Dürnstein is one of our favorite towns along the Danube, a lovely place to wander cobblestone lanes, browse quaint shops and maybe hike up to a ruined castle (with an intriguing tale all its own). You can also opt for a tasting at Austria’s oldest winery or learn all about the world’s costliest spice from the Wachau Valley’s only saffron grower. Later, visit the 900-year-old Melk Abbey and its extraordinary baroque-style library.
You’ll want to find a comfortable seat in the lounge or on the Sun Deck as your ship cruises through the Wachau Valley today. Over the eons, the Danube cut a gorge through the foothills of the Bohemian Mountains, resulting in a 19-mile (30-kilometer) stretch of riverine scenery so beautiful, UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Landscape. Castle ruins dominate hilltops; baroque church towers appear on the river banks, marking historic villages and splendid abbeys; and vineyards and apricot orchards cling to the rocky slopes. Some of Austria’s finest white wines are produced from grapes ripening on the dry-stone terraces above the river, where grapes have been grown for 2,000 years. You have two ports of call in the incredibly scenic valley, Dürnstein and Melk, and an assortment of delightful ways to explore this lovely region.
Dürnstein “Village Day” with exclusive Nikolaihof wine estate visit and tasting
Considering its diminutive size, the village of Dürnstein offers much to explore. The famous blue baroque tower of the abbey church is doubtless its best-known landmark, but the ruined castle above the town provides its most romantic tale. There Richard the Lionheart was imprisoned until he was found by his faithful bard, Blondel, and ransom could be raised—or so the legend goes. Walk along the town’s narrow streets, past 16th-, 17th- and 18th-century houses; it’s an up-close look at over 300 years of architecture. And there’s no better way to conclude your village stroll than with a special tasting of organic wines at Nikolaihof, perhaps the oldest winery in Austria. The location itself is fascinating: One may encounter remnants of the first buildings on the site—an ancient Roman fort—and taste wines in a deconsecrated 15th-century chapel. Owned by the Saahs family, Nikolaihof produces some of the world’s best Riesling and Veltliner varietals; in fact, the 1995 Riesling Vinothek, bottled in 2012, actually scored 100 points in The Wine Advocate, the first Austrian wine ever to rank that highly.
Exclusive saffron workshop with village stroll
Crusaders planted the first saffron crocuses in the Wachau Valley at the end of the 12th century, making saffron a valued crop for 700 years—but it disappeared from the terraced hillsides early in the 20th century. It wasn’t until 2007 that an ecologist found mention of it in an 18th-century document at Melk Abbey’s celebrated library. Bernard Kaar, who spent years researching the history of saffron and still more years cultivating the world’s only bio-dynamically certified saffron, is one of the Wachau’s most important producers. Meet Bernard and his wife, Alexandra, for a fascinating introduction to saffron—the plant, the spice and the cultural traditions— and educate your taste buds with flavorful delicacies as you taste red-wine-and-saffron chocolate and saffron-seasoned jams, vinegars and honey. Once you are ready to depart, your host will walk with you to Dürnstein’s Kremser Gate, which dates to the 15th century, and point out the path to the ruined castle above the town, where Richard the Lionheart was famously imprisoned. You can hike up to the ruins or continue to stroll through the charming village, past the blue baroque tower of the abbey church and the picturesque 16th-, 17th- and 18th-century houses.
Melk Abbey with library visit
The Babenbergs, a great medieval ducal family that controlled a wide swath of Austria before yielding to the Habsburgs, were the first to erect a castle on the hill above Melk, which they subsequently gave to Benedictine monks. These monks, some 900 years ago, turned it into a fortified abbey—and the greatest center of learning in Central Europe. Their library was celebrated far and wide (and still is; Umberto Eco paid tribute to it in his best-selling novel The Name of the Rose). Medieval monks there created more than 1,200 manuscripts, sometimes spending an entire lifetime hand-lettering a single volume. Today the library contains some 100,000 volumes, among them more than 80,000 works printed before 1800. This beautiful complex, completely redone in the early 18th century, is a wonderful example of baroque art and architecture, and the views from its terrace are spectacular. As you walk through the abbey’s Marble Hall with your guide, look up at the ceiling fresco painted by Paul Troger: Those classical gods and goddesses represent Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI, allegorically bringing his people from dark to light and demonstrating the link he claimed to the original Roman Empire.After your tour of the abbey, you’ll have time to explore Melk on your own, or you can take the motorcoach back to the ship.