It's an unrivalled spectacle. When the rising sun illuminates Melk Abbey, it 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 - a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2000 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, vintners must cultivate many sections of these fields by hand. In spring, the blossoms of the apricot trees fill the air with their marvellous aroma that gives the famed Wachauer Marillenknödel their special flavour.
Lower Austria offers both tranquility and exhilaration. Tranquility 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, with its blue-and-white tower that can be seen from miles around.
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 - traditionally known as the ”gateway to the Wachau” - the newly rebuilt terminal shaped like an oversized metal gate in correspondance. Not far from here, the Kunsthalle Krems also unites modernity and tradition. The site of a large tobacco processing factory in the nineteenth century, 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 Gozzoburg Castle on the Hoher Markt. The latter is Lower Austria’s most important urban medieval building.
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 center.
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, this is a place that will show you that wine is not just wine. It is an exciting but authentic experience in the middle of nature.
Authentic culture can also be sampled in Grafenegg, 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 music lovers and visitors with a fondness for unusual architecture to Musikfestival Grafenegg every year.
In view of this wealth of architectural highlights, it would be understandable if no time remained to visit the Baroque Marchfeld Palaces or Klosterneuburg Monastery. But tomorrow is always another day and watching the sun rise in the monastery gardens is just one more unforgettable experience to be had in Lower Austria’s rich cultural landscape.
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