When you take a European river cruise, part of the pleasure is actually cruising — just sitting and watching the countryside go by. On my last Viking cruise, the highlight was cruising the famous Middle Rhine. On this voyage, it was cruising the Wachau Valley, the most beautiful section of the Danube and one of the most scenic places in Europe.
Our visit to Melk Abbey wasn’t a full day’s itinerary: there was an afternoon of scenic cruising to come, and it proved to be just as impressive as the abbey. And wonder of wonders, after a couple of unseasonably chilly and overcast days, the clouds parted and we went cruising the Wachau Valley under bright blue skies.
It was perfect timing: the sunshine brought to life the fresh colours of spring, and we cruised past beautiful countryside, some of it covered in green forest, the rest dotted with farms, vineyards and small towns.
And this being Europe, here and there were rocky outposts topped by ancient castles. Most of them were skeletons of their original selves, but one or two still had a commanding presence.
There’s a surprising amount of traffic on the Danube (surprising to North Americans, at least), and a fair bit of it consisted of other river cruisers. We met ships from a number of lines, including a cruise-by from the Viking Njord, and a friendly wave from the passengers enjoying the view from its terrace and sun deck.
Most of the castles we passed were anonymous, but there was one with a real story. As we cruised into Dürnstein, our port for the evening, we passed a castle high on a rocky crag overlooking the town. It’s not much to look at today, but in its day it had a celebrated “guest”.
Back in 1192, Richard the Lionhearted, warrior king of England, passed through Austria on his way back from the Crusades. He was travelling in disguise, having recently insulted Duke Leopold V, who ruled the region. But he was discovered, and the duke locked him away in Dürnstein Castle, where he remained a prisoner for more than a year. He was finally released, with the help of some strenuous negotiations and a huge sum of money; maybe that’s where the expression “a king’s ransom” came from.
Today, Dürnstein doesn’t get many kings visiting, but it does get a lot of tourists, and it’s become the model of a tourist town. Streets are lined with shops selling every kind of souvenir, as well as jams, liqueurs and a dozen other things made from the local apricots, which are grown alongside the grape vines on the riverside.
Speaking of grape vines, there was a second reason to stop in Durnstein. Mõrwald, the winery that supplies Viking with its Danube wines, lies just outside the town: what better excuse for an optional excursion to see the winery and taste a few of its wines. Never being one to pass up a good glass of wine, I came along.
Wine tasting is always fun, but in this case half the fun was Erhard Mõrwald, owner of the winery, who treats these visits as a chance to make a few jokes, take pictures with the ladies, and of course, drink some of his own wine. Along the way, he explained the workings of his ultra-modern operation, with temperature-controlled steel tanks and a tiny but high-tech bottling line. Some of the wines do spend time in oak barrels, so there’s still some old-time technology involved.
Erhard also makes some schnapps, the throat-clearing brandy that Austrians use as a cure for whatever ails them. That necessitates a copper still, and Erhart has one that looks like something out of a 1960s sci-fi movie. Here he is, showing off his favourite toy.
Mõrwald supplies the house wines that are served with lunch and dinner on the ships. But it also makes a number of other wines, including standbys like cabernet sauvignon and merlot, and several versions of grüner veltliner, Austria’s signature white wine. The premium grüner veltliner tasted like none I’d ever tried before, rounder and deeper than the wine you get in restaurants.
When the tasting was over, I was even moved to buy a bottle — though that could have had something to do with the shot of schnapps we got at the end of the tasting session. (By the way, this may be the first selfie ever published in The Travelling Boomer, thanks to the Sony WX500 and its flip-up monitor.)
In the end, it was a memorable day: an eye-opening visit to Melk Abbey, a walk in the woods, a sunny afternoon cruising the Wachau Valley, and a few glasses of good wine. It would take some doing to top that, though we were set to give it a try: next stop, Vienna.
I was a guest of Viking River Cruises on this trip. However, the opinions expressed are my own.
The photos in this post were taken with the Panasonic DMC-G7 and Sony DSC-WX500 cameras.