This is one of the greatest sites in Austria. In the words of Empress Maria Theresia, "If I had never come here, I would have regretted it". The main attraction here is the Melk Abbey - a majestic baroque abbey that overlooks the Danube River. Melk marks the western terminus of the Wachau and lies upstream from Krems.
The rock-strewn bluff where the abbey now stands overlooking the river was the seat of the Babenbergs, who ruled Austria from 976 until the Hapsburgs took over. In the eleventh century, Leopold II of the House of Babenberg presented Melk to the Benedictine monks, who turned it into a fortified abbey. Its influence and the reputation as a centre of learning and culture spread all over Austria - a fact that is familiar to readers of Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose. The Reformation and the 1683 Turkish invasion took a toll on the abbey, although it was spared from direct attack when the Ottoman armies were repelled outside Vienna. The construction of the new building began in 1702, just in time to be given the full baroque treatment.
Most of the design of the present abbey was by the architect Jakob Prandtauer. The marble hall inside, called the Marmorsaal, contains pilasters that are coated in red marble. The library, rising two floors and having twelve halls, again with a Troger ceiling, contains about one hundred thousand volumes and is considered to be the largest monastery library in the world! The Kaisergang, or emperors' gallery, which is almost 200 meters long is decorated with portraits of Austrian rulers.
Despite all this adornment, the abbey takes second place in lavish glory to the Stiftskirche, the golden abbey church. Damaged by fire in 1947, the church is now almost completely restored, even to the gold-bullion gilding of statues and altars. Richly embellished with marble and frescoes, the church has an astonishing number of windows. The Marble Hall banquet room next to the church was also damaged by the fire but has been restored to its former ornate elegance.
Melk is still a working abbey and one might have the chance to see black - robed monks going about their business or students rushing out of the gates.
Throughout the year, the abbey is open every day, and from May to September, tours depart at intervals of about fifteen minutes. The first tour begins at 9 am and the last is at 5 pm.
The town of Melk is ninety kilometers west of Vienna. If going by car, one can take Autobahn A1, exiting at the signs for Melk. If you prefer a more romantic and scenic road, try Route 3, which parallels the Danube and takes about half hour longer. Trains leave frequently from Vienna's Westbahnhof to Melk, with two brief stops en route (trip takes around an hour).