Discovering Melk Abbey- Austria’s Prettiest Church
Austria’s Wachau Valley is a popular destination for river cruises or as a day trip from nearby Vienna. Situated on the winding banks of the Danube River, Melk has all the elements that make for any charming European town.
Narrow cobblestone streets perfect for strolling? Check.
Confection colored buildings kissed with flower boxes? Check.
Inviting cafes made for wiling away a few hours with a coffee or glass of wine in hand? Check.
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It also has one more thing going for it that those other charming towns don’t- one of the grandest religious structures this side of the Vatican. It’s impossible to miss the Melk Abbey (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), which sits atop the village of Melk, Austria like a golden halo. Originally built as a castle the primary structure of the abbey was gifted to an order of Benedictine Monks in the 11th century. The Abbey has historically been a bastion of learning with its library housing one of the world’s greatest collections of medieval manuscripts. Having survived the Reformation and occupation by both Napoleon and Hitler, Melk Abbey is the longest continuously running Benedictine monastery in the world. The Abbey continues to serve as a premier monastic academy with over 900 students and even today you can often spot black-robed monks going about their work.
Located behind Melk Abbey, the Abbey Park and Gardens were only recently opened to the public in 2000. Meant as an area of relaxation for the monks the gardens and pavilion are a playful combination of formality and whimsy. The park itself features a pristine English Garden as well as a casual medicinal garden dotted with sculptures. This mixture of styles extends to the cotton candy hued baroque pavilion which features a whimsical fresco of exotic animals and jungles. As you meander through the gardens you’ll also find panoramic views of the Danube and the pastoral Austrian countryside.
I personally like to think the white faced monkeys spotted throughout the gardens were gifts from a group of visiting Capuchin monks with a playful sense of humor.
After a fire destroyed the original Abbey in the early 1700s the building was completely renovated in a high baroque style popular at that time. A more recent renovation(partially funded by the sale of the Gutenberg Bible to Harvard University) was completed in 1996 as part of the celebration for the 1,000th anniversary of the first reference to a country named Austria. The opulence found throughout Melk Abbey is drawn from the Benedictine tenet of “Glory to God in Everything”. The Marble Room is remarkable for not only its unique red marble columns but also its fresco ceiling which is meant to represent the house of Hapsburg in which “The ruler brings the people from dark to light, from evil to good”. This fresco is also a visual illusion- while it appears to curve upward in reality the ceiling is actually flat.
The church itself is the highlight of Melk Abbey. In contrast to many of Europe’s dark gothic cathedrals, the richly ornate church is illuminated in plenty of natural light with the soft rose and gold hues giving the space an ethereal feel. A 200 foot frescoed dome crowns the beautifully gilded baroque church and draws your eyes towards the heavens.
Melk Abbey is also home to what is arguably one of the most beautiful (and most photographed) spiral staircases in the world. Rococo in style, the Melk Abbey staircase connects the library to two upper level reading rooms that are not accessible to the public. If there is a stairway to heaven I’m pretty sure it looks a lot like this.
As mentioned before Melk is a popular stop for Danube river cruises but you can also reach Melk from Vienna via the super efficient Austrian train system. If you feel like combining the two you can purchase a combination ticket which includes a train from Vienna, entrance to the Melk Abbey and a Danube river cruise back to Vienna. There are also a number of tours to Melk from Vienna that include visits to the beautiful villages and wineries throught the Wachau Valley, a visit to Melk Abbey and an afternoon river cruise back to Vienna.
I found Melk Abbey to be one of the most beautiful religious buildings I’ve been to. What sacred sites have made an impression on you? Please share with me in the comments!