The Wachau is the name given to the 30km/18mi stretch of the Danube between Melk and Krems, where the river cuts a narrow rocky valley between the foothills of the Bohemian Forest to the northwest and the Dunkelsteiner Wald to the southeast. This is surely the most beautiful part of the Danube, with ancient little towns nestling below historic old castles and castle ruins woven in legends. The best time to visit the Wachau is in spring or autumn, when there are fewer visitors. At the time of the Renaissance there were 31 monasteries in the Wachau. In 1784 Emperor Joseph II allowed the set up of inns known as "Buschenschenken" (vine branches were placed outside the entrance).
5km/3mi below Melk, on the right bank of the Danube, stands Schloss Schönbühel, on a crag rearing 40m/130ft above the river. The castle, originally built in the 12th C., has been remodeled several times and dates in its present form - incorporating the old walls - from the early 19th C. A relief of The Last Supper will be found on the external wall. Near the Schloss stand the Rosalienkapelle (chapel) and a Servite convent built in 1668-74. At the foot of the Schloss lies the market town of Schönbühel (214m/702ft).
Aggsbach Dorf - Aggsbach Dorf
The village of Aggsbach Dorf (250m/820ft) is on the right bank of the Danube.From here an excursion can be made up the Aggsbach valley to the Servite monastery of Maria Langegg (550m/1,805ft). In this former Carthusian monastery 2.5km/1.5mi east of the village (1380-1782), there remain parts of the Gothic cloister and the abbot's lodging (1592), together with a fine church.Aggsbach is 5km/3mi from Schloss Schönbühel in the Wachau.
On the left bank, across the Danube from Aggsbach Dorf, lies Aggsbach Markt (240m/788ft; first mentioned in the records in 830), a favorite holiday resort, with a Late Romanesque parish church (13 C.), from which the pilgrimage church of Maria Laach can be visited.
Maria Laach Pilgrimage Church
7km/4.5mi west of Aggsbach Markt, high up above the Danube valley, stands the Late Gothic pilgrimage church of Maria Laach am Jauerling (580m/1,903ft). The church is richly decorated and furnished, with an image of the "Virgin with Six Fingers" (1440), depicting the Virgin Mary with the Child Jesus, to whom an angel is offering a rose, the whole surrounded by golden rays. Also of much interest are the Late Gothic winged-altar (1490), the tomb of Freiherr Georg von Kuefstein (d. 1603) on the wall, and that of Anna Kirchberg.
7km/4.5mi north of Maria Laach rears the Jauerling (959m/3,146ft; radio transmitter with a mast 139.5m/458ft high); from the top of the mountain there is a fine view of the Danube valley (observatory).
A little way downstream will be seen the ruins of Burg Aggstein, some 300m/1,000ft above the river on a steep-sided crag with a magnificent view of the valley. The castle, founded in 1231 and several times destroyed and rebuilt, is of imposing bulk; it preserves parts of its towers, kitchen and dining hall, the chapel and its mighty walls. On this rock lived the robber barons known as the Kuenringer, who attacked and plundered merchant ships and wagons as they passed through the valley.
Opposite the ruins of Burg Aggstein, on the left bank of the Danube, lies the village of Willendorf (250m/820ft), where the famous "Venus of Willendorf" was found in 1909. This Paleolithic image of a generously proportioned female figure is now in the Natural History Museum in Vienna.
Krems an der Donau - Kloster Und
From the Steiner Tor in Krems an der Donau we continue to the district of "Und". Worth seeing is the Kloster Und (Und Monastery), now the headquarters of the Tourist Board. Originally a Capuchin monastery, it was closed in 1796. The very core of the monastery was a portrait of Our Lady above a mussel-shaped marble basin into which healing waters flowed. The former nave of the church now serves as a function center seating up to 300 people.
Stein an der Donau, Austria
From the old Und monastery it is only a few steps to the Stein district on the banks of the river (200m/655ft), which has also preserved its old-world aspect.
Krems an der Donau - Minorite Church of St Ulrich
Beyond the Kremser Tor in Krems an der Donau, a little way off to the right, stands the former Minorite Church of St Ulrich, a Romanesque columned basilica consecrated in 1264; the choir was enlarged in the 14th century. Today it is an ideal place for art exhibitions.
Krems an der Donau - Parish Church of St Nicholas
Of note in Krems an der Donau is the parish church of St Nicholas, a Gothic hall church with two Baroque altarpieces by Kremser Schmidt. From the choir a flight of steps leads up to the former Frauenbergkirche (14th C.; restored 1963-65); since 1966 it has been a memorial to the dead of both world wars.
Krems an der Donau - Kleiner and Grosser Passauerhof
In the Steiner Landstrasse in Krems an der Donau there are many old houses, among them the Kleiner and Grosser Passauerhof (Nos. 72 and 76: c. 1530). The Grosser Passauerhof was the abode of the Bishop of Passau as far back as 1263; it is a building of massive proportions with battlements and corner towers.
Krems an der Donau - Kremser Schmidt's House
In front of the Linzer Tor in Krems an der Donau, on the right, stands the house occupied by the Baroque painter Schmidt of Krems after 1756. The Late Baroque facade with its triangular gable has decorative plasterwork and ornamental window frames.
Mautern an der Donau, Austria
On the southern bank of the Danube nestles the ancient little town of Mautern (195m/640ft), a toll-collecting point at the bridge over the Danube and the "Mutaren" of the "Nibelungenlied". There are remains of the old town walls, and the Early Gothic parish church contains pictures by Kremser Schmidt. The Roman museum in the Margarethenkapelle displays finds from the Roman station of Castrum Favianis, which once occupied this site.A road bridge spans the Danube, linking the towns of Mautern and Krems. Mautern, on the Danube's right bank, is the oldest of the two. It was once a Celtic settlement and later the Roman Castrum Favianus, the favorite residence of St Severinus (died 482), and appears in the "Nibelungenlied" as Mutaren.
This 18th C. Benedictine Abbey contains exquisite Baroque staircases.
6km/4mi beyond Spitz, also on the left bank of the river, lies Weissenkirchen (206m/676ft; pop. 1,800), perhaps the prettiest of all the Wachau vine-growing villages, with old houses and courtyards (16th C.). Particularly fine is the Teisenhofer Hof, with an external staircase, arcades and towers, which now houses the Wachau Museum (many pictures by Kremser Schmidt). A covered flight of steps leads up to the Gothic fortified church of the Assumption, surrounded by a defensive wall and towers. In the square in front of the church stands an 18th C. statue of St John Nepomuk.