Wachau: Steely Danube

Following the news in the summer of 2017, we hear that the infrastructure of Southern Europe is collapsing under the weight of boat people being picked up by the Mafia a few metres from the Libyan coast, we hear that Rome is imposing a curfew on running water, we hear of multiple arson-encouraged forest fires sweeping across nation after nation, we hear that activists in Barcelona and Mallorca are threatening direct action against mass tourism, we hear that Brits are missing their flights because of four-hour queues in and out of the Schengen zone; in short, we hear that there are too many people on the planet, all taking too many holidays in the same overcrowded places. With this year’s summer break I get the impression that we sacrificed world-class art, culture and iconic sights in exchange for being obscurist holiday hipsters, because in the little corner of Austria on which we took a punt we barely saw another foreigner in a week, and we came home happy with our choice. The Wachau valley is a 20-mile stretch of the Danube, roughly equidistant between Linz and Vienna, that is particularly pretty. It begins with Melk, a huge and celebrated monastery with a small town below, and ends around the medium-sized town of Krems an der Donau (‘an der Donau’ performing the same role as ‘upon-Thames’), with a string of picturesque winemaking villages in between. People who are seriously into their exercise like to cycle its entire length, and a boat down the Danube to Melk is one of the classic day-trip excursions from Vienna, but we spent a week in the Wachau to recharge our batteries and indulge in some slow travel.

I feel a fondness for Austria because it is the amputated trunk of the sprawling, multi-lingual Austro-Hungarian Empire which produced so many of my favourite novelists, composers, painters and thinkers. The coffee houses of Imperial Vienna feel to me like a last link to the civilisation that was irreparably mutilated, if not extinguished, by World War I, and the nostalgic/satiric novels of Joseph Roth, Stefan Zweig, Robert Musil or Sandor Marai express the same regret at the loss of their national identity, for all its faults, injustices and prejudice, as I feel when I think of the impending break-up of the UK with my Ulster Unionist hat on (or indeed the mass suicide that is Brexit). I had been to Vienna seven years ago on my first trip away with the woman I married earlier this year, so it seemed an appropriate time to revisit Austria and give it our regards.

So many of those wonderful novels about Austro-Hungarian cavalry officers are set away from the bright lights of the capital city, and in sleepy barrack town outposts, that I felt quite a fellow feeling with Svejk or Trotta being in an Austrian rural village. The scenery was lovely, and we were fortunate that our village was one of the few with a good supermarket, but most villages seemed to consist of residences, thirty-odd winemakers and a parish church, with a café or corner shop if you were lucky). The thing to do here, apart from walking, hiking or biking, is to tour the heurigen; the winemakers all take turns to open a heuriger for a couple of fortnightly windows from May to September. Heurigen date back to a ruling of Emperor Joseph II that winemakers could sell their own wines without a licence, and they are taverns with an enclosed courtyard or terrace that sell the new vintages of that year, as well as cold meats, cheeses, bread and spreads. People pile in and end up sharing the long wooden benches, making it a good way to meet Austrians (even if your German is as pathetic as mine). The best known ones are on the city limits of Vienna, around the suburbs of Grinzing. The guide books told me that these would all be very rustic and ‘Tomorrow Belongs To Me’, and that the food would be a self-service buffet where you paid by the 100g. The Wachau being a renowned wine centre, its heurigen are probably a bit more high-end. Some places were rustic as hell, with young Alpine-milkmaid waitresses and men in embroidered shirts that could have come from a Kansas steakhouse, but many were quite tastefully done-up and could have hosted a Coogan/Brydon lunch in a hypothetical Trip to Austria, mercifully not with the prices to match.

The wines are white, the vast majority being Grüner Veltliner with a few Riesling, and they are categorised into three types of increasing strength/full-bodiedness, these being Steinfeder, Federspiel and Smaragd. I am no wine expert but they are zesty, flavoursome and moreish as hell. Apart from the vineyards, the big thing in the Wachau is the apricot. If we get apricots in Britain, they’ll invariably be dried one and I think our apricot season lasts around ten minutes, if we even have one. Apricots are as ubiquitous in the Wachau as oranges in Seville, which must be why apricot jam is a key ingredient to the famous Sachertorte. There are orchards filled with apricot trees, pick-your-own sites, roadside stalls, and cartons of apricots in the smaller villages with honesty boxes. The shops sell endless varieties of apricot jams, brandies and liqueurs. By the end of the week I’m addicted.

If the Wachau is a comparatively hidden beauty spot, it’s probably because getting there is something of a palaver. We fly into Vienna, appearing to skip the Alps by cutting through central Germany, Czechia and the flats of Lower Austria; parched yellowish fields with the occasional village. As we descend we get a look at the forested banks of the blue-ish Danube where we’ll spend the next week, and between the river and the city comes the black hole of the Wienerwald’s dark, forested hills, looking for all the world as if they had just gobbled up Hansel & Gretel. Passing over Vienna gives a simply glorious view of the Innerstadt, enclosed within the Ringstrasse as if it were in a snowcone, the Stefansdom and the Hofburg standing proud as if Franz Josef still ruled the dozen nearest ethnicities. I don’t recall ever seeing three such contrasting scenes within 5 minutes of flight.

The airport is as easy, logical & efficient as you would hope, the only note of kitsch being a cardboard Mozart greeting us with a bunch of helium balloons. The stinging, 37C heat of the runway is replaced by a black cloud and hailstorms by the time our airport-to-city train gets moving. We are next to a pair of cockneys in Fred Perry and flipflops discussing ‘a major restructuring’ and ‘managing the investment’, I hope they aren’t Brexit negotiators. The second train is, for us, a half hour hop from Vienna to the provincial capital of St Pölten; to my surprise it turns out to be a Budapest-Munich train (it did seem strange that the itinerary printout mentioned a ‘kids cinema’). I feel quite the Portillo. We get scolded for unwittingly sitting in 1st class, luckily this comes five minutes before we have to get off and he doesn’t bother issue us with a fine. Train #3 is from St Pölten to Melk and the scenery starts getting luscious. Verdant greens, golden fields of wheat, onion-domed churches in the flat plain, distant mountains on one horizon and gently sloping wooded hills folding into Postman Pat valleys on the other. I recognise Melk when we approach it because of the gigantic baroque abbey that dwarfs the town, looking like a giant’s lemon mousse from M&S. In size it is probably comparable to St Francis of Assisi’s gaff.

After a short wait at the bus stop before we connect with the handy WL1 bus, that runs the length of the Wachau, and are on our way. For the first time we get up close to those forested hills and valleys, and it is exceptionally beautiful. There are cragged castle ruins on hilltops, trees everywhere, and the odd ghost-town hamlet (among them Willendorf, famed for the 30,000-year-old Venus that was found there) and the surprisingly still Danube at the centre of it all. It is slightly disconcerting how tiny & empty most of the villages seem until we get to Spitz, which is a little more substantial.

The village we are staying in, Weißenkirchen, is similar. Our guesthouse is a steep climb away from the river but it all seems lovely and historic, just the thing you expect and want from a quiet outpost of Kakania. The interior of our flat smells strongly of fresh pine from all its furniture and rafters. ’Downtown’, we have one tabac, one bäckerei and one konditorei (plus a very good Spar). After loading up at the supermarket and freshening up we go heuriger hunting, and start with Trautsamwieser, down two flights of steps from our flat.

The interior has a terrace of tables under a canopy of thick vines, looking down on the town. We understand almost nothing of the menu and as well as plenty of white wine we end up with paprika cream cheese, tuna and schmalzbrot, which is lard on rye bread (it all soaks up the wine as is intended). There are a other few couples but lots of Austrians seem to come in big groups and have old fashioned singalongs which appear to be of a religious nature. It’s oddly reminiscent of Northern Ireland.

Next morning we have a leisurely breakfast before going out to explore Weißenkirchen. A few lyrca-clad families are making perfunctory stops as they zoom the length of the Wachau on their bikes, but it’s remarkably quiet for what must be high season. We soon notice that almost every house has ’20 C+M+B 17’ written on their doors in chalk, a feature replicated throughout the Wachau, which blesses the house. The initials are those of the three wise men, Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar.

We climb the covered stone steps to the eponymous White Church, surrounded by defensive walls. Built between 1250-1500 with various alterations and makeovers, it is what they call a ‘fortified church’ with the dual functions of a place of worship, and a place for locals to huddle together when under attack.

One thinks of the era when Budapest fell to the Ottomans and their armies unsuccessfully besieged the gates of Vienna, although the pamphlet inside cites the Thirty Years War and the Napoleonic Wars as the occasions when the village fell into enemy hands (the Swedes and French respectively; the former ate all the livestock, the latter drank as much wine as they could and poured what was left down the drains, and both appear to still be sore points).

Inside, the church is cute, with a very old font and some gothic vaulting brightened by gilded Baroque altarpieces and a swanky pulpit; the best baroque feature is certainly the impressive organ.

We stroll through the silent streets, drinking in the architectural change of scene that your eyes crave during the long weeks of métro, boulot, Tesco that holidays punctuate; the houses all painted pastel shades of apple-green, mustard yellow, rosy pink or cool blue.

The Danube itself contains little wooded islands and thickly forested hills on the opposite side. The river served as the northern frontier of the Roman Empire and as you look across you think of the soliders who must have been posted on sentry duty for centuries here, hoping not to see any barbarian armies. It is not that wide for a famous behemoth that just east of the Rhine and cuts through ten countries on its way to the Black Sea, but it looks appealingly clean and more pearl-green than blue.

There is enough of a breeze to prevent the sun from making us uncomfortable. Enjoying the paradisiacal scenery, we walk along the river as far as the next village, Joching, which is even quieter, having nothing but winemakers, houses, and the upmarket Jamek restaurant on its outskirts.

Under the midday sun we walk back to Weißenkirchen along the rarely-used train tracks and cutting through vineyards, scrumping some fairly sensational-tasting apricots.

After lunch, we brave the sun to walk further upstream to the next large-ish village, Spitz, passing Joching, Wösendorf and St Michael; the latter has another fortified church bolstered with round towers.

The Danube is quite enchanting; just before Spitz it veers off to the left and those forested hills unfold as you approach them. The vineyard-heavy hills behind us look good enough to be Umbria.

Although Spitz is a similar size to Weißenkirchen it feels like more unified; there is a main square with a dainty female stucco statue standing over a fountain, a few wineries, an olde-world café advertising apricot strudel, and a proper church with clockfaces painted on beneath a gingerbread roof of multicoloured tiles.

Inside, the church is a bit bigger than the one in our town, and quite a marvel.

There are more baroque altars beneath criss-crossing vaulting, and beneath the organ is the star of the show, a gallery of C14th carvings where JC is flanked by his 12 disciples. The faces have that Romanesque quality where they seem naive and yet full of personality, like Snow White’s dwarfs.

The stained glass is much later, but very good, with bunches of edible-looking grapes and the bushy whiskers of Franz Josef I, ‘the old man’ that presided over the fraying Empire for roughly the same period as Victoria, and who rules and has always ruled in all those novels I like so much.

Around the corner is a heuriger, Flott, whose cosy courtyard looks onto the church tower. Depsite being equally hopeless at each other’s language we make a little small talk with the elderly couple who join us at our bench, who tell us they live locally but their next holiday will take them to ‘Tochtland’ (which appears to mean Glasgow & Edinburgh). We have a bottle of Grüner Veltliner and a ‘summer plate’ of smoked ham, white asparagus, barley, pickled carrot and various salads with a mixture of breads, the best of which tastes of caraway & fennel. It takes me a few meals out to clock that Austrians will give you a big bread basket, count how many pieces of bread you have eaten and charge you by the roll. Everyone else seems to be eating having some kind of apricot cake.

Le lendemain matin, we get the bus to Krems. It is the bustling big metropolis of the Wachau, with a university and a population of 20,000, making it about the same size as Portadown (everything’s relative). There are numerous pairs of teenage girls on the buses and I imagine them saying ‘Dad, I’m bored out of my mind on this holiday. Can’t I go clothes shopping?’ We don’t drive through the famous tourist destination of Dürnstein, but pass through a tunnel in the rocks behind it. As we approach Krems there is a rare bridge over the Danube, and at the summit of the opposite hills another of those thumping huge Benedictine monasteries, this one Stift Göttweig.

Krems has expanded a fair bit beyond the original walled old town and the new stuff is unremarkable. It has also swallowed up its neighbour closer to the river, the old town of Stein. When there were still fields between the two there was a hamlet called Und, and the guide books mention the local joke that ‘Krems & Stein are three cities’. The old town has very pretty buildings, that are notably more ornate than most Wachau villages, but Krems feels more normalised than anywhere else in the Wachau; there are lots of high-street clothes shops and downmarket touristy cafés offering ice creams for the Vienna daytripper. Even the ornate Rathaus has been given over to the weirdly-named clothing chain Camp David. Krems gives us our first glimpse of poverty in Austria; there are tramps and street drinkers and people who look decidedly ill.

We stroll around the inner town, finding an C18th monument to St John of Nepomuk and a few little statuettes on the buildings.

The Steiner Tor gate is the only remnant of the city walls (in imitation of Vienna, there is a Ringstrasse without, lined with imposing big houses) and the tall gate is flanked by a pair of turrets.

The two big churches are the Pfarrkirche and the Piaristenkirche; one, at the heart of town, known as ‘cathedral of the Wachau’, and the other looking down on Krems from a steep vantage point. The focal point is again a handsome belltower, but neither has a much of a facade to speak of.

The cruciform Pfarrkirche is very much the blingy end of baroque, the statues all covered head to toe in gilding and the many chapels and altars all gold with brown marble, the spare patches of wall hosting vigorous frescoes by the most notable of the local painters, the C18th Kremser Schmidt.

The whole thing is like a fancy pastry cake from a Vienna coffee house that is weighed down by icing and custard and cream and laced with rum, and which leaves you with indigestion.

Between it and the steep stairway to Piaristenkirche (again covered, like in Weißenkirchen) Krems looks properly pretty for leaving modern commerce behind.

The second church is older, and better looking for it; the symmetric ribbed vaulting is wonderful and even the altars tone it down a notch (only the clothing is painted gold).

Most of the marble is actually painted wood once you get close. Mysteries here are the long row of what must be very spartan confessional booths along the back of the pews, all open and squeezed in together, and the domestic-looking windows along the left-hand side of nave and choir. My baffled best guess was that these were put here to house relics, but they look as if someone’s front windows look directly into the church (it would not be the last time we saw this feature).

In the afternoon, we refuel with our first kaffee und küchen at the Raimitz konditorei; two Wiener melange, an apricot cake and a poppy seed cake, as we work out which museum to try.

Krems has three main museums; a contemporary/abstract one, a museum of caricatures and a museum of Krems. As the first two are €10 and the latter is €5, we go for the latter (situated in the cloister of an old Dominican monastery) and it turns out to be fairly enjoyable, as those eccentric provincial musuems with loads of random stuff go; medieval charters, C18th walking sticks and portraits mixed up with neolithic pottery and sculpted figures from 30,000 BC.

Fragments from the history of the town include its origins as a ‘Slavic settlement’ in the dark ages, oddities like a caricatured jew jug (!) and a few paintings & pencil drawings by Kremser Schmidt. The carved wine barrels and wine stoppers are all rather jolly in their bacchanalia but the lengthy section promoting the allegedly famous Krems mustard screams ‘sponsored content’.

We walk out from the centre towards the old town of Stein, which seems quieter and frayed at the edges, but pretty with cobbled streets throughout. Before we manage to reach the heart of Stein, however, the hourly bus back to Weißenkirchen passes and we decide to jump on it.

In the evening we have dinner at another of the three Weißenkirchen heurigen that are open; Ferdl Denk, on the main strip up from the river. There’s some party going on with people having snacks from a buffet that becomes a dessert buffet, but there are a few free outdoor tables and we get put overlooking the road, a renaissance palace with battlements, and the church tower. It’s quite fancy and classy, not at all the rural bumpkin’s heuriger the guidebooks depict. They also offer hot meals, a rarity amongst these places. We have a bit of roast pork with roast potatoes, mountain mushrooms and a lovely sauce, plus a pork schnitzel whose batter is beautifully light. We’re joined at our table by a group from Linz, two middle-aged ladies and the Slovakian girl who nurses their nonagerian uncle, and between us manage to keep the conversation going for ages. They know that Northern Ireland is cold but has good golf courses; all I know about Linz is that Hitler grew up there, loved it dearly, dreamt of retiring there and spent heavily on its infrastructure, but it seems unwise to volunteer this knowledge. My wife alludes to how everything in the world is going downhill, thinking of Brexit/Grenfell, and they wholeheartedly agree, expressing their dismay at the Hamburg G20 protests. Conservatism remains a strong force here. We finish quite early, and stroll on the riverbank as the sun sinks behind pink clouds.

On day four we walk to Dürnstein; a similar distance as Spitz but in the direction of Krems. There is an overgrown pathway for the first half of the route, not shared with cyclists, then a cycle path through vines (and Weißenkirchen’s diminutive football ground, although Soccerway is no help in working out how far down the Austrian league pyramid they are) before we have to walk on the roadside for the final strait.

The Danube twists and turns much more around Dürnstein, and it does look fantastic. There’s a great moment when the white Gothic belltower of Weißenkirchen disappears around the corner just at the moment when the blue baroque belltower of Dürnstein appears on the horizon.

On the edge of town, a traffic sign advises us of the Sunday mass times in the surrounding villages, and a dramatic cliff-face houses statues of Richard the Lionheart and his minstrel, more of whom in a bit.

Dürnstein is very pretty, very religious again (one private house has a big crucifixion on the front wall) and once you hit the main street, much more touristy.

There are lots of tour groups milling around the one proper street, largely pedestrianised, and at least a dozen places to buy fridge magnets, apricot cream liqueur or apricot brandy.

It is the cutest and most immediately charming of the towns we have seen, with the feel of a place on Lake Garda or the Ligurian coast, so you can see why what mass tourism the Wachau gets has coagulated around here.

We grab an outdoor table at the Altes Presshaus, the least showy of the places to eat (it mostly has the restaurants of 5* hotels for competition) and have a platter of cheeses, hams, pickles etc with some white wine. The slices of roast pork are proper Sunday afternoon stuff, the only annoyance is that the wasps are very attracted by these sticky foods. I particularly like slices of black pudding with under piles of grated horseradish.

After lunch we walk around to the riverfront, ponder getting on one of the boats until we are appalled by their prices, and decide to pay the €3.50 into the remains of Dürnstein’s Augustinian monastery (which contains that blue tower). The man selling tickets wears a t-shirt reading ‘“Without wine, there’s no party”- Pope Francis’.

There is a flamboyant courtyard with plaster statues of saints and babies, with the entrance to the church on the left.

The church is eccentric baroque where every spare space has something crammed into it and it feels like a hoarding grandparents’ house.

On two side altars, skeletons dressed in lace & jewels recline in glass boxes. There are lavish confession boxes (with a posing lamb that makes me think of Ghent), an upper gallery, gilded statues, a floating pulpit, and illuminated lettering everywhere.

The other option from the courtyard is a small museum on the Augustinians that manages to take the life and the religious order of one of the most interesting men that ever lived and create a deathly dull exhibition which, like Dante’s Purgatory, must be walked through to reach the terrace underneath the belltower.

Cherubs look onto the Danube, and it is ever so slightly like the Terrace of Infinity at Ravello. We’ve seen some bad baroque so far, but the baby-blue tower is good baroque; it just works. As we look onto the Danube and the villages opposite, a cruise ship passes a long barge boat laden with shipping containers and a Bulgarian flag. Do some still use the Danube as a working river?

The other main point of interest in Dürnstein is at the end of a long, steep climb; the ruins of the castle where King Richard I of England was kept prisoner in the 1180s. From what I could tell, they took a Muslim stronghold during the Crusades and planted the flags of England, France and the Holy Roman Empire at its summit, but the Lionheart believed the Germans to have done nothing in the battle and threw their flag down into the dirt. His ship ran into difficulties and he had to walk home in disguise, but was caught in Austria and locked up here. The romantic and implausible legend is that his favourite minstrel, Blondel, found him by walking through every town in Europe singing the King’s favourite song, until he got to Dürnstein Castle and heard Richard joining in. As British visitors, we feel obliged.

It is not as long as they warn (nearer 10 minutes than 25) but very rocky, and hard going on the feet. When you get to the top, though, there are great views of all the twists and loops that the Danube makes at this point.

Weißenkirchen is in view again, and beyond Dürnstein one can see Oberloiben, Unterloiben and Stift Göttweig. There isn’t much left of the castle, mostly chunks of wall built into and around the rocks, but enough to see that it was quite an edifice covering several stories. We take the bus back for ice creams from the town konditorei, pick up more supplies from the Spar, and treat ourselves to a bottle of apricot schnapps.

In evening I go out to sit by the Danube at sunset. One of the charms of the Wachau is the huge number of swallows and sparrows. The buildings of Weißenkirchen have what at first glance look like beehives under their eaves, but turn out to be swallows’ nests. At evening the swallows go quite crazy and are all dive-bombing up and down between the houses.

Up early the next day to catch the bus to Melk, which is so far that the €10 day ticket works out cheaper than the return fare. Melk is, after Krems, the biggest Wachau town by some distance but it still seems small fry compared to the huge monastery to which it is an appendage. It’s a bit jollier, mind you, to have a Baroque monastery looming over & dominating a rickety little town than it is the usual fearsome castle.

Melk town’s historic core is small but looks appealing, with features like faded sgraffito/fresco pictures of shepherds and livestock on the walls of the houses.

We locate the steps to the abbey and buy our tickets a few minutes before the daily English language tour (tours are offered in the main EU languages), so we pay a little extra to join it. The grounds contain grandiose courtyard after courtyard with stucco statues; if Dürnstein was an amuse bouche, this is the mains.

Our guide, Ulrike, leads up the imperial staircase & inside (where photos are verboten). There was one wing for the monks, and one for visitors (Empress Maria Theresia stayed three times, as did Mozart, Napoleon, and various Emperors and Popes) and the ‘lay wing’ is now a museum. We zip through this, getting the history.

Ulrike’s Baroque-for-dummies explanation is that the Counter-Reformation was trying to woo the faithful back from Protestantism. The Gothic made you look up to the heavens, and think about your rewards in the world to come. Like a politician promising that you can have your cake and eat it, the Counter-Reformation tried to provide Heaven on Earth too by going very opulent and blingy and ‘austerity is over’. If your statue is wooden, paint it head-to-toe in gilding. Melk’s Gothic iteration was demolished for its Baroque replacement as Gothic was ‘seen as ugly at that time’. Today ten monks now live in, with twenty more in the parishes covered by Melk. ‘The younger ones’ are aged 65-70. The not-so-subliminal message is that Baroque is good; the Enlightenment Emperor, Joseph II, is mentioned disparagingly for making people unhappy by trying to change too much too fast; we see one of his recycling coffins, whose bottom would open dropping the corpse into the grave, allowing the coffin to serve at multiple funerals (meaning it is not so shocking that Mozart was put in an unmarked ‘pauper’s grave’).

The museum rooms lead to the Marble Hall where guests dined, which looks very opulent until Ulrike points out that almost all of the marble is cleverly painted stucco and the domed roof is actually entirely flat, the impression coming from two Italian painters who executed an ingenious trompe l’oeil with apparently vertical pillars and extra fictitious levels in which Baroque figures frolic. The museum wing ends with an outside viewing platform looking onto the river & town, after which we see a little bit of the monk’s wing; two rooms from the vast library. Academics still come to consult the library, whose oldest is a C9th parchment of the Venerable Bede. Old bound volumes from centuries past are piled on shelves from floor to ceiling, it’s not a bad place to be a librarian.

Last thing on the tour is the Stiftskirche, which we get to just before the monks troop in for the noon service. It is very, very dazzling Baroque, nine gold figures on the roof of the pulpit alone, and pink marble pillars everywhere. When the organ blasts in the service it is one hell of a sound. Again, two side chapels have jewelled skeletons draped in lace clothing. These are anonymous ‘catacomb saints’. One rests with his elbow under his chin like he should be posing on a tigerskin.

We take a quick look at what the abbey refers to as its ‘so-called English garden’ and the frescoed café, very like the pavilion in Vienna zoo, before it starts to rain and we descend to the appealing winding cobblestone streets of Melk for lunch.

We have soup (goulash, chicken & noodle) at an inexpensive cafe on the square before going to one of the recommended hotel/restaurants, Zur Post, to try the marillenknödel that the Linz girls insisted we should have. It is, believe it or not, a potato-based dessert; a flour/potato dumpling that is dusted in cake crumbs and icing sugar, encasing a ripe, juicy apricot and served on a bed of apricot puree and mint leaves.

We then stroll around Melk’s historic bit, which is soon exhausted. The town church is defiantly spartan Gothic, with good carvings of the Stations of the Cross. In the foyer are photos of residents that have died on one side, and recently-baptised babies on the other, which must give the town a sense of continuity, of ying and yang.

We get off the return bus early at St Michael, to climb its round tower and look at the little fortified church. It is locked up but you can peer through a gate, and it is not as ancient-looking on inside. There are a row of seven hares on the roof. The churchyard has swish and well-tended marble graves, someone is tending to one as we visit.

We walk the rest of the way through St Michael, Wösendorf & Joching to our town. Wösendorf is gorgeous, with houses sporting little embellishments that make them look like Italian Renaissance places.

The small church is open, and has a memorial with photos of Nazi soldiers. Going all by the war memorials, which are eerily identical to British war memorials for the same wars, these villages lost a shocking amount of men considering their small populations.

In the evening, we bus it back to Wösendorf to visit the Enothek Eigl heuriger. I expect this, placed out in the sticks as it is, to be a pretty rural/rustic heurigen. Confounding my expectations, it’s an elegant and swanky one again. The courtyard is full so we sit inside, at modern tables under an old wooden wine press. There are lots of groups of young people, and it could be Peckham or Hackney if the prices were three times higher. A hen party is going on and the girl makes her way round to us. She is Romanian & the Austrian family she’s marrying into have got her doing what is apparently the traditional thing, a little sale to raise funds for her honeymoon. We are offered home-made cherry spirit or penis cookies, and drink a shot of the cherry stuff with her. For dinner we have pork knödel (a savoury version of our Melk dessert) and saumaise, as well as the normal mixed plate, washed down with Grüner Veltliner, Riesling, and white Burgundy for pudding. The next table is occupied by two couples from Neusidler See, with two chihuahuas who we are kindly allowed to hold. Mona (3) and Gizmo (13). Both are exceptionally well behaved, accept being handed over to strangers and supress their interest in the food enough not to beg. The women chat to us about the dogs and the men ask, ‘Is Brexit going to be a problem for you?’ with a chuckle. Missing the last bus of the night, we drunkenly stumble back to Weißenkirchen in the dark.

By the last full day we decide we’ve earned a lazy one, and spend most of the day hanging out in Weißenkirchen, snoozing by the river and having a long lunch in the flat. Weißenkirchen seemed to get busier on the Friday evening as people pitched up for the weekend; on a Saturday it is notably much more so and there are a few wedding parties being moved around. In the evening we make the short walk to Joching for another heuriger, Höllmüller. Overturning what we had expected to find once more, this is a quite rustic one where the boss has the name of the winery stitched onto his country & western style shirt. As well as the obligatory Grüner Veltliner, my wife opts for their ‘burger’, a fresh crispy roll full of pulled pork, gherkins and garlic. I have ‘wild boar’, the normal plate with what seems like 200 cuts of smoked meat, plus 2 pieces of wine-soaked cinnamon pear and two big dollops of a sweet, sugary cream cheese with cranberries mixed through. As we walk back, it is very dark and it starts raining heavily. A motorist stops and addresses us, switching to perfect English when he gets a slurred “Kein Deutsch!”. It turns out he is offering us a lift back because of the rain; dismissing horror film plotlines from our heads we reflect kindness to strangers is one benefit of the church still having influence over rural communities. He lives in Krems but his family own one of the local restuarants, chat about the area& our experience of Austria. He asks for the address we are staying at and drives us right to our front door. As last impressions go, it’s a pretty great one with which to leave the Wachau.


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