The Wachau region is just a stone’s throw from Vienna and its secrets and treasures can be all yours for an afternoon.

The dream of slowing down – of escaping the city to spend endless afternoons in the countryside – has always seemed like something for old people. But when I got the opportunity to visit the Wachau Valley, I discovered just what a remedial effect even a day out of Vienna can have, even for an urban brat like myself. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000 and the region between Melk and Krems has heaps of natural beauty and historic significance: the stuff of fairytales.

© Donau Niederösterreich / Steve Haider

Our road trip took off westward on a warm and clear morning, the abrasive spring winds having finally left us for calmer gusts. In just under an hour the landscape had morphed from stony-faced apartment buildings to a tumble of luscious greenery rising and falling outside my window.

Melk and Honey

Arriving in Melk, the proverbial “gateway to the Wachau”, we strolled up to the Benedictine abbey, the sun reflecting majestically off the abbey roof. From the top of the hill the breathtaking view encompassed the entire hamlet, the Danube and further afield, I think we could almost see Slovakia.

We strolled the grounds, discovering the fastidiously kept gardens, hedges pruned to perfection. The imperial setting was reminiscent of so many Jane Austen novels, inspiring an intimate conversation about romance – where it comes from, what makes it real, or meaningful. We set off along the river renting bicycles from Nextbike back in the village. We were delighted at how easy it was; once you’ve registered, you pick up and drop off bikes at any of their stops along the way. We saddled up and continued our conversation, ambling towards a path by the riverbank, feeling like Shelley’s Julian and Maddalo, only with bikes for horses. With an abundance of things to stop and see, the 30 km ride from Melk to Dürnstein needn’t be strenuous, but do make time for getting sidetracked. It’s worth it.  The bike path meanders alongside the river before veering away occasionally into quaint villages, silent but for the light breeze and the whir of bike tires on the cobbled bits of road.

© Niederösterreich Werbung / Michael Liebert

Mad Dogs and Englishmen

After about an hour, we found ourselves dwarfed by the ruins of Aggstein Castle leering out of the thick forest hillside above us. With all the exercise, we had built up quite an appetite and dismounted at Gasthaus Aggsteinerhof for a Jause (snack). I suggested getting a bottle of wine – until I was gently reminded how much of the ride was still ahead. In retrospect, a good call. Glimpsing my reflection briefly, I bemoaned my lack of foresight. Sun cream is a must, especially for my pale English complexion. My olive-skinned companion still looked fantastic, albeit a bit sweaty. After a little food, we could have spent the entire afternoon enjoying the view of cascading hillsides, a few old farmhouses nestled at their feet as the water carried our voices for miles. But we didn’t.

In a burst of chivalry, I attempted to carry my fellow traveller over the rocks in my arms, but failed miserably, stumbling over my own feet. We bumped into a middle-aged couple in medieval garb and sunglasses about to head up to a reenactment at the ruins; they also had some sun cream, bless their hearts.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

We arrived in Rührsdorf just as the afternoon light was beginning to soften, locking our bikes up at my companion’s favorite wine tavern, Berndt Pulker’s Heuriger, where hunting relics and dark wine bottles line the honey-timbered walls. A beaming waitress in a Dirndl invited us to wander the garden, where we dodged cartwheeling children to admire the terraced vineyards. Returning to the bar, we ordered some of their famous Schweinsbraten – pork roasted according to an old family recipe – and -finally treated ourselves to a glass of their refreshing Federspiel wine. It tasted all the better for our earlier restraint.

© Donau Niederösterreich / Steve Haider

We set off again with limbs rested and stomachs full. With a few bottles of Grüner Veltliner for the road, catching the ferry over to the north bank and the town of Weißenkirchen, before arriving in Dürnstein. There we dropped off our bikes and grabbed some crusty fresh bread and a few jars of the region’s signature Marillenmarmelade (apricot jam) at Bäckerei Schmidl before beginning the short hike up to the ruins of Dürnstein Castle where the Dukes of Babenberg once held a certain Richard the Lionheart captive.

Here, the outcroppings are rocky and sharp compared to the dense green pincushion hills of Melk, the horizon revealing just enough of the region’s abundant viticulture to remind visitors that this breathtaking scenery is far from being a museum.

The last of the day’s climbers emerged from further behind the ruins, where networks of hiking trails make for hours of exploring. But we were content leaning on the warm rocks, sipping the Veltliner and taking in the dusky magnificence before us.

My companion began to reflect on a past experience here, painting a picture of this same valley on Sonnenwende (Midsummer Eve, June 24), alight with lanterns winding along the rows of vines. In her memory, laughter and singing skipped over the water’s surface, reflecting bonfires and torches as if itself on fire.

It’s at times like these, cheerily muddled from the crisp wine and earthy smells, watching our shadows stretch with the setting sun, that I find it difficult to refrain from foolish outbursts of affection. The magic of the Wachau had taken hold, and we willingly gave in.

We plan to return for Sonnenwende, a spectacle I don’t want to miss.

Wandering the Wachau

Getting There

A combined rail and boat ticket is an easy way to travel to and from the Wachau on the same day.
kombitickets.railtours.at

If you want to bring your own bike, there’s a seasonal train service running throughout the summer from May 1 through Oct 26, with €3.50 surcharge for your wheels.
oebb.at 

Getting Around

The supreme site for bike hire:
nextbike.at

The many possible cycle routes, as well as camping and guesthouses for a longer stay, are listed here:
donauradweg.at

Vienna Explorer offers travel from the city center, throwing in wine tasting as well as guides.
€64 per head
viennaexplorer.com

Need to cross the Danube?
This little ferry for people and bikes from Dürnstein to Rossatz.
Price costs €2.60 one way and an extra €1 for a bike.
(April-October)
faehre-wachau.at

Places to See
Melk Abbey
stiftmelk.at

Burgruine Aggstein
ruineaggstein.at

Bernd Pulker’s Heuriger
3602 Rührsdorf
Opens 14:00 daily; Sat, Sun & Holidays from 12:00
0664 39 35 312
pulkers-heuriger.a

Information & Details

Essential information as well as details on the many Sonnenwende celebrations in the region:
donau.com