The stretch of the Danube between Krems and Melk, known locally as "the Wachau", is possibly the loveliest along the entire length of this majestic river. Both banks are dotted with ruined castles and medieval towns and are lined with terraced vineyards. The Wachau is described as "an outstanding example of riverine landscape". Besides its beauty the valley is also known for its high quality wines.
With its cobblestone streets and majestic abbey, Melk is a highlight of a visit to the Danube Valley. Melk Abbey, possibly the most famous abbey in Austria, is dramatically situated on an outcrop rising above the Danube. It stands resplendent in a golden hue, crowned by towers. The views from the abbey are sensational.
The abbey was founded in 1089 when Leopold II, Margrave of Austria gave one of his castles to Benedictine monks from Lamach Abbey. A monastic school, the Stiftsgymnasium Melk, was founded in the 12th century, and the monastic library soon became renowned for its extensive manuscript collection. The monastery's scriptorium was also a major site for the production of manuscripts. In the 15th century the abbey became the centre of the Melk Reform movement which reinvigorated the monastic life of Austria and Southern Germany.
Today's baroque abbey was built between 1702 and 1736 to designs by Jakob Prandtauer. Particularly noteworthy are the abbey church with frescos by Johann Michael Rottmayr. With its twin spires and high octagonal dome, the church has an astonishing number of windows. Its amazing interior is a baroque extravaganza. Since this is a Benedictine abbey of course there is an altar dedicated to St Benedict. St Colomon was a Christian martyr whose remains were brought to the abbey in 1014.
Due to its fame and academic stature, Melk managed to escape dissolution under Emperor Joseph II when many other Austrian abbeys were seized and dissolved between 1780 and 1790. The abbey managed to survive other threats to its existence during the Napoleonic Wars, and also in the period following the Anschluss or the Nazi invasion and forced incorporation of Austria into Nazi Germany in 1938, when the school and a large part of the abbey were confiscated by the state. The monastic community of Melk is more than 900 years old and black-robed Benedictine monks still stroll amid the marble sculptures and frescoed walls.