Travel — especially slow travel of the type you enjoy on a leisurely Crystal River cruise — immerses you in the character of the country as well as its history. You experience cities along the route from a totally different perspective, and somehow the takeaway becomes more personal.
It’s always a surprise, even if you’ve seen a city before as a “traditional tourist.”
It’s that way in Austria. No matter how many times you visit Vienna, or Salzburg, they always have an impact that leaves you speechless. Everyone falls in love with Vienna, and rightly so. Schonnbrunn Palace is a wonder, as is St. Stephens Cathedral. It’s also hard to comprehend the lavish lifestyle supported by Hofburg Palace, the sprawling Baroque “winter home” of the Habsburg Empire for centuries.
Modern-day Vienna is, of course, much more than its buildings, and it’s always a joy to return; the influence of art and music are palpable, and there is always a new place to eat dinner, a new food to try, or a wonderful experience waiting just around the next corner.
Vienna may be the traditional highlight of an Austrian vacation, but a slow trip along the Danube will transport you through time as well as give you a new perspective
Just a bit east of Vienna is the Krems-Land district, and the beautiful Wachau Valley. Here, in Durnstein, in the shadow of foreboding ruins high on a bluff overlooking the Danube, you can sample wonderful dry white wines, produced from a mix of Reisling and Grüner Veltliner grapes.
The wine history in the region, some say, extends back to Celtic tribes who inhabited the area as long ago as the first century BCE, although these particular grapes were probably introduced to the region during the Roman period.
The Middle Ages seem alive in this small town, and if you’re fit, you’ll want to hike up to Durnstein Castle, where King Richard the Lionheart was held captive by Austrian King Leopold V following the Third Crusade. It resulted from a perceived insult during the Battle of Acre in a faraway land! The view of the entire valley is spectacular. The castle is free to visit, but it was almost totally destroyed by Swedish troops in 1645!
Walking the cobblestones of the small town is easier, and you can visit the Abbey and Blue Church with its unique Baroque tower. There is a small fee, but the interior’s sculpture, paintings and skeleton of St. James are worth seeing.
Just a bit further east along the river is the small town of Melk, best known for its gorgeous Benedictine Abbey, a sprawling complex with seven courtyards and an impressive twin-towered church. You won’t want to miss the 18th-Century buildings and grounds.
Melk marks a dream destination for a history and architecture buff. There are a dozen or so fine old castles and churches, and other small towns within just a few kilometers. You can reach some of them by bicycle, and many are worth a visit if you have the time and can bear to leave the artistic painted homes, shops and meandering streets of Melk.
Both the old town and modern Melk feed your wanderlust. Feed your hunger with local schnitzel, goulash or pastry at one of the many friendly cafes, restaurants or hotels in town. In good weather, sit outside to enjoy the Danube view.
Another popular destination lies midway between Vienna and Salzburg. It may be hard to surpass the beauty, majesty, history and art of Vienna, but cruising along the river makes it impossible to escape the past. That past comes alive in magical ways, nowhere more so than in Linz. It’s especially unique after dark.
It is the third-largest city in Austria and the capital of the state of Upper Austria. It boasts a beautiful Baroque Old Town Hall and an old Cathedral, the Alter Dom, on the city square. There’s also a New Cathedral, along with a number of galleries and museums, and the city is home to a beautiful botanical garden.
The most unique attraction, however, may be the futuristic and fascinating Ars Electronica Centre. If you’re a tech nerd, don’t miss it, but it’s also just plain fun if you’re a bit burned out on old buildings and history!
One thing is absolutely certain, time on the Danube will bring Austria to life in unforgettable ways.
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