July 10, 2019

Melk Abbey

Dateline: Vienna, Austria

It’s been a long and eventful day, culminating with a very nice evening in one of my three favorite European cities (the other two being London and Barcelona). I forgot to set my alarm this morning, so I overslept by a significant amount and woke up ten minutes before I was supposed to be in the foyer to meet the group. I was not an intern for nothing, I made it with several minutes to spare. We were docked in the small town of Melk, Austria. I knew nothing about Melk, other than the character Adso of Melk from The Name of the Rose. (I read the novel in college – everyone did in the mid 80s and I remember going to see the film on a date with Teresa Mosteller back during med school days.). Adso is the Christian Slater part, a role that exists so William of Baskerville can talk to him and provide the reader/audience with all of the necessary exposition. From that, I expected Melk to be another cramped medieval town with an abbey. I was wrong.

Melk is like a miniature version of Passau (which itself isn’t so large). All baroque buildings (replacing earlier medieval and gothic structures) and dominated by an enormous baroque fantasia of an abbey and church perched on a crag high above the town. (It is a bit of climb to reach it). The abbot in the early 18th century had all the original buildings pulled down as old fashioned and created his new monument to god in the new style. The edifice remains a working monastery and abbey with a community of thirty some monks (none in evidence) who still administer the building, grounds and surrounding parishes whose primary income now comes from tourism. There is also an active middle/high school on the premises with more than 900 students. They were also not in evidence. I assume they were on summer break.

The library at Melk abbey

The tour of the abbey and grounds included a museum portion. (Not very exciting – the usual reliquaries, monstrances, croziers and medieval paintings of saints and madonnas), a stunning library (which took me back to The Name of the Rose again), and the church itself with more marble, gilded cherubs, frescoes ceilings, and other rococo touches than you could shake a stick at. The gardens adjoining, also perched on the crag above the Danube valley, were also lovely and ranged from a baroque formal garden with clipped topiary to delicately arranged wild gardens of tamed forest and beds of shade plants with meandering gravel paths. Lovely views out over the countryside as well. Very reminiscent of the opening helicopter shots in the credits sequence of The Sound of Music.

Back down the hill and back on the boat. (There really isn’t anything else in Melk but the abbey) and off we steamed into the Wachau valley of the Danube. It’s a place where the river cuts through the foothills of the Alps so fairly steep mountains hem in the river with little villages clining to the few places they can be built. One of them is Willendorf (as in Venus of) so it’s been occupied for about 30,000 years. Lots of terraced vineyards and orchards clinging to the sides of hills. The major products appear to be wine and apricots.

Durnstein – Wachau Valley

After leaving the Wachau, the scenery became much less interesting, wider plains with various levels of agriculture, occasionally broken by a riverside industrial plant so I took a nap until it was time to dress for dinner. We docked just outside of Vienna and were told to put on our best for a Viennese night out. We were bussed into downtown Vienna to an address just off the Hofburg, across the street from the Kaiser Josefplatz called the Palais Palavicini. It’s an 18th century nobleman’s house, still occupied by the family, but they let out the formal rooms for events so up the grand staircase to a lovely 18th century banquet hall for dinner with live music, singers, dancers from the Staatsoper ballet on a summer side gig, and far too much wine and champagne. It was really quite lovely (and not the kind of thing one expects from this sort of tour – but Tauck tries to do things up right) but the night was a bit warm and there is a distinct lack of central air in 18th century town residences.

Dinner out in Vienna

Bus back to the ship, a digestif and ready for bed. I don’t have a story tonight, but rather a rumination. As we were driving the not very interesting highway into Vienna with my usual empty seat beside me (I’m the only person in the group travelling alone), I was wondering what Steve or Tommy might have made of the trip. Tommy and I had been talking about a Rhine Danube cruise together for a year or so before he died but we could never get the timing to work out with his three varied jobs and their odd calendars. He would have liked the ship and the pace of the trip as it would have been fine with his respiratory and orthopedic issues. He would have had acerbic comments on the food and on some of the entertainments offered (as those were both areas of expertise). I think he would have enjoyed learning more about German and Austrian culture but would have stopped sight seeing about the third Gothic cathedral. He was never a big sight seer. He was much more about the people to people piece of traveling. I probably could have parked him in an apartment in Amsterdam or Budapest for two weeks and then met up with him after the trip and he would have been happy going to the local shops and cafes and getting to know the locals and their routines. Steve, on the other hand, would have been bouncing out of bed every morning raring to go and ready to see something new. He would also have been incredibly frustrated at the lack of English language signage. (‘How am I supposed to read that?’ would have come from his lips about ten times a day). We’re in a part of Europe where most people speak some English but he would still have been miffed at their lack of an American accent. Steve and I never got the chance to travel abroad other than Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean. I am both sad and grateful for this. On his bad days, he could elevate the ugly American stereotype into George Carlinesque poetry and guess who would have gotten the brunt. Eventually I’ll find a new travelling companion of some sort (applications are open – I’m thinking the big 2020 trip will be in April). In the meantime, I can keep myself reasonable company.

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