Friday, 20 May 2016

On the Danube - third leg

We woke up this morning with the MV Jane Austen moored at the landing place in the village of Durnstein in the Wachau Valley. It was originally a wine growing area in which the 19th century philloxera plague wiped out the vines. In order to survive the farmers switched to cultivating apricot trees instead and developed a new industry making brandy, liqueur and schnapps from its abundant apricot crops. Winemaking resumed eventually, and now the region has a double reputation for its spirits and its high quality white wine.

The population is quite small, perhaps a thousand people, but the settlement goes back beyond the middle ages when a castle was built on a high promontory 312 metres above the Danube, with an outer wall dropping down the steep mountainside and encircling the village below. King Richard the Lionheart was held captive here for about six months, and legend has it that his whereabouts were discovered by his faithful friend Blondel who tracked him down to this place. On the walk up from the village to the castle, much is made of the story in multi-lingual interpretation panels, and there is even a portal with a recorded music installation, on the path just below the remains of the castle gatehouse.

On the way up, I learned that a man called David Sambruck in our walking party with family and friends was from Cardiff, and that we'd met a decade ago, attending the City Centre Improvement Group which went on during the city centre redevelopment. He was with the Council's Waste Management team until he retired, and we discovered a shared passion for green issues, recycling, alternative energy, and the frowned upon by family pursuit of collecting stray litter in public spaces and taking it to the nearest bin. Nice to know someone other than me gets the 'Oh you're embarassing' reproach when we're out  walking or picnicking.

Walking to the top and taking photos, plus stopping for a chat while we caught our breath on the steep climb took most of our time ashore, and was very well worth it for the amazing views of the valley below. After the descent, I had a look around the village and found a cemetery by the parish church with a funeral chapel and crypt with an ossuary containing the bones of soldiers whose bodies were collected following a battle named after the village during the Napoleonic war in 1805. It's not far from here apparently. Bones collected were sorted into neat batches for storage, like spare parts in a warehouse, very impersonal. On a corner opposite the town hall, were military memorials from both sides - the Austrian-Russian coalition and Napoleon's army, erected in an altogether different era of European community and peace.

Clare and I got separated on the climb to the castle when I stopped to chat with David, but we were re-united in the main street, moments before I received her worried text. We had a brief look at the courtyard entrance to the small Benedictine Abbey, but didn't have enough time to pay the entrance fee and visit properly. It's a distinctive building its facades and outer walls painted in pale yellow and its tall ornate baroque tower painted in powder blue, visible from afar when on the river.

With twenty minutes to spare we headed for the ship, just five minutes walk from the village, and then had time to stop at a quayside bar for a small beer, before boarding to eat lunch while the ship slipped her moorings and headed upstream again for Melk, a couple of hours' of sailing away, for our second stop of the day, to visit a very grand Benedictine Abbey, founded nearly 950 years ago.

The Abbey is very visible from the Danube sitting above the town of Melk. Once the Danube ran at the base of the promontory on which the Abbey was built, but in the last few centuries a change of course for the river has grown a lengthy wooded island with a narrow water channel nearest the town and Abbey, and the river landing stages are now on the far side. You can walk up from the landing stage to the Abbey, but the preferred way of managing visitors - half a million a year, I heard it said - is for them to be taken up by coach and deposited in a parking area above the Abbey precinct, and the you walk down to the welcome area with a find view over the town and one part of the Abbey gardens.

Hospitality is a key precept of monastic life after worship and learning, and every aspect of making visitors welcome has been carefully thought through and developed with huge investment from the revenue of visitor admission fees and monastic agricultural lands, The Abbey markets its own fine wines, both white and red, also liqueurs. In addition the Abbey runs, in a major section of its own buildings, a low cost fee paying co-educational high school for mainly local children. There are thirty monks, half of whom serve in parishes of the region, plus this hugely sophisticated modern and diverse social enterprise employing five hundred people. Yet, at its heart is expresses, in a most authentic way, the meaning of living a good and wholesome life, as interpreted by the sixth century Rule of St Benedict. 

We were most impressed, not only by the young woman who was our tour guide, but also by the visitor centre taking us through a millennium of Benedictine history in this place, not only in displays of religious artwork and artefacts of the kind one would expect to find in a monastery, but also some imaginative contributions from contemporary artists interpreting the significance of the Rule, and the 'Life and work' spirituality it expresses for a secular world. A very powerful piece of multi-media evangelism and witness for today's church.

It rained on us a little when we had to cross the terrace overlooking the town and the Danube. The first time this week. We were shown the great monastic library with a collection of eighty thousand books, ancient and modern - the oldest being eleventh century. The Abbey, we heard, had to sell its Gutenberg Bible first edition to Yale University to fund roof repairs and renovation. The monks had hosted a meeting of Nobel Prize winning scholars a few years ago, gathered there to reflect on science and spirituality. Amazing stories, and an amazing place, now listed as a World Heritage Site. I wonder what St Benedict makes of all this prestige? Albeit his disciples have done him proud down the centuries.

Back then to the ship for supper and cast off for the overnight journey to Linz, the closest we will get to the German border, not for from Berechtestgarten, Hitler's mountain top retreat. One of his last futile dreams had been to retire eventually to Linz, level most of the city, and 'modernise' it with Teutonic style architecture, a failure for which the world can be grateful.

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