Dispatches from Europe: An Austrian miscellany
by Sam Matthews
Jun 06, 2014 | 1773 views | 0 0 comments | 14 14 recommendations | email to a friend | print
LINZ, Austria — As the Amacerto river ship plows westward against the strong eastbound current of the Danube, we have departed from the last of four ports of call in Austria. This mostly mountainous nation is also in its lower elevations an important segment of the Danube economy, including the burgeoning river cruise industry.

The four ports of call in Austria are all unique in their characteristics. Here is what we found:

Imperial history in Vienna

VIENNA — The section of the Danube between Bratislava, Slovakia, and Vienna may be important to the river economy, but it certainly isn’t postcard country. The flat terrain remained mostly out of sight as we moved along between tree-lined banks. Finally, as more factories and commercial buildings came into view, we knew were approaching Vienna.

Our ship, as others, docked in the Danube Canal, a manmade offshoot of the river. Soon after departing the ship, we were aboard a bus taking us to the center of this onetime imperial city.

Vienna, as is generally well known, was the capital of the empire ruled for centuries by the House of Hapsburg. What was originally Austria and later Austria-Hungary included most of the lands that at one time formed Czechoslovakia, Hungary, northern Italy and the Balkan states. The palatial buildings of the former empire line Vienna’s Ring, a series of connected curving streets that encircle the city’s historical center. We walked through this area peering into the Hofburg winter palace and the Spanish Riding School — where we managed just a glimpse of one of the famed white Lipizzaner horses.

We weren’t alone in our walking tour. Vienna’s center on a warm, sunny spring day was jammed with tourists and groups of schoolchildren on their annual field trip.

We opted to visit the Albertina Museum, where drawings by Michelangelo, Rubens and Albrecht Durer were on display. Afterward, we sat down in a nearby sidewalk café and indulged ourselves with “melange” coffee — a large latte — with a slice of the cafe’s version of Sacher torte, the dense chocolate cake, and, of course in Vienna, “mit slag” — with whipped cream. It was a very pleasant day enjoying Vienna’s past imperial treasures and its present tasty delights.

Wachau wine country

DURNSTEIN — The flat lands east of Vienna gave way to the hills of the Vienna Woods and the Wachau valley as we entered one of the most picturesque sections of the Danube.

Durnstein is a small village of some 800 residents in the center of the Wachau valley’s wine district. Trellised grape vines connect the north side of the river with rolling hills. Although some red wines are produced, it’s white wine country, and that means mostly Gruner Veltliner, the sprightly white wine of the region.

The village of Durnstein has any number of old, restored buildings and winding walking streets. Bernhard Fisher, a native of the village, showed our group around. The wine business there is doing well for the mostly small (15 to 20 acres) vintners, spurring the recent addition of new wine-making facilities.

And, of course, we bought a bottle of Gruner Veltliner before heading back to the ship.

Abbey’s past, present

MELK — Traveling westward between the vineyards and apricot orchards of the Wachau valley, we came in sight of the majestic Abbey of Melk, the often-photographed monastery perched atop a hill on the south side of the river. Constructed and reconstructed between the 15th and 18th centuries, the monastery is considered a great example of Baroque architecture.

Once home to thousands of monks of the Catholic Church, the monastery — although now owned by the government of Austria — still has 30 Benedictine monks as residents. It also has some 400 middle school and high school students, many boarding at the monastery. The monks at the abbey serve 23 area Catholic parishes.

We went on a guided tour of the 500-room abbey and could see that for most of its history, the monks lived in sometimes grand style, not your image of a monk living in a barren cell. Excesses were eliminated by periodic reforms.

The 11-room library holding 100,000 books and the richly decorated church were high points of the tour.

At the end of the tour of this historical Catholic edifice, I asked our guide, Monica, how she spelled her last name.

B-a-p-t-i-s-t, she replied, adding, “No, I’m not kidding.”

From Linz to lake country

LINZ — The final stop in Austria was at Linz, the second largest city in the country. Although it is mostly known as an industrial center, our tour members — many of them riding bicycles — found the historical center well preserved and the market in the town square one of the largest they had seen.

During our day docked at Linz, tour members scattered to several locations, including a village in the Czech Republic and Salzburg. We opted for a tour of the Bavarian lake country, spending a sunny day visiting several lakes, including large Mondsee. We found their lakeside villages filled with vacationers and well stocked with souvenirs.

From Linz, the Amacerto headed west toward Germany — the last phase of our journey on the Danube.

• Sam Matthews, Tracy Press publisher emeritus, is traveling in Europe.

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