Wachau Cultural Landscape (World Heritage)

The area between Melk and Krems at the breakthrough valley of the Danube is one of the great historical river landscapes in Europe. Wine and fruit growing terraces, alluvial forests and deep valleys shape the cultural landscape with its picturesque places, monasteries and castles.

Wachau cultural landscape: facts

Official title: Wachau cultural landscape
Cultural monument: Historical cultural landscape with alluvial forests, craggy rock formations and wine-growing terraces, typical villages and corridors, monasteries, castles and ruins, including Melk Monastery, Schönbühel Castle, the Aggstein ruins, Göttweig Monastery
Continent: Europe
Country: Austria
Location: Wachau, narrow valley section of the Danube between Melk and Krems
Appointment: 2000
Meaning: Evidence of a medieval landscape intact despite its use since the Paleolithic

Wachau cultural landscape: history

around 20,000 BC Chr. Venus of Willendorf
around 500 BC Chr. Celtic settlement
100-450 Promotion of viticulture by the Romans
570 Invasion of the Avars
800-907 Colonization of the Wachau by Bavarian dioceses and monasteries enfeoffed by Charlemagne
823 First mention of the name »Wachau«
976 Melk residence of the Babenberg margraves
955 First documentary mention of Krems
1083 Foundation of the Göttweig Benedictine Abbey
1089 Foundation of the Melk Benedictine Abbey
1250 Summary of the towns of St. Michael, Wösendorf, Joching and Weißenkirchen to form the »Thal Wachau«
1908 Discovery of Venus von Willendorf
1955 Wachau landscape protection area

River landscape and cultural monuments in harmony

The Wachau river landscape, bordered by mountains, stretches for around 35 kilometers along the Danube. The two cornerstones of the cultural landscape are Melk Abbey and the city of Krems an der Donau. This short section of the mighty river shines not only with a varied landscape, but also with important cultural monuments and small towns that give the Wachau its special value.

Natural landscapes such as the winding Danube valley, rugged rock formations or the forests of the floodplains with human-designed elements such as castles, monasteries and ruins or the wine terraces complement each other in a harmonious way. This interplay of nature and culture, together with the excellent state of preservation of its historical buildings, was the decisive reason for including the landscape of the Wachau in the list of world cultural heritage in 2000. Since 2010, it has been possible to explore it on the 180-kilometer “World Heritage Trail” from Krems an der Donau.

People were already at home in this Danube landscape in prehistoric times. This is evidenced, among other things, by the “Venus von Willendorf”, an eleven centimeter high female figure made of limestone, which is considered one of the oldest works of art. It dates from around 25,000 BC. Today it can be viewed in the Natural History Museum in Vienna.

In the Middle Ages, the Kuenringer ruled the Wachau. This ministerial family is said to have made their living as robber barons and demanded “toll payments” from the passing ships. The castles of Aggstein (south of the Danube) and Dürnstein (north of the Danube) go back to the Kuenringer. Aggstein was built at the beginning of the 12th century. Today the castle is only a ruin, but parts of it, such as the castle chapel or the knight’s hall, have been restored or redesigned for visits and events. The English King Richard the Lionheart was imprisoned on Dürnstein, now also in ruins, in 1192/93, who had been captured by the Third Crusade on his way home.

From the 19th century the Wachau was mainly known as a tourist area. Here she benefited from the proximity to Vienna, because the river landscape is only 80 kilometers west of the Austrian capital. Wine, which has been grown in the Wachau since the Middle Ages, may also help in the search for relaxation. The mild climate favors viticulture, and so numerous wine terraces extend along the slopes of the Danube valley. Riesling, Grüner Veltliner and Neuburger are the specialties of the region. The best and most valuable wine of the Wachau, however, is the »emerald«, which got its name from the emerald lizards, which like to sunbathe in the vineyards next to the vines on warm days.

The landmark of the Wachau is the Benedictine Abbey of Melk Abbey, which was founded in 1089 and has had an eventful history. It was completely destroyed by fire in 1297 and took centuries to recover from this catastrophe. In the 18th century, Abbot Berthold Dietmayr decided to have the monastery completely rebuilt in order to underline its religious, political and spiritual importance. The construction of the monastery and church was completed in 1736, but only two years later the complex fell victim to the flames again. It was not until 1746 that the new monastery church could finally be consecrated. According to commit4fitness, today the Melk Abbey is the largest monastery complex of the Austrian Baroque. The collegiate church of St. Peter and Paul and the monastery library, which comprises around 100,000 volumes, are particularly worth seeing.

At 449 meters above the Danube, Göttweig Abbey is enthroned on the eastern edge of the Wachau, where more than 50 monks still live today. The monastery was founded in 1083 for a community that lived according to the Rule of Augustine, but eleven years later it was given to the Benedictines. The medieval complex fell victim to a fire in 1718, so that today only remains, including the Erentrudiskapelle (1072), the old castle, as well as the crypt and the choir of the church, are preserved. The construction of the monastery as we know it today dates from the Baroque period and was started in 1720 according to plans by the imperial court architect Johann Lucas von Hildebrandt. In addition to the famous organ, a special gem of the monastery is the monumental Kaiserstiege with the ceiling fresco by Paul Troger from 1739.

The second corner point of the Wachau next to Melk Abbey is the city of Krems, which is cut off from the Danube by tributaries and floodplains, but still has an important Danube port with neighboring Stein. In 1305 the twin town of Krems-Stein was granted town charter, and in the following centuries Krems was able to develop more and more as an important traffic junction and trading town. The city owes its wealth and importance to the salt above all. The landmark of Krems is the Steiner Tor. Its main tower dates from the 15th century and bears the motto of Emperor Friedrich III: AEIOU (“All earth is subject to Austria”). Also worth seeing is the Gozzoburg, an early Gothic building that was named after the city judge Gozzo and is unique north of the Alps.

Wachau Cultural Landscape

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