Discovering Durnstein

Lounging in Linz
Mooching in Melk

Dürnstein is a small town of less than 1000 people but is a very popular stopping point on the Danube for tourists arriving by boat, car and bicycle. They get over a million tourists each year. Known as “The Pearl of the Danube” it is in the middle of a popular wine region as well as being very scenic. The blue baroque tower of the Abbey is unusual and certainly makes Durnstein easily recognised. That and the ruined castle above the town, famous as the place King Richard (the Lion-heart) was imprisoned during the Crusades. After the morning’s heavy rain, we enjoyed the sunshine in Durnstein. 


We visited Austria’s only Saffron Farm for a workshop about saffron growing and use. Bernhard Kaar is an ecologist and botanist who is cultivating saffron among the vineyards of the Wachau Valley.

This used to be a prolific saffron growing region, but the practice died out after 1850. No-one knows why. Bernhard found a book in the library at Melk Abbey from 1797, written by a monk who noted the unfortunate decline of saffron production and wrote down all he knew about it. Armed with the knowledge gleaned from this book Bernhard bought an unused railway station and some land and decided to bring saffron cultivation back to life.

The farm is now in its 10th year. They don’t sell saffron, but reason there is more profit in selling products made from saffron – chocolate, honey, salt, vinegar, recipe books, Guglhupf kits and more. The chocolate was delicious!

DÜRnstein Castle

In 1188, the Third Crusade began. Frederick I Barbarossa, the Holy Roman Emperor, kept a promise that he had given to the Pope, and together with the Christian Army he marched toward Jerusalem in order to recapture the city from Saladin. Also taking part in this crusade were Philip II of France, Richard I of England (“Richard the Lion-heart”) and Leopold V, Duke of Austria. Frederick, who was nearly 70 years old at the time, died on his way to Jerusalem; serious quarrels then broke out among the other leaders. Among other disagreements, Leopold was sure he had been cheated out of his bounty by Richard. In addition, Richard had torn down the erected Austrian flag, seriously offending the duke and prompting him to head back to Austria. On his way home from the crusade in December, 1192, Richard was shipwrecked near the Italian coast. He tried to return to England via Germany. At Erdberg, then a little village near Vienna, he was recognized when his servant wanted to pay with a striking Byzantine coin. Leopold had Richard captured and put him into confinement at Dürnstein (specifically, the castle whose ruins overlook the town today). In March, 1193, Leopold handed his prisoner over to Emperor Henry VI (Barbarossa’s son), who demanded 150,000 marks in silver as ransom for Richard’s release – a sum that indebted the English population and brought prosperity to Vienna. The first part of the money having been paid, Richard was allowed to return to England in March, 1194. The duke received 50,000 marks as ransom.

Romantic legend has it that Richard’s servant, Blondel, had looked in vain for his master in many countries. He travelled from castle to castle, singing in front of each of them a stanza of a song that was only known to his king. Having finally arrived at Dürnstein, he apparently sang his song and heard, in response, its second stanza. It was thus that he found his master. This statue commemorating that story is on the banks of the Danube, just past Durnstein.

Durnstein Abbey

Dürnstein Abbey was founded in 1372 as a convent, then an Augustinian Monastery. The present structure dates from 1710, as the church was rebuilt in the “new” baroque style. In 1787 the abbey was closed and it is now the local parish church of Dürnstein. In true Baroque style it was ornate with every surface decorated and lots of gold.

Note the dragon sitting on the head of a soldier, and old guy with goggles, and possibly the ugliest cherub in the universe.

There was the usual skeleton of a “saint”, dressed from head to foot in jewels and lying in state.

The ceiling was white with detailed reliefs.

For such a small town we hadn’t expected anything so grand.

After looking through the Abbey’s sumptuous rich dark gold interior, we wandered through a door and found ourselves on a lovely patio overlooking the Danube. The facade was also quite ornate, but the decorations were mostly white, with touches of gold. So pretty.

The striking light blue tower makes Durnstein Abbey instantly recognisable.

Since its dissolution in 1788 the Abbey was incorporated into the Augustinian Monastery of Herzogenburg, to whom it still belongs today. Nowadays in the monastery, there are rooms available for seminars and concerts; there are also rooms for exhibitions, and for wine tastings. Part of the north wing contains the Primary School and in the west wing there are apartments for long-term rent.

Exploring DÜrnstein

After our Saffron workshop we had time to visit the Abbey and then stroll through the town. We loved the narrow cobblestone roads, ivy-covered courtyards, charming shops and views of the river and surrounding vineyards and olive groves. No wonder it’s popular. After a busy day it was nice to have time to relax and enjoy just being there, with no particular agenda or deadline. Our boat didn’t depart till midnight, and we enjoyed the long evening, with good light until after 9pm. We had time for a lovely walk on our own through the town. We stopped for an ice-cream and sat for a while on a park bench watching the traffic on the river float by.


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