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
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.
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.headwater.com
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
Above: The Rasthouse in Passau
Above, right: Statue of Egon Schiele outside the museum in Tulln
Above, left: Modern art in Krems church