The Wachau Valley, Austria
There are different ways to see – and experience – the Wachau Valley in Austria.
You can travel through the Wachau Valley on a cruise ship – after all, it is defined by the beautiful Danube River that flows through the middle of it.
This is how I arrive, on board a river cruise with Avalon Waterways that I’ll tell you a bit more about shortly.
You can also hike through the Wachau Valley on a route called the Wachau World Heritage Trail. It is 180 kilometres long and is divided into 14 legs, taking you to fortresses and castles, through vineyards and villages, and over mountains and down to the river.
I promise myself that I will come back and do it one day because the short time I spend here is not long enough to see it all.
But I think the best way to experience this Austrian gem is to do a bike ride through the Wachau Valley.
Slow enough that you can see everything you’re passing, but fast enough that you can fit a lot into a day. Convenient enough that you can stop whenever you want to see something in more detail, and flexible enough to be able to ride in any direction to discover new sights.
This is how I spend my day in the Wachau Valley – cycling through the stunning landscapes, seeing the variety it has to offer, learning about why it is so special.
This cycling tour of the Wachau Valley is one of the excursions that’s included on my Active & Discovery cruise with Avalon Waterways (the other options this morning were a wine tasting, a tour with a local producer, and canoeing on the river).
As you can see, they are not the type of experiences you may expect from a European river cruise and I’ve already written about what makes this Active & Discovery itinerary so different.
Two young brothers are leading our cycling tour and they are here for much more than just directions.
As we stand on the side of the cycling paths, bikes leaning on their stands, one of the brothers points up at an old castle on a hill.
It’s Durnstein Castle, one of the most famous landmarks of the Wachau Valley, where Richard the Lionheart (King of England) was supposedly held prisoner on his way back from the Crusades in 1192. Legend says that his minstrel found him by wandering from castle to castle singing a song that he would recognise.
There is probably some truth to the story – it didn’t come from nowhere – but even our guide admits that it’s just a legend that the locals like to tell. It adds an air of romanticism to the region.
Not that the Wachau Valley needs much help in that regards. As this medieval landscape has evolved over the centuries, it has inspired romantic writers and poets – some taken just with the landscape, others telling the tales of love and heartbreak that fill the castles.
Durnstein Castle is just a ruin these days but follow the slope down the hill to the edge of the Danube and you’ll find the town of Durnstein, one of the treasures of the Wachau Valley.
It’s a small town, with a population of less than a thousand people, but its dense collection of beautiful buildings makes it feel much larger. In the centre is the Durnstein Abbey, built around 1400, with its beautiful cloister and captivating Baroque church.
There’s also the Town Hall, the Krems Gate, the Kunigunde Church and dozens of other historical buildings. The streets are not long but it can take a while to walk around them as you poke your head through doorways and follow passageways between them.
One of the passageways leads from the centre of the town, back down the the water, and I follow it back to my bike. Our brother guides have more to show us than just the towns.
And this is important to understand about the Wachau Valley. It’s easy for the towns and castle to catch your attention because they stand out as beacons in the landscape. But what lies between them is just as important.
This land has been used for agriculture since Roman days and one of the most important products made here is wine. Because of the steep slopes, terraces have been built with drystone walls and they are characteristic of the region.
As we cycle along, we go between these vineyards, the rows of green grapes creating beautiful patterns that change slightly with each push on the pedal.
There is a deeper story here, about the independent winemakers who have tended their plot for generations, whose hard manual labour has led to some of Austria’s best wine. But that story is for another time because we are just scratching the surface today.
In the town of Weißenkirchen, you only need some basic German to know what the highlight is. The white church that gives the town its name dominates, an enormous glowing building that rises up above everything else.
But then a little further along the river, at a hamlet of less than a dozen buildings, our guides stop to show us a church that I would probably have just cycled past.
It’s called the Wehrkirche St. Michael and it is said to be one of the oldest (if not the oldest) in the region. History says that the Emperor Charlemagne built a shrine to St Michael here in 800 and that there has been some form of church ever since, the majority of the current one from about 1520.
The thing with the Wachau Valley is not just that it has such contrasts – an imposing white church just a couple of kilometres away from an old unassuming one – but that so much of it is hidden. You’ll never see it all, even if you hiked or cycled for days. And that’s the charm.
We stop our cycling trip and Spitz and get back on the ship. But if we had continued for another 20 kilometres, we would have reached Melk, where the Wachau Valley officially ends.
Melk is one of the most famous parts of the region and it’s the Melk Abbey in particular that brings people here. The colossal monument is a true Baroque jewel and it can easily take half a day to explore it and the grounds properly.
Unfortunately we don’t have time to do that today – but I’m not particularly disappointed. Partly because I go instead to St Florian Monastery, on another excursion further down the river the next day – and it is just as impressive in its own way.
But also because I have preferred to see the Wachau Valley from my perspective, moving at a comfortable pace through the vineyards, the towns, along the river, and through the lesser-known churches and monuments.
There’s something quite romantic about that approach and I can see why artists have found the region inspiring for so long.