Krems, Melk and Durnstein
Faced with the dilemma of picking
our fall destination, inspiration came from my food
cravings. My longing for the seasonal specialties of deer,
venison, chestnuts, mushrooms, and cranberries
complemented by good wine and beer won the day. With
senses now aroused and thoughts of forests bursting with
color tumbling down mountainsides to green valleys of
smooth rolling pastures and crystal lakes, rivers rushing
through precious villages and sweet smelling vineyards,
it was time to return to Austria.
Were I not so eager for stewed deer,
we'd have waited until 2006, the 250th birthday of the
brilliant composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. A year of celebration starts on his birthday, January 27, in his
two home towns Salzburg, where he was born and studied
composition, and Vienna, where he had his greatest
Our three-week itinerary would
start in the east in Lower Austria, we'd travel west to
Salzburger Land and Tirol, return east to Carinthia and
Styria, and finish the trip in Vienna.
We prefer to travel by train
between major destinations and Austrian Railways has an extensive network that made it very
easy and efficient. The cars were clean and comfortable
and we always arrived pretty much on time. The conductors
were cheerful, polite and helpful which was an added plus.
Austrian Airlines has direct flights from Toronto to Vienna
which was very convenient. The onboard service was
excellent, the staff pleasant and caring, and arrivals
were on schedule. The meals were quite good and beverage
service was maintained throughout the flights.
The Wachau region of Lower Austria was our first stop. Due to
its mild climate people began settling here thousands of
years ago. It was awarded a European Diploma by the
Council of Europe and is on the UNESCO World Heritage
List as a protected cultural landscape. It is easy to see
why it has been so recognized. Terraced vineyards climb
up the hillsides above the Danube, small towns and
villages grace the shoreline and beyond, boasting a
mosaic of colorful architecture from Baroque, to Gothic
and Renaissance blending into the landscape creating a
symphony of visual delight.
We settled into the Steigenberger Avance
Hotel, in Krems. Located
slightly above the town center it affords lovely views of
the town and surrounding tiered vineyards. This sprawling,
still- expanding, property with obliging, smiling staff
has a bright cheerful atrium lobby with a multi-level bar/lounge
Our twin-bedded room was nicely
furnished with the basic comforts. There were bathrobes
and slippers for pool and spa use. CNN was available to
keep us up to date. We were all set!
We were to find the buffet
breakfasts to be exceptional throughout our trip. Great
coffee is offered immediately. The breads and rolls in
this country are a dream crusty and dense with
grains, nuts and seeds through and through. Theres
always a great selection of meats, eggs and cheese and
for the health conscious, muesli, cereals, fruits,
vegetables, yogurt and juices. The dining room is bright
and cheerful with views of the sun-drenched, nearby
vineyards. If it was just a bit warmer we could have
enjoyed the inviting terrace.
Krems is a well preserved medieval
town, which has existed for 1000 years. With 26,000
inhabitants it's the largest town of the Wachau. The
pretty park in the center is surrounded by eye-catching
pastel-colored buildings. The Gasthof Alte Post, dating
to 1584, with a lovely arcaded courtyard was once the
seat of the postmaster. There are shops at street level
and apartments above. A palace-like structure is the
Danube University of Krems, Austria's only post graduate
university. It was built in 1922 as a tobacco factory and
converted to a university in 1995. With the university
and other private schools in town, there were many
students around enjoying the cafes, shops and restaurants.
Krems boasts the first and only
cartoon museum in Austria (Karikaturmuseum). We found it
quite amusing. Of particular note were the works of
"Sokol" featuring national and international
politics and "Manfred Deix" expressing the
Austrian mentality or soul with vivid erotic works.
The real story of Krems and the
Wachau is wine, white wine to be precise. The high
quality of the wine is the result of the juxtaposition of
two major macroclimatic zones with the waters of the
Danube moderating any excessive temperatures in the
summer. In addition, the soil deposits covering the
ancient rock formations of the Wachau make the vines root
deeply, thus absorbing plenty of minerals. Wines from
these soils excel by their concise mineral notes and
elegant fruit. The construction of terraces extended
viticulture up the steep Wachau slopes as high as 450m
above sea level. The walls have been built without mortar
since the middle ages and even today the same ancient dry
stone walling techniques are used, which make these vines
labor intensive but unique.
Our first taste of the remarkable
wines was at Weingut Stadt Krems, Stadtgraben 11, which was founded in 1452.
It is owned by the city of Krems and is committed to
producing pleasurable wines fit to be enjoyed as a
perfect accompaniment to meals, retaining their vivacity
and sprightliness even after many years of maturing in
the bottle. The 30 hectares of terraced vineyards of
Weingut Stadt Krems are located within the city limits.
The grapes are hand picked and carefully selected through
several phases of harvesting. The vinification process is
performed with great care and the wine is aged in
stainless steel containers, while wine from classified
sites is aged in wooden barrels. The wines are absolutely
natural, no additives are used. The two major grape
varietals which have been cultivated in the Wachau for
centuries are Gruener Veltliner and Riesling. Our tasting
session convinced us these crystal clear fresh dry wines
were simply outstanding. The Gruener Veltliner had a
pronounced fruit aroma with a peppery spice flavor and
ranged from light to full bodied. The aroma and flavors
of the Rieslings were complex but simply outrageously
delicious. This red wine guy was easily converted - at
least for my stay in Austria.
In 1784, Emperor Joseph II allowed
winemakers to serve their own wine on their own premises
with certain restrictions. The beloved "buschenschank"
or "heuriger" wine tavern was born. Along the
Danube west of Krems just before Durnstein is Weingut Brustbauer, Oberioben 2, where we would be introduced
to this special treat.
The laws for heurigers were
designed to allow vintners to make some extra income
without hurting the restaurants in the area. Thus they
can only sell products that are grown and made on their
own farm. No hot foods are allowed. They can stay open
for three months only during the harvest. Weingut
Brustbauer is open only on weekends. A special symbol
made of straw is displayed at the entrance to indicate
when a heuriger is open. We were in luck; tonight it was
hanging there in all its glory to welcome us.
The family lives in a 600 year old
home next door and the vineyards and farm spread out
across the rear. The tavern is totally casual and
informal with a good-natured warm welcome. Happy diners
were enjoying platters of smoked meats, cheese, wine and
baskets of dense grainy bread. We soon found out why
everyone was so jovial.
Mixed salad was fresh out of the
garden. Lean slices of smoked pork, veal and sausage were
deliciously flavored and well-paired with the emmentaler
cheese and marvelous bread (this would be the beginning
of a bread eating spree). The dry delicious Riesling wine
went perfectly with the food.
Tonight marked the start of an
apple strudel competition that lasted three weeks. It
would be impossible for one to compete with this old
fashioned, homemade version. Tender dough was filled with
the perfect flavor and texture of an apple, raisin and
cinnamon mixture. The house offered an apricot brandy to
In Austria the word for apricot is
marille and it's as integral to life in the Wachau as the
wine. Marille is everywhere - in the Wieser shop in Durnstein, we found it all: apricot soap,
shampoo, lip balm, body lotion, marmalade, brandy,
It's an invigorating experience to
climb up a path in the terraced vineyards, stand among
the vines smelling the delicious aromas and view the
network of terraces along the hillsides right down to the
winding Danube River. We reached a spot where there is
platform and bench and we sat mesmerized by the beauty
If you are so inclined, the Danube
Bicycle Path, which runs along both sides of the river,
is a marvelous way to explore and enjoy the river valley.
The Melk Abbey, has been an important spiritual and
cultural center for over 1000 years. Originally it was a
residence of the Babenberg family and since 1089 a
Benedictine monastery. It's a dramatic golden ochre,
white trimmed, twin towered Baroque structure resting on
a precipice overlooking the Danube, surrounded by a park
Monks dedicated to the rules
established by St. Benedict, have worked in Melk Abbey
for over 900 years. Today thirty monks belong to the
community of the Benedictines in Melk Abbey. Their
primary duties are pastoral care, being responsible for
twenty-three parishes, and education in the abbey
secondary school with 900 students. Other duties are in
the areas of culture, tourism and economy.
The abbey museum has been designed
into the former Imperial Rooms. The exhibition is
entitled, "The Path from Yesterday to Today - Melk
Abbey in its Past and Present". It cleverly tells
the story of the monastery's ups and downs over its 900
year history. The extraordinary art treasures on display
along with video and computer animation make the
presentation very compelling.
A visit to the monastery also
includes the Marble Hall, Library and Abbey Church. The
Marble Hall was a guest dining hall for festive occasions.
Only the door frames and the insets over the doors are
made of real Salzburg marble. The walls are stucco marble.
The ceiling fresco painted by Paul Troger in 1731, framed
by an architectural painting by Gaetano Fanti, is quite
The terrace that connects the
Marble Hall and Library offers a lovely view of the
Danube and the western facade of the Abbey Church. The
library is a masterful Baroque creation. A ceiling fresco
by Troger-Fanti is a counterpoint to the work in the
Marble Hall and shines down on the inlayed bookshelves
with matching book binders. The impact of the thousands
of identically bound books in this environment is a sight
not easily forgotten.
A spiral staircase leads down to
the church. The Rule of St. Benedict requires that
nothing be more important than the worship service. This
monument to glorious baroque design surely fulfills that
demand. Warm hues of gold, ocher, gray, green and orange
of the frescoed ceiling, stucco marbled walls and
galleries create a feeling of comfort and serenity. The
high alter of the presbytery done in gilded wood, gold
and Salzburg marble is quite magnificent and dominating.
The grounds of Melk Abbey make up a
substantial part of the entire baroque monastic ensemble.
The baroque garden pavilion has famous frescoes by Johann
Wenzel Bergl. The abbey park was originally done in
baroque in 1750, redone as an English landscape park in
1822 and a revitalization project was started in 1995
adding some new elements. The day was beautiful and it
was a delight to stroll about amongst the greenery.
The Abbey restaurant is located
between the parking lot and the entrance and rumor has it
that the food is very good. We sampled only the coffee,
which was excellent, then found our way to The Hotel-Restaurant Post of the Familie Ebner, Linzer Strasse l,
where we were warmly greeted by the owner and staff. The
casual dining room and friendly staff made us feel right
The menu offered a tantalizing
array of game and local fish dishes. Linda had goulash of
chanterelles (eierschwammer gulasch) with bread dumplings
(semmelknodeln) and I a carp fillet with piquant
cranberry sauce and vegetable noodles (karpenfilet auf
sus-scharfer preiselbeer sauce mit gemusenudelin). The
mushrooms and fish were very fresh and lovingly prepared.
Some kind of knodeln (dumplings) or nudelin (noodles) are
standard with all meals.
It should be noted that portions
are very large in Austria. It is possible to share or
order smaller portions in most restaurants. Dining is a
major part of the Austrian lifestyle and we came home
with the extra kilos to prove it. Restaurants of all
types have to be good to survive so it is difficult to
find a bad meal. We found prices to be very reasonable
for the quality of the ingredients, service and ambiance.
A visit to the
Wachau must include a cruise on the Danube. The Brandner Line, offers a variety of cruise options from
Austrian Brunch and Brass Music to Evening Wine and Dine.
We opted for a simple excursion from Melk to Krems which
takes just under 2 hours. It was delightful to see the
sights of the south side of the river up close and a
different perspective of the north bank.
A friend told us that there were
two wonderful restaurants in nearby Durnstein, one in the
Romantik Hotel Richard Lowenherz (Richard the Lionhearted),
the other in the Hotel Schloss Durnstein (a Relais &
Chateaux property). Both hotels are in the Thiery family
with sister and brother operating them respectively.
Tonight we would dine at Richard the
Lionhearted. The hotel has
been operated by the family since 1884, now in the third
generation. Located right on the banks of the Danube in
the former medieval Convent of the Clares, surrounded by
the convent walls, it radiates a warm, homey atmosphere.
Before dining we couldn't resist sitting in front of the
large open fireplace in the old refectory and sipping an
apricot brandy, very romantic!
The walls of the terraced
restaurant are adorned with ancient artifacts and photos
of famous artists of the 19th and 20th century who met
here. The menu of updated traditional dishes and autumn
specials might have presented a decision dilemma but it
was really easy, the autumn specials won our hearts. This
was our first cream of pumpkin soup of the trip. The
standard was set for the many others along the way.
Pureed pumpkin with a touch of cream, pumpkin oil and a
handful of pumpkin seeds was a formula for pure delight.
Soup was followed by a small mixed salad with a light
yogurt dressing, a basket of dense, dark nut bread, salt
sticks, muesli rolls and an amuse bouche of a succulent
grilled scallop on rice noodles. There was ample time
between courses to savor the flavor and enjoy the wines
from the ancient convent vineyards.
Our game dishes of deer stew (hirschragout)
and roast saddle of young wild boar (frischlingsrucken)
were a dream come true. The deer was served with Brussels
sprouts and sliced dumplings with chanterelles and the
boar was accompanied by red wine cabbage, cranberries and
chestnut dumplings. It was interesting to learn that
though they taste the same, cranberries here grow wild in
the mountains and are much smaller than the ones at home
which grow in bogs.
Weissenkirchen (white churches) is
a life-size postcard. Surrounded by mountains and
vineyards, the narrow streets and lanes are lined with
charming old buildings in shades of pink, green, blue,
yellow, rose, and beige.
Weinseminar is located in what was once a fortress. The
wide inner courtyard is used for exhibitions, festivals
and entertainment. There are many wine-related activities
such as the Rieslingfest in August. The rooms off the
first floor balcony surrounding the courtyard house the
museum's exhibitions. We loved the old paintings and
photographs of the area featuring landscapes and most
intriguing the ones depicting people hard at work in the
vineyards working the vines and grapes. There's a large
attractive room with paintings adorning the walls that is
used for wine tastings and private parties. Another
ground floor room was hosting a tasting party for locals.
Most were dressed in traditional Austrian attire. A sweet
man came out and was very agreeable to posing for a photo.
This village of 1500 residents is adorable.
The picturesque village of
Durnstein was built between granite cliffs and forests
and the Danube River. Most people associate Durnstein
with the story of Richard the Lion-Hearted (thus the name
of the hotel). The famous English King is said to have
ridiculed the Austrian flag during the Third Crusade.
Returning home through Austria he was recognized,
captured and imprisoned in the Durnstein Fortress where
he remained until rescued by his faithful vassal, the
minstrel Blondel. The story has not been proven to be
historically accurate but adds to the romance of
An architectural delight greets one
at every turn. Intriguing archways, roofs, textures, and
colors are a feast for the eyes. Of particular note
is the Rathaus complex and the Durnstein Abbey. The
exquisite blue and white steeple of the Abbey rises
gracefully as a landmark on the banks of the Danube. The
striking colors create a ceramic effect in contrast to
the grey and yellow abbey and church. The grey represents
earth and the blue and white symbolizes heaven.
We strolled the streets to find
many shops selling their homemade goodies (hausgemachte
spezialitaton) like jams, jellies, marmalade, syrups,
cheeses, meats and of course wine. The Backerei Schmidl
produces a simple crusty fairly dense roll that is famous
around the world.
Today we would lunch at the Hotel Schloss
Durnstein, a castle built
in 1630, which the Thiery family has transformed into a
five-star hotel. We took a tour of the facilities before
lunch. Each room and suite is different, but all have
carefully selected antique furnishings, fixtures and
fittings, yet modern technology, and there is a wellness
center with connecting indoor and outdoor pools.
The restaurant consists of three
intimate rooms on three levels. The vaulted ceilings and
walls are painted soft peach with matching furnishings
and linens creating a relaxing dining atmosphere. It was
too bad it was not warm enough to dine on the terrace
which affords a stunning view of the winding Danube. Once
again, we opted for seasonal wild specialties. Linda's
cream of pumpkin soup was accompanied by potato-pumpkin
strudels. I opted for the cream of chestnut with crispy
wild boar-rosemary strudel. Both were outstanding.
Linda was served sliced filet of
venison reposing on pumpkin-filled agnolotti with juniper
sauce studded with grilled zucchini and forest mushrooms.
I had filet of deer with red wine cabbage and potato
noodles. The meats were flavorful, tender and juicy.
Wonderful food, ambiance and service - brother and sister
succeeded in making our dining in Durnstein a memorable
A visit to Freie Weingartner Wachau in Durnstein, further enhanced our Wachau
wine wisdom. This cooperative of 700 members cultivates
250 hectares of vineyards. The modern retail showroom
does a great job of presenting the wine and educating the
visitor. The cellar facilities are very impressive and
the tour ends in Kellerschloessl, a unique baroque
building from 1715, located on the edge of the single
vineyard Kellerberg which has been the trademark of the
organization since its beginning.
The narrow segment of the Danube
valley between Melk and Krems was designated as Vinea
Wachau Noblis Districtus. The vintners gave new life to
this ancient designation in 1983 when they founded Vinea
Wachau which created three categories for the
classification of Wachau wines: Steinfeder, a light
specialty, Federspiel, the classic wine, and Smaragd, the
great wine of Wachau. These wines are produced with
strict guidelines and controls. Members of Vinea Wachau
must sell wines exclusively from the Wachau area.
The time difference was beginning
to catch up with us so a late afternoon nap was in order.
We did manage to wake up for dinner in Krems at Ulli Amon-Jell,
Hoher Markt 8-9. This old house is loaded with Wachau
tradition from the old furniture and artifacts to the
wine bottles on display and the menu. It is a real homey
place, with pleasant staff and casual service.
The menu is in German only and the
staff does not speak English, but that is no obstacle for
seasoned menu readers. We quickly identified potato soup
which turned out to be a hearty rendition chock full of
potato pieces, mushrooms, onion and parsley. Good soup
demands good bread and the multigrain rolls on the table
did the trick.
Tonight Linda indulged her love of schnitzel,
which turned out to be the best of the trip. A juicy
slice of tender pork with luscious, crisp batter and
roast potato kept her busy for a while. She ate and ate
and there was still enough left to make two sandwiches
for us to eat on the train the next day. I feasted on a
rib steak covered with sautéed and crisply fried onions
and roast potato. Both mains came with large mixed salads.
Taking a break from the great wine, we ordered rich,
creamy dark beer. We shared chocolate mousse mit schlag (whipped
cream, the real honest-to-goodness stuff), and an
assortment of fresh fruit.
This is the typical traditional
style of family-operated restaurant that is prevalent
throughout the country, where good home cooking is
offered at reasonable prices.
Tomorrow morning we will leave the
Wachau region with fond memories of our first days in
Austria in 2005.
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