Melk Abbey is one of the biggest and most beautiful European Baroque ensembles. It is located about 90 kilometres from Vienna and with the help of high speed trains it makes an awesome day trip from Vienna. Melk has played an important role in the Danube region since Roman times when a fortress was built there. The cliff where the abbey now stands was the seat of the Babenberg’s dynasty that ruled Austria from the 10th century to the late 13th century. In the 11th century, Leopold II of Babenberg presented the palace at Melk to Benedictine monks, who turned it into a fortified abbey. Its influence and reputation as a centre of learning and culture was spreading throughout Austria. In the early 18th century Abbot Berthold Dietmayr and his architects Jakob Prandtauer and Joseph Munggenast built a sacred palace upon the foundations of the medieval monastery.
Melk Abbey, along with the World Heritage landscape Wachau, was voted the Best Historic Destination worldwide at the 2008 Stewardship Rating of National Geographic Traveller magazine. Wachau Cultural Landscape has been on the UNESCO world heritage list since 2000. The Wachau is a 40 km (25 miles) long valley along the Danube River between Melk and Krems. It is home to a number of historic towns, villages, and monasteries, including Melk Abbey, castles and ruins. Melk Abbey is a place where Monks live in accordance with the rules of Saint Benedict. Even though it is visited by more than half a million people every year, it is a place of spirituality and a Christian centre. It also has a prestigious secondary monastery school with about 900 students.
What to See at Melk Abbey
Abbey buildings look great from the outside but definitely make time to see the magnificent abbey from the inside as well. From April to November, the monastery is open to the public with or without a guide. Melk Abbey is also open in the other months, but then you can visit the Abbey only with a guided tour. I had a guided tour in English and found it informative. Just one disappointment, taking pictures is not allowed inside the premises, so I am using some secondary ones for illustration here. A visit of the monastery interiors includes the Imperial Staircase, the Imperial Corridor, the abbey museum, the Marble Hall, the balcony, the library, and the abbey church. The impressive Marble Hall contains pilasters coated in red marble and an allegorical painted ceiling by Paul Troger. The library of the Melk Abbey consists of a total of twelve rooms containing old and rare manuscripts and thousands of printed works with a few hundred of them printed before the year 1500. The library takes two floors and also has a Troger painted ceiling. The Emperors' Gallery, decorated with portraits of Austrian royalty, stretches for almost 200 metres (650 ft.). There are fine views of the river and Melk town from the abbey's terrace.The highlight of the abbey is certainly the Abbey Church. The church has a large number of windows and is richly embellished with marble and frescoes. The symbolism of the Melk Abbey Church can be seen in the inscription on the high altar: “NON CORONABITUR NISI LEGITIME CERTAVERIT” (“Without a legitimate battle there is no victory”). The victory in this battle is portrayed by the large victory crown on the high altar and the dome frescoes in which the heavens open, and also by the victor’s laurels over the monk in the nave fresco. The church got back its splendour after the ten year long restoration works finished in 1987.
Visit Melk Abbey Park
The large beautiful park makes up a large part of the monastery facility. Originally designed as a baroque park, it was replanted as an English landscape garden. The park and the pavilions were used by monks for meditation and as a place to relax. Today, most of the park is available to the public. You can only visit the monastery park and pay for the entrance to the park only. First, get up to the Northern Bastion and take in the great views from the panoramic terrace. Then take the outside stairs leading directly from the terrace to the abbey park. Have a coffee in its Baroque pavilion, and better check the concert’s schedule both in pavilion and in abbey before your visit. Melk has a great reputation for exquisite cultural events. The finest musicians from all over the world perform at Melk Abbey during the International Baroque Days over the Whitsun weekend in spring. So don’t miss the opportunity to listen to a concert when visiting the place.
Don’t forget to take a stroll in Melk town
Although it is undeniably the abbey that is the main tourist magnet, do not forget to take a stroll in Melk town itself. The small town at the foot of the monastery is a nice place where you can easily spend an hour and more. The old city towers, the Gothic parish church and the countless Burgher houses are among the attractions found in the historic centre. The small pedestrian zone between Hauptplatz and Rathausplatz takes you past the oldest parts of Melk. At the Town Hall Square, you will find a well from the late 17th century. Linzer Strasse has many fine historic buildings. There are plenty of eateries and cafés around as well.
How to get there
The trip from Vienna central train station by train takes about one hour with a smooth change of trains at St. Pölten. When you reach Melk station, take a ten minutes’ walk to the abbey. It’s visible on the top of the hill when you leave the train.
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Author: Anita Sāne
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