Home' Rotary Down Under : April 2013 Contents Traveller
56 Issue 549. April 2013
boat, less a vessel than an elongated
viewing platform, to trudge 700m over
river flats. The size of the abbey means
these boat people see the towering
domes well before their arrival – as
others have for centuries.
I arrive by bike; it’s very different.
Riding along the shaded riverside path I
see nothing but overhanging trees until,
whoomph, suddenly I’m looking up at
the rounded rear of the abbey, framed
by trees and moat. A few metres more,
over a little footbridge, I pop up in the
main street of town. On a bike there
is no approach, no traffic or signposts.
Melk’s pretty and peaceful.
Given its strategic setting high on
a rocky outcrop with a commanding
view of the Danube, Melk Abbey has
some serious history. The Romans built
a garrison in the first century, then in
976 the Babenberg kings made it their
seat from which to rule Austria. In 1089
Leopold II of Babenberg gave his castle
to the Benedictine monks to endow
a monastery. The current building,
designed by Jakob Prandtauer, was built
Today, Viennese residents on a
Sunday outing stroll around, join town
folk in window shopping or a long, late
lunch. I join them at Café zum Fürsten
for coffee and Linzertorte.
I walk up the main street of the
village that is literally defined by the
monastery’s long rocky foundation.
With no possibility of crossroads, the
entire village is spread out along the
wall. I deviate up the steep and staired
Steingasse passage to the entrance, and
an extraordinary plateau in the sky. A
sign invites visitors to wander through
the abbey’s extensive formal gardens.
Saints Peter and Paul welcome me
as I enter and cross Prelates Court to
a modern ticket office. There’s nothing
medieval in this modern, high-tech
museum, with mood lighting, special
exhibits, whirring and purring and lots
of interactivity. It’s a little incongruous.
Parallel to this ultra-modern exhibition
arcade is the uncrowded, 200m-long
Imperial Corridor and a traditional line
of Hapsburg portraits.
I enter the Marble Hall. It’s beautiful,
made more so with shafting golden
sunlight. For a while I have the
room to myself. It is a formal, yet
not overwhelming, space for special
occasions, perhaps to receive a pope or
It’s spare. There are large wooden
cabinets at each doorway and pilasters
in red marble, but overhead is wow and
wonderment. The fresco by Paul Troger
(1731), cunningly contrived to make
the flat ceiling curved, is a baroque
masterpiece. Its allegorical centrepiece
features St Benedict ascending to
Heaven. This room may be sublime, but
most visitors continue interacting with
With one step I’m outside on the
rounded rear balcony - on top of the
world. Down there are towns, fields, the
Melk River and, crossing it on a small
bridge, dark ant-shapes: first-glimpse
cyclists, like me.
“ The library is this way.” I follow. It
takes two steps just to get through the
This is more like it; books stacked to
the ceiling ... another Troger ceiling.
Books in aged brown line every wall
and glass-topped cases display special
books, maps and manuscripts. It’s a
reminder that for hundreds of years,
long before schools, universities and the
World Wide Web, all knowledge resided
If knowledge was power, that made
monasteries, particularly world-
renowned Melk, very powerful indeed.
in alcoves there are globes of the
known world at various centuries.
There are more than 80,000 volumes
held on 10 floors, two available to
The lateness of the day precludes
me from ascending the spiral
staircase to the second. dubbed
the staircase to god, it is stunning.
viewed from underneath it resembles
a giant luminescent seashell.
My self-guided tour brings me to
a highlight: Melk church. fittingly,
light descends from above through
a large cupola spreading over the
brown and burnished-gold altar.
here i meet Peter and Paul again, this
time bidding each other farewell. it
is astonishing; perfect proportions
designed to inspire with awe.
exploratory instincts take me
to niches along the sides. in glass
cases abbots and other important
figures down the ages rest, not in
stone or plaster, but as skeletons.
one suggestively leans on a former
elbow; all are “dressed” in their
official clothing. it’s a reminder how
customs and sensibilities change.
having finally sorted fact from
fiction, i reflect on this memorable
visit of architectural and religious
history presented through 21st
century technology. My imagined
medieval monastic traditions remain:
Melk Abbey today is a thriving
community of benedictine monks
Just without the murders.
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