworld’s Enchanting Danube river cruise, but my great expectations  were still soundly eclipsed by the actual encounter.

The Wachau, widely hailed as the “Pearl of the Danube” has understandably secured UNESCO’s protective halo, as a World Heritage-listed cultural landscape. I was up with the sparrows, taking coffee on the open deck, as we glided through the mirror-smooth waters to dock at Durnstein.

Autumn’s vivid finery, tenaciously clung to the trees gracing both sides of the river, ducks dabbled and black storks swooped as the dawn chorus sparked up. How could you not marvel at the wrap-around multi-sensory experience? What a setting, to kick-start your day. Pint-sized Durnstein, pinned to a rocky ridge sloping down to the water, glinted in the soft autumn sunlight, its sturdy stone buildings all aglow.

The city’s name literally means “dry castle” in German, presumably after the stone castle situated high above the village. The now ruined Kuenringer castle ( destroyed by the Swedes) gained notoriety around 1192 when Richard the Lionheart was held captive in the fortress dungeon by Duke Leopold V of Austria. He languished in the fortress until his faithful minstrel servant, Blondel, located his whereabouts, by playing a song on his lute, to which Richard replied by singing the lyrics. He wasn’t freed until his mother paid the horrendous ransom, which was a colossal amount of gold, causing England significant economic hardship.

Take a stroll through the heart of the town on Hauptstrasse, which is richly adorned with glorious old stone residences. Many of these date from the 1500s and have been converted into guest lodges and shops. A must-buy is some of the apricot products. The Wachau region is awash with apricots, or marille as the Austrians call them, and the numerous gourmet shops in Durnstein offer every conceivable variety of this local delicacy. Sample the Wachauer Marille in cakes, strudels, dumplings, local schnapps – even soap and candles. Another essential attraction is the 15th-century parish church, nicknamed the blue church, because of its feted blue tower. Originally constructed as an Augustinian monastery, it was reconstructed when the baroque style swept through Austria.

For something a little more macabre, take a walk through the cemetery, a quaint little graveyard with individual flower planters on top of each gilded grave. The bodies are apparently buried for a certain amount of time and then exhumed. The bones are washed, sorted and then stacked inside an underground storeroom, or boneyard, beneath a barren chapel. Peer through the black metal grill and the thousands of bones are clearly visible. It’s also believed this is where hundreds of Napoleon’s troops and Black Plague victims met their unceremonious end. 

From Durnstein, my fellow river cruisers and I took a short jaunt  across the river to the village of Mautern, to Nikolaihof Wachau, a remarkable estate which is not just Austria’s oldest winery, but boasts 2000 years of history.  Originally a Roman fort, it has been a Celtic place of worship, a bishop’s see and monastery. Since 1894, the site has been owned by the Saahs family who have been a world pioneer in applying biodynamic principles to winemaking since 1971. Currently headed up by Nikolas Saahs Jnr, their organic approach follows the principles of Rudolf Steiner.

Essentially the thinking is, imbue the wine with as much strength and energy as possible, while leaving nature to its own devices as much as possible. You certainly won’t find any herbicides, fertilisers or insecticides here, instead it’s all about stinging nettle manure, horse tail tea and valerian drops. Furthermore, bottling is only done in full compliance with the moon calendar.  The traditional family business runs 50 acres of vineyard, predominantly producing Riesling, Gruner Veltliner and Gewurtztraminer. 

For their first four years, no vines are harvested, allowing the roots to grow deeper and stronger. We tasted a few samplings, which were superbly full of flavour, complex and modest in alcohol content. 80% of their wine is exported to 40 countries.  But what makes a visit to this historic winery all the more rewarding, are the trove of treasures ripe for exploration. You’ll marvel at the world’s biggest beam press, 350 years old, and still in service. The cellar is an absolute stunner, built within the spacious confines of a Roman crypt. You’ll love the sprawling century-old  linden tree in the estate’s courtyard, creating the perfect wine garden setting, with the graceful old medieval church, towering over proceedings, as it has for nearly a 1000 years. 

After being suitably uplifted by the richness of the Nikolaihof story, our late afternoon stop was in another Wachau blockbuster, Melk.  Before strolling through the town, it’s the majesty of Melk Abbey, keeping a watchful eye over the region from its hillside perch, that begs to be explored. This mega-grand Benedictine Abbey, with its striking yellow exterior, has ruled the roost since the 11th century. The monks fortified their abbey and 30 of them remain in residence, overseeing this mammoth architectural masterpiece.

Melk Abbey still holds power as one of the very few religious intuitions that reports directly to the Pope, with no bishop serving as a middle-man. Ravaged by fire, the abbey you see today is 18th-century Baroque. The monumental restoration project was partly financed by the sale of the abbey's Gutenberg Bible to Harvard, who later donated it to Yale University. Today, the monks fund the abbey’s upkeep through their agricultural enterprises and tourism. One particularly unwelcome visitor was Napoleon who turned the abbey into his headquarters during his invasion of Austria. Local folklore claims that his army hoovered up 50,000 pints of wine in four days. The townspeople weren’t too bothered by the volume of consumption, but they were seriously aggrieved that Napoleon ranted about the appalling quality of Wachau wine.

As you walk through the imposing entry are the Latin words "Glory only in the cross" and a massive copy of the Melk Cross (one of the abbey's priceless treasures — the original is stashed in the treasury. It apparently contains a splinter from the true cross and is displayed every February) Once inside, top highlights include the art-lined Imperial corridor (the length of two rugby fields), abbey museum, Marble Hall, Baroque church and staggering library. It looks like a Hollywood film-set, tailor-made for Harry Potter, a triumph of multi-levelled wood carving, holding 80,000 books.

As we were ushered through this labyrinthine complex of spiritual bling, the tightly controlled entrances and exits reminded me of the opening sequence in Get Smart. After the head-swirling encounter high on the hill, take a leisurely stroll down to the town of Melk, a merrily-painted tangle of medieval buildings spilling across cobblestone streets. Wacahu is a spell-binding highlight of a Danube river cruise.

By Mike Yardley, Newstalk ZB’s Travel Correspondent on Jack Tame Saturdays. 11.20am

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