Cruising the Danube's Wachau Valley

Melk's awesome abbey dominates the town.
Doing the Danube by boat is a fun alternative to renting a car.
By Rick Steves

The 24-mile stretch of the Danube River between the Austrian towns of Krems and Melk is as pretty as they come.

For a fine day trip from Vienna, catch the early train to Melk, tour the glorious abbey, eat lunch, and spend the afternoon meandering down the river to Krems by bike or boat. From Krems, catch the train back to Vienna.

Melk is sleepy and elegant under its huge abbey. The restored Melk Abbey (Benediktinerstift), beaming proudly over the Danube Valley, is one of Europe's great sights. Established as a fortified Benedictine abbey in the 11th century, it was destroyed by fire. What you see today is 18th-century Baroque.

The grand restoration project — financed in part by the sale of the abbey's Gutenberg Bible to Harvard — was completed by 1996 to celebrate the 1,000th anniversary of the first reference to a country named Österreich (Austria).

For 900 years, monks of St. Benedict have lived and worked in Melk's abbey, during the Reformation (1500s), occupation by Napoleon (1800s), and the Nazis (1900s). Today, the institution survives, funded by agriculture and your visit.

High above the grand entry are the Latin words "Glory only in the cross" and a huge copy of the Melk Cross (one of the abbey's greatest treasures — the original is hiding in the treasury, viewable only with special permission). Inside is the art-lined Imperial Corridor; Abbey Museum; Marble Hall (made mostly of stucco) with an impressive ceiling fresco by Tirolean Paul Troger (1731); Library, with another Troger fresco; and the grand finale: the full-on Baroque church with its 200-foot-tall dome and symmetrical towers.

Just outside is Abbey Park with its picturesque Baroque pavilion housing some fine Bergl frescoes and a café.

Consider making your way down the river by bike. The three-hour pedal from Melk to Krems takes you through the Wachau Valley — steeped in tradition, blanketed with vineyards, and ornamented with cute villages. Cyclists rule here, and you'll find all the amenities that make this valley so popular with Austrians on two wheels. The north bank has the best and most popular bike trail; it's paved all the way, winds through picturesque villages, and runs near, though not on, the river. But consider the south bank, which has less car traffic; although the bike trail merges with the actual road about half the time, it comes with better river views.

Along the north bank, you'll pass through the town of Willendorf, known among art buffs as the town where the oldest piece of European art was found. Follow the signs to "Venus" to see the monument where the well-endowed, 30,000-year-old fertility symbol, the Venus of Willendorf, was discovered. (The fist-sized original is now in Vienna's Natural History Museum.) Further along is Dürnstein, a touristic flypaper of a town with traffic-free quaintness and its one claim to fame (and fortune): Richard the Lion-Hearted was imprisoned here in 1193. The ruined castle above the town can be reached by a good hike with great river views.

Finally, you reach Krems, a true gem, with a shopper's-wonderland old town. If you decide you want to stay, the tourist office can help you find a room in a private home. Otherwise, Vienna's just a one-hour train ride away.