Our day started with an unexpected surprise (is there any other kind?). Our cruise was called “Royal Danube” but we didn’t think that meant a visit with actual royalty! First thing after breakfast we were taken to Artstetten Castle to meet with Princess Anita von Hohenberg, who is a direct descendent of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, whose assassination on 28 June 1914 was the trigger for the start of World War I.
We had tea with the princess in her grand home in the Wachau Valley, Artstetten Castle. The castle dates from the 13th century, although of course it has been renovated several times by successive owners.
Formerly used as a summer residence by members of the Hapsburg dynasty, the castle is now the final resting place of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg. We saw their graves in the castle crypt, and the car in which they were shot. Her Serene Highness Princess Anita von Hohenberg was charming, and spoke to us at length about her life, the castle, and her famous family. She is the great-granddaughter of Archduke Ferdinand and Sophie.
Melk is an Austrian town in the Wachau Valley. It is famous as the site of the huge Baroque monastery known as Melk Abbey.
Melk Abbey was founded in the 11th century as a fortified Benedictine abbey.. The original structure was destroyed by fire, but was rebuilt in the 18th century by the ruling Hapsburgs. Renovated recently it is a Baroque masterpiece. It is still an active abbey with a co-ed school of around 900 students.
A statue of St Coloman dominates the courtyard. Coloman was an Irish pilgrim on route to the Holy Land. He was mistaken for a spy, tortured and hanged in nearby Stockerau. Apparently soon after, miracles began to occur, and in 1014 his body was brought to Melk. This is possibly one reason the old Melk Castle was made an abbey in 1089. Coloman was Austria’s first patron saint.
The visit to Melk Abbey begins with a walk through the museum, which tells the history of the abbey in a really interesting creative way. For example in the room about the ups and downs of history (the effect of the reformation on monasteries) the floor actually undulates (a little difficult to capture in photos).
The “whole person” room is about the challenges of a life of faith in a secular world, and includes projected images of museum visitors superimposed on sculpted figures.
The library at Melk is world renowned. It contains approximately 100.000 volumes on the Bible, theology, jurisprudence, geography, astronomy & history. About 16.000 of these are found in this room. The sumptuous decoration reflects the importance the Benedictines place on learning. (Not my photos – photography was strictly prohibited, I found these images online but didn’t save the original credit)
The staircase leads to parts of the library not open to the public. Its baroque painted decoration is beautiful. and very photogenic. Melk Abbey Church was by far the most highly decorated gold encrusted church we saw. It is said to be the epitome of baroque. It was totally reconstructed in 1701, employing artists, architects and craftsmen who were masters in their fields. It is quite magnificent and a little overwhelming.
Like several of the churches we visited, there were a couple of catacomb saints. Catacomb saints are ancient Roman corpses that were exhumed from the catacombs of Rome, given fictitious names and sent abroad as relics of saints from the 16th century to the 19th century.. They were typically lavishly decorated with gold and precious stones. The Marble Hall was the the banqueting room or ballroom, and is decorated with frescoes with allegorical symbolism.
In the centre, Pallas Athena on a chariot drawn by lions is a symbol of wisdom and moderation. Hercules can be seen to her left, symbolizing the force necessary to conquer the three-headed hound of hell, night, and sin. Both Pallas Athena and Hercules allude to Emperor Karl VI, who liked to be celebrated as a successor to the Roman emperors in the Hercules legend. “The guest is shown the essence of the House of Hapsburg: The ruler brings the people from dark to light, from evil to good.” The ceiling is not actually curved, but it is a very effective trompe l’oeil.Before we left we spotted a huge model of the Abbey …
… and another model showing the original medieval structure.
- To see all the posts about our 2016 Danube River cruise click HERE.
- Although this post was written in 2022, it happened in June 2016, 5 years ago. Since I didn’t document the trip at the time, now seemed as good a time as any to catch up.