Austria: Melk Abbey as a Castle of God

The great breadth of the abbey in Melk, Austria stands like a set of broad shoulders on its perch high above the Danube. The monastery is 362 meters (nearly 1,200 feet) along its south front; even with its Baroque ornamentation, it conveys a very non-ecclesiastical brawn — much more like a castle than an outpost of the Lord.

Melk Abbey atop its hill near the Danube

Melk Abbey atop its hill near the Danube

And indeed, it was a castle when Leopold I lived there. He was first margrave of Austria to take the title from the Babenburg dynasty in 976. His successors amassed art treasures and Christian relics and filled the palace with them, then handed the whole thing over to Benedictine monks in 1089. The Benedictines have lived there ever since, running schools, collecting art, and surviving the ups and downs of monastic relations with government as the centuries have spun by.

The abbey is an easy hour train ride from Vienna’s Westbanhof station. The Austrian national railway, known as ÖBB, sells a “Kombiticket,” a one-price entry to the train, the abbey, a river cruise halfway back to Vienna (about which more tomorrow) and a train back into the city. It’s €57 for adults and €16 for kids through age 15. That may seem pricey (about US$74 for adults and US$21 for kids), but it’s well worth it for the art, history, and other delights you get along the way.

After the train ride, there’s time to get a coffee under a sidewalk umbrella on Melk’s charming main street before climbing the stairs up the abbey’s formidable hillside. Guided tours in many languages take you through the museum and formal rooms, ending in the Rococo splendor of the chapel. A leisurely lunch back down in the town is a good next step before half-mile walk to the boat dock.

For off-the-beaten path travelers, it’s perhaps a bit more structure than they’re accustomed to — but the Melk tour is interesting and never confining.♦

© 2013 Adam Barr

Photographs by Adam Barr

In the museum, a carved bone reliquary

In the museum, a carved bone reliquary

The ceiling of one of the abbey's grand galleries, where balls and other celebrations were held

The ceiling of one of the abbey’s grand galleries, where balls and other celebrations were held

In the chapel

In the chapel

The pipes of the chapel's great organ

The pipes of the chapel’s great organ

The town from the abbey terrace

The town from the abbey terrace

The town square on a warm, lazy dar, viewed from a café

The town square on a warm, lazy day, viewed from a café

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