It is an unrivalled spectacle. When the rising sun illuminates the Benedictine Melk Abbey, it almost seems that a colossal and wonderfully beautiful monument is being brought to life. Melk Abbey is Austria’s largest Baroque structure and the symbol of the Wachau Valley, since 2000 a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the world’s most extraordinary natural landscapes. The steep, terraced vineyards are a distinctive characteristic of the region. Because of the extreme grade of the slopes, the vintners must cultivate many sections of these fields by hand. In spring, the blossoms of the famed Wachau apricot trees fill the air with their marvellous aroma.
This region offers both tranquillity and exhilaration: tranquillity because sometimes the only sound one hears is the murmur of the Danube and the rustling of the gloriously coloured forests, and exhilaration when one passes one of the Wachau’s many remarkable historic buildings. Towering above the valley are the ruins of Aggstein and Dürnstein castles, while the town of Spitz boasts a magnificent late-Gothic parish church. One of the most striking buildings in the valley is Dürnstein Abbey, whose blue-and-white tower can be seen from miles around.
Off-beat art in a historic ambience
The juxtaposition of old and new is particularly evident in Krems, a city that is the domain of off-beat artists. This begins right at the Krems-Stein Danube Ship Terminal: this is traditionally known as the ”gateway to the Wachau”, and correspondingly the newly rebuilt terminal is shaped like an oversized metal gate. Not far from here, the Kunsthalle also unites modernity and tradition: in the nineteenth century the site of a large tobacco processing factory, it is now a major venue for contemporary art. No less modern is the adjacent Caricature Museum. These contemporary architectural projects offer a stimulating contrast to the many historic buildings in the surrounding area. The Steinertor acts as the entrance to the oldest section of the city, with outstanding structures such as the Dominican Church and the Gozzoburg castle on the Hoher Markt. The latter is Lower Austria’s most important urban medieval building.
From Krems it is not far to St. Pölten. Characteristic features of this city, which only in 1986 became the provincial capital, are the new, ultra-modern government quarter and the adjoining cultural district. The Provincial Museum has a playful quality, with its eye-catching wavy roof in front of the main entrance. The Festspielhaus is an unconventional glass complex and the architectural antithesis to the Baroque St. Pölten Cathedral, the landmark of the historic city centre.
Wine is not just wine; it is an experience
From the city we head back out into the countryside. Here, bucolic scenery and contemporary architecture meet to create an extraordinary wine experience at the Loisium, in Langenlois. The Wine Museum, designed by the US architect Steven Holl, is an extravagant structure that is nonetheless firmly rooted in a centuries-old winegrowing area. If you hadn’t realized it before, you recognize now that wine is not just wine; it is an exciting but authentic experience in the middle of nature. One can sample authentic culture in Grafenegg as well, located only a few kilometres away. This town has established itself as a centre for open-air music festivals and in 2007 opened an imposing outdoor stage known as the ”Cloud Tower”, which attracts not only music lovers but also visitors with a fondness for unusual architecture.
In view of this wealth of architectural highlights, it would be understandable if no time remained to visit the Baroque Marchfeld Palaces. But tomorrow is another day. Watching the sunrise in the garden of Klosterneuburg Monastery is just one more unforgettable experience to be had in Lower Austria’s rich cultural landscape.