Pas­sau to Vi­enna his­tory and art along the Danube

Matilda Hick­son breezes along the Danube to dis­cover cas­tles, art, an­cient leg­ends and the joy of rid­ing an elec­tric bike

Timeless Travels Magazine - - AUSTRIA -

For many trav­ellers I think there is a yearn­ing to travel lightly and un­der your own steam. It harkens back to a (per­haps mytho­log­i­cal) sim­pler time when a person just trav­elled from one town to an­other, un­en­cum­bered by pass­ports, large suit­cases and trip ad­vi­sor, and you could truly en­joy your sur­round­ings and the jour­ney – of­ten more than the ul­ti­mate des­ti­na­tion.

I was lucky enough to par­tic­i­pate in such a jour­ney thanks to a com­pany called Head­wa­ter. They or­gan­ise walk­ing and cy­cling hol­i­days where they take on all the or­gan­i­sa­tion and trans­porta­tion of lug­gage, and you can move on each day with a small day pack and pre­tend you are trav­el­ling lightly and at your own speed. I had heard about such hol­i­days, and my hus­band and I had of­ten con­sid­ered a cy­cling hol­i­day in this style, but we fi­nally took the plunge and I can­not rec­om­mend it highly enough.

We chose to cy­cle from Pas­sau in Ger­many to Vi­enna, and for a lover of his­tory and art, this could not have been a more per­fect choice. The route was filled with me­dieval towns, an­cient and mod­ern art, and his­tory at every turn. But I must share the se­cret of the suc­cess of this hol­i­day for me from the out­set – and it is called an e-bike. I haven’t cy­cled for years, and must ad­mit to not do­ing much train­ing be­fore go­ing – but it was all fine. With an e-bike, these are con­cerns no more.

I had heard about e-bikes, both the pros and cons, but if you were won­der­ing about us­ing one, then I can only tell you I found them to be ab­so­lutely fab­u­lous. They really take away the stress of wor­ry­ing if you can make the mileage each day, and mean that you can just en­joy the whole ad­ven­ture. Once that as­pect was taken care of, the big­gest chal­lenge was if the Danube would turn blue for us. A no­to­ri­ously fa­bled colour, in re­al­ity it looks just brown – but maybe we’d get lucky.


Pas­sau, also known as the ‘city of three rivers’ as it is the place where the Danube is joined by the Inn river from the south and the Ilz in the north, is the per­fect place to start your ad­ven­ture, as it has very pic­turesque streets, houses and cathe­dral, and an art trail marked by coloured cob­ble­stones through the nar­row back streets.

Un­ex­pect­edly, it also has a Museum of Mod­ern Art, which is a pri­vate museum set in a ren­o­vated Gothic build­ing near the river. With el­e­ments of Ro­manesque from an ear­lier build­ing as well as baroque stucco ceil­ings, the museum has a col­lec­tion of works by Ge­org Philipp Worlen (1886-1954), who was the fa­ther of the museum’s founder. The rest of the col­lec­tion in­cludes works by Al­fred Ku­bin, Carry Hauser and painters and sculp­tors from the sec­ond half of the 20th cen­tury, in­clud­ing Alois Riedl and Sepp Auer. The museum has dif­fer­ent ex­hi­bi­tions from the 20th and 21st cen­turies too and there is a small café for re­fresh­ments which is al­ways wel­come.

Set at the high­est point in the cen­tre of the old town is St. Stephen’s Cathe­dral, re­built after a fire in 1662 com­pletely de­stroyed the first one. This is one of many baroque churches that you will dis­cover on this route, and while not all to my taste, St Stephen’s is very im­pres­sive. The cathe­dral also houses the world’s largest or­gan with 17,974 pipes and 233 stops and they of­ten have con­certs, so do try to catch one if you can. Around the cor­ner of the Cathe­dral, on its right-hand side (when fac­ing the front en­trance), you will find the Dio­cese Museum and Cathe­dral Trea­sury. It is worth pop­ping in here as it is housed in the

old Bishop’s Res­i­dence, a palace built in the early 18th cen­tury, and has a col­lec­tion of past trea­sures of Pas­sau, when it was the cap­i­tal of the largest dio­cese of the Holy Ro­man Em­pire. It is housed over two floors, and don’t miss go­ing up to the sec­ond floor as you can see into the Cathe­dral and there are some ‘se­cret’ stairs which would have given the Bishop his own ac­cess to it.

As it was the first day, we de­cided to get a boat to Kas­ten from Pas­sau (sav­ing 29km on our daily to­tal of miles) and go on to our des­ti­na­tion from there. This was ac­com­plished in only a cou­ple of hours of cy­cling and the ride was as I had hoped: the ter­rain was flat, but highly pic­turesque by the river, set in the val­ley be­tween moun­tains. A lit­tle ferry boat took us across to the ho­tel in the bend of the river and in the morn­ing the mist clung to the wa­ter mak­ing a very pic­turesque start to the day. Head­wa­ter sup­ply metic­u­lous and de­tailed in­struc­tions for each day which makes the whole ex­pe­ri­ence so easy to un­der­take.


The next day we cy­cled on to Linz, and the ride was just per­fect. Ini­tially through the forests, we emerged into the sunshine and stopped for morn­ing tea un­der the gaze of a cas­tle perched high above on the other side of the river. The joy of

do­ing this sort of jour­ney is that you can ob­vi­ously stop when­ever you want and take time to see what­ever you fancy as well.

A city proud to de­scribe it­self as fu­ture­ori­en­tated, Linz is Aus­tria’s third largest city and has trans­formed it­self over the decades by con­tin­u­ously em­brac­ing change. An­other pic­turesque city known for its very pretty sev­en­teenth-cen­tury old town, it also has some large in­dus­try based there, which is a legacy of the Sec­ond World War. Hitler, who con­sid­ered the city his ‘home town’, had des­ig­nated the city his core cul­tural cen­tre of the Third Re­ich.

In 2009 it was des­ig­nated a Euro­pean Cap­i­tal of Cul­ture and a UNESCO Me­dia Arts City, and has be­come known for its ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tions and re­search fa­cil­i­ties in­volved in the de­vel­op­ment and un­der­stand­ing of me­dia art and dig­i­tal cul­ture. It has also be­come a Euro­pean cen­tre for so­cial in­no­va­tion and artis­tic en­ter­prise - so there is much to see and do here.

I started off in the old town and from here you can walk up to the Schloss Museum which is one of those fan­tas­tic places that has ev­ery­thing: art, technology, coins, ar­chae­ol­ogy, ap­plied arts, mu­sic and most bizarrely of all, a fan­tas­tic na­ture sec­tion com­plete with a gi­ant shark in a very large tank. The cas­tle has a long and var­ied his­tory: it is first men­tioned in a deed from Pas­sau in the year of 799 and Kaiser Friedrich III car­ried out ren­o­va­tion work and re­tired there in 1480. Kaiser Ru­dolf II de­mol­ished the cas­tle in 1599 and built the cas­tle that ex­ists to­day. It was used as a hos­pi­tal dur­ing the French wars, and was dam­aged in a fire in Linz in 1800. Some of it was pro­vi­sion­ally re­stored and used as a prison and later as a bar­racks. It was turned into a museum in the 1960s, hous­ing the cul­tural his­tor­i­cal col­lec­tions of the Up­per Aus­trian State Museum. In 2006 it was de­cided to re­build the south wing that was de­stroyed in 1800, and the new ad­di­tion of glass and steel com­bines well with the an­cient struc­ture. With fan­tas­tic views across the town of Linz, this museum is well worth a visit.

An­other ma­jor museum to visit is the Len­tos Kunts-museum. This museum of con­tem­po­rary art is said to house one of the best art col­lec­tions in Aus­tria, and their col­lec­tion in­cludes the likes of Klimt, Kokoschka and Schiele. The museum also has a guide to the col­lec­tion in English that is free, given out at the en­trance to the col­lec­tion and it also has a lovely restau­rant with a large sun ter­race.


Our next stop was Melk, which is dom­i­nated by the Bene­dic­tine Abbey which looms over the town below. It is an ever present force – at night it is lit up beau­ti­fully, but you can never for­get that it is there. Built on a rocky out­crop over­look­ing the Danube river and ad­join­ing the Wachau val­ley, the Abbey was founded in 1089 when Leopold II gave one of his cas­tles to the Bene­dic­tine monks from Lam­bach Abbey. A monas­tic school was founded in the twelfth cen­tury and the monas­tic li­brary be­came renowned for its ex­ten­sive man­u­script col­lec­tion and also for pro­duc­ing manuscript­s.

In the novel, The Name of the Rose by Um­berto Eco, one of the monks was named ‘Adso of Melk’ as a trib­ute to the abbey and its fa­mous li­brary. To­day there are over 100,000 books and 1,800 manuscript­s in the li­brary in 151 lan­guages.

The im­pos­ing build­ings that make up the abbey to­day were built be­tween 1702 and 1736, in­sti­gated by Ab­bot Berthold Di­et­mayr. His goal was to un­der­score the im­por­tant po­si­tion Melk had achieved in the ar­eas of re­li­gion, science and pol­i­tics, and he sought to do this by re­build­ing the monastery. De­spite op­po­si­tion in the com­mu­nity and a chronic lack of funds, the Ab­bot was able to carry out his am­bi­tious plans. In 1736 the work was fi­nally com­pleted, only for a fire to de­stroy a large por­tion of the new re­con­struc­tion. Ab­bot Berthold died in 1739 and the new re­con­struc­tion fol­low­ing the fire was fi­nally fin­ished in 1746 – in high baroque style. But the time un­der Ab­bot Berthold was also a time of his­tor­i­cal im­por­tance, with two of the Broth­ers, Bern­hard and Pez, es­tab­lish­ing ties with all the ma­jor in­tel­lec­tu­als within and out­side Aus­tria at the time. Only the death of Pez pre­vented a com­plete col­lec­tion of Bene­dic­tine writ­ings be­ing pub­lished.

Due to its fame and aca­demic stature, the Abbey was not dis­solved un­der Em­peror Joseph II, when many oth­ers were seized and dis­solved be­tween 1780 and 1790. It also sur­vived the Napoleonic Wars, and WWII when the school and a large part of the abbey were con­fis­cated by the state. One of its claims to fame is that Marie Theresa, Queen of Hun­gary, was a reg­u­lar visi­tor to the Abbey with 250 staff.

To­day the Abbey is still a ‘work­ing’ abbey: 30 monks live within the walls and 20 out­side. It also houses a sec­ondary school with 900 pupils. On a visit you can see its splen­did col­lec­tion of relics, chal­ices and even a re­us­able cof­fin in­vented by Joseph II, who wanted to re­duce the power of the church. Sadly the cof­fin never took off. Don’t miss the 200-year-old trea­sure chest with 14 locks that lock all at once. There are half a mil­lion vis­i­tors to the Abbey each year, and they pro­vide a much needed in­come. The Abbey com­prises 497 rooms and has an ex­tra­or­di­nary 1,635 win­dows.

Schloss Schal­laburg

My favourite cas­tle that we vis­ited was the Schloss Schal­laburg, which is easy to reach from Melk, with a bus twice a day from the rail­way sta­tion. It is pri­mar­ily an ex­hi­bi­tion space (the cas­tle was bought by the gov­ern­ment of Lower Aus­tria in 1967, who ren­o­vated it and opened it in 1974 as an ex­hi­bi­tion venue), but it has a good au­dio guide (but sadly no guide book) that tells the story of its his­tory well.

The cas­tle is noted as one of the most im­pos­ing palaces north of the Alps, mainly due to its Re­nais­sance ex­ten­sions that started in 1540. The cas­tle is first men­tioned in records dat­ing to 1242, and from the thir­teenth – fif­teenth cen­turies it was in the hands of the von Zelk­ing fam­ily and from 1456 to 1614 it be­longed to the von Losen­stien fam­ily, known as the Lords of Schal­laburg.

The cen­tral part of the cas­tle that you see to­day, the two-sto­ried ar­cade around a court­yard, was started in 1540 and the dec­o­ra­tion of ter­ra­cotta mo­saics de­pict­ing mytho­log­i­cal fig­ures, gods, masks, hu­man fig­ures and an­i­mals were de­signed to show off the eru­di­tion of the owner, Hans Wil­helm von Losen­stein. Hans Wil­helm was the most fa­mous owner of the cas­tle and he lived there from 1569-1601. He in­her­ited the cas­tle from his fa­ther, who had started the Re­nais­sance make- over. Hans Wil­helm, was an in­ter­est­ing char­ac­ter as he not only ef­fec­tively bankrupted him­self by build­ing the black and white tower that you can see to­day (es­sen­tially just a stair­case with a clock on it), he also re­built the parish church which had been de­stroyed by the Ot­tomans and set up a lo­cal Protes­tant Gram­mar School for the sons of noble­men, burghers and tal­ented poor chil­dren. He had very clear di­rec­tions for the school and was ahead of his time by not al­low­ing cor­po­ral pun­ish­ment.

Hans Wil­helm died in 1601 and even­tu­ally the cas­tle was sold as he had left such debts due to

the ex­ten­sive build­ing works. In 1627 the church and school that he had set up were also closed as Fer­di­nand II, the Em­peror and arch­duke of Aus­tria, passed a law restor­ing the Catholic faith to Lower Aus­tria fol­low­ing the Re­for­ma­tion. In 1641, the cas­tle was in­her­ited by Jo­han Wil­helm, a Scot­tish Protes­tant who in­her­ited the cas­tle from his un­cle. How­ever, he didn’t feel wel­come at the time, as he could only have a lu­cra­tive po­si­tion at Court if he was a Ro­man Catholic. As he lacked the fi­nan­cial means to main­tain the cas­tle and he was more in­ter­ested in con­cen­trat­ing on fine arts and lit­er­a­ture, he sold the cas­tle to em­i­grate to Protes­tant ter­ri­tory.

The cas­tle con­tin­ued to change hands many times un­til the twen­ti­eth cen­tury, but it re­mained pri­vate prop­erty un­til 1945, when the Rus­sians con­fis­cated it.

Venus of Wil­len­dorf

En route to Krems from Melk don’t miss a visit to the small museum which houses the Venus of Wil­len­dorf. The vil­lage of the same name lies in the Wachau Val­ley, filled with many vine­yards. This area, how­ever, is home to one of the most im­por­tant Palae­olithic or Old Stone Age sites in Aus­tria. There are seven sites in all in this area and they were dis­cov­ered when the rail­way was built in the early 20th cen­tury.

On 7 Au­gust 1908, ex­ca­va­tions at the site of Wil­len­dorf II yielded a fe­male stat­uette made of lime­stone. This tiny statue, just 11 cm high, was dated by ex­ca­va­tors as 25,000 years old and shows a nude, obese woman with large hips, stom­ach and breasts, with no feet and no face. When the stat­uette was found it was cov­ered with red paint that is still par­tially pre­served. It is very sim­i­lar to other stat­ues found from France and Italy to Mid­dle Europe and Siberia. It is also sim­i­lar to other fig­urines (of a later date, but still pre­his­toric) in the Mid­dle East.


We con­tin­ued from Melk to Krems through pic­turesque vine­yards al­though the day was spoilt a lit­tle by rain. The route was filled with more sev­en­teenth-cen­tury towns, many of which had cob­bled streets that were per­ilous for bi­cy­cles when wet so I con­sid­ered it a ma­jor achieve­ment to get to the ho­tel that day with­out hav­ing a ma­jor ac­ci­dent. Our ho­tel in Krems was up a very steep hill, which nor­mally would have en­tailed get­ting off the bike and push­ing…but on the won­der­ful e-bike, I just pushed it into turbo mode, and ped­alling hard, reached the ho­tel a good five min­utes be­fore my hus­band who was on a ‘nor­mal’ bike. I do have to ad­mit to feel­ing a lit­tle smug at this achieve­ment!

Krems is an­other pic­turesque town with a sev­en­teeth-cen­tury heart and a good thing to know is that it pro­duces the most de­li­cious apri­cot brandy. You can visit the pic­turesque shop of Baloni and buy a lit­tle bot­tle for just 2 euro. An­other bonus is its bril­liant mod­ern art museum, car­i­ca­ture museum and his­tory museum based in one of the old churches.

The area in front of the Kun­sthalle Museum is be­ing ren­o­vated at the mo­ment, so you have to find your way around from the side – but it is en­tirely worth it. A ma­jor ex­hi­bi­tion, Ab­stract Paint­ing

Now!, was on when I vis­ited, and it is a bril­liant space to show­case large works of art. I have to ad­mit to strug­gling some­times with ap­pre­ci­at­ing con­tem­po­rary art, and it was no dif­fer­ent here. On the way out, there was a large paint­ing by To­bias Pils, Un­ti­tled, tak­ing up an en­tire wall of one room. Filled with squig­gles and what looked to me like car­toon fig­ures, the earnest de­scrip­tion made me won­der if I’d ever see the point of this type of art­work. I thought per­haps that it should have been in the Car­i­ca­ture Museum which is close by to the art museum. This museum has a large col­lec­tion of car­toons by Aus­trian Man­fred Deix, and cur­rently has an ex­hi­bi­tion of 30 years of Red Bull car­toons on un­til March next year.

Walk into the cen­tre of the town and you will find the Krems Museum, an­other trea­sure trove of items telling the hstory of Krems laid out in an old church. It also houses an­other pre­his­toric fig­urine, older than the volup­tuous lady of Wil­len­dorf. A nice surprise was an ex­hi­bi­tion from the Kun­sthalle Museum that was dis­played in the church it­self. I love it when spa­ces are utilised like this, and un­like the To­bias Pils piece, I en­joyed this ex­hi­bi­tion and the jux­ta­po­si­tion of old and new.

We were near­ing Vi­enna now but had one treat left – an af­ter­noon in Tulln. Again I was im­pressed by the route that Head­wa­ter had de­vised, as all the towns had so much to see. Stay­ing in a lovely ho­tel right on the river bank, Tulln is a small town, and that evening it was get­ting ready for a food and drink fes­ti­val. But the high­light for me was the dis­cov­ery of a museum ded­i­cated to the painter Er­gon Schiele. He was born and grew up in Tulln and the museum ded­i­cated to his early life is based in the old prison bar­racks. There is an in­for­ma­tive and de­tailed dis­play up­stairs about his life, and down­stairs some early paint­ings. Next year (2018) is the an­niver­sary of his death, so the museum is now closed un­til next April, and is go­ing to un­dergo some ex­ten­sive changes be­fore re­open­ing then.

On our last day to Vi­enna our en­thu­si­asm was such that we ac­tu­ally ar­rived be­fore our lug­gage at the ho­tel. We had had the most won­der­ful ex­pe­ri­ence and one that I would thor­oughly rec­om­mend. Where next is our hard­est de­ci­sion - hills don’t frighten me now! Oh, and yes, the Danube is blue. On our last few days as we breezed along by the river and the sun glis­tened on the wa­ter, we no­ticed that it was a gor­geous blue colour to match the sky.

Matilda trav­elled from Pas­sau to Vi­enna as a guest of Head­wa­ter. For more in­for­ma­tion call 01606 822616 or visit www.head­wa­

Below, right: The museum hous­ing the Venus fig­ure

Below, left: The Venus of Wil­len­dorf

Above, top: The Bene­dic­tine Abbey in Melk In­sert: The town of Melk as seen from the Abbey

Above: The li­brary in the Abbey (Im­ages: © Stift Melk)

Above, left: The old town in Linz

Above, top: The Schloss Museum is a mix­ture of old and new

Above: Mar­kets in the Linz city square

(All im­ages © Fiona Richards un­less oth­er­wise shown)

Above: The Rast­house in Pas­sau

Above, right: Statue of Egon Schiele out­side the museum in Tulln

Above, left: Mod­ern art in Krems church

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