Still surrounded by vineyards, the twin cities of Krems and Stein are also spiced with highly acidic caricature.

Sleepy little town on the softly rolling Danube – or hotbed of political intrigue and architectural pillage? Krems, just an hour out of Vienna, is probably both. For centuries a trading hub for the precious commodities of salt and wine, its past wealth still shows in its charming historic city center, a designated UNESCO World Heritage site – as is the surrounding Wachau cultural landscape. The Obere Landstraße was a major artery in the days of creaking horse-drawn carts bringing goods through the magnificent Steiner Tor, the towering fairytale city gate that still restricts incoming vehicles to a comfortable crawl. Just down the street, it’s a busy morning in Café Berger, one of those places where regulars are greeted by  name and get their orders without having to look up om the daily paper. Unofficial city historian professor Ernst Kalt, the longtime town planning consultant, is explaining the myriad threads of local politics, such as botched parking regulations that are strangling old town businesses.

Just a 10-minute stroll from the train station is the Pfarrplatz, the square surrounding the town’s parish St. Veit, known locally as Dom (Cathedral) der Wachau. From the outside, this is a large but modestly styled complex, gothic windows peeping out from under later architectural updates. Step inside and it’s an awe-inspiring riot of baroque splendor, documenting Krems’ centuries of prosperity and justifying the church’s unofficial elevation to cathedral. The salt business is gone now, living on only in the place names of neglected corners, but the vineyards still look down from the steep slopes arching round the northern edge of town. As in Vienna, the local winegrowers rotate opening times of their Heurigen, where you can complement wine-tasting with an endless selection of home-cured hams, regional cheeses and robust breads, like the hearty Wachauer. (Check with Krems Tourismus for opening hours).

Strolling is good, but it’s at least two kilometers from the cathedral to the equally charming old part of the sister city of Stein (incorporated into Krems since 1938), so a bicycle can be a boon – available for rent at the rail station, perfect if you arrive by train. You can also switch to the Wachaubahn local line for a gentle ride through the vineyards flanking the Danube. In 15 minutes, you’re in historic Dürnstein (where England’s crusading King Richard I was detained at the Austrian archduke’s pleasure in 1192, a continental insult remembered by Brexit schoolboys today). Or stay on the train for another 15 minutes to go to the wine town of Spitz and take a river boat back to Krems, only an hour downs stream but time enough for a glass as you glide past the vineyards that produced it.

No Krems Without Stein

Leaving the boat, you cross directly into the narrow streets of baroque and Biedermeier old Stein, a charming mix of careful restoration and benign neglect. Some houses shine in fresh pink and Schönbrunn yellow, others wink with centuries-old wall frescoes, fading and forgot­ten. Climbing up the cobbled way, you come to Stein’s parish church of St. Nikolaus, where Martin Johann “Kremser” Schmidt’s dynamic altar painting depicts the old saint reaching out to bless and comfort the suffering below. Pause for a moment under the arches of the 15th century Frauenberg church next door, now a memorial to the fallen of both world wars, and gaze out over the rooftops and on to the shadowy profile of the great Stift Göttweig monastery across the Danube.

Like many small towns with cultural aspirations, Krems today is struggling a bit to find the right balance between the traditional and the avant-garde. But the energy is indisputable, best seen in Krems’ avant-garde Donaufestival in spring time.

Krems
© Kunstmeile Krems Betriebsgmbh

A more permanent sign of our artistic times is Krems’ famous Kunstmeile (art mile): the pleasantly restrained postmodern Kunsthalle and the charmingly quirky Karikaturmuseum with its unique collection of Austria’s nest visual satirists. However, a huge twisting cement lump is currently rising up on the Kunstmeile, dwarfing the existing museums: Still under construction, this will become the Landesgalerie Niederösterreich, the Province of Lower Austria’s new cultural museum, praised by local politicians as a fitting home for 60,000 objects and a new magnet to drive cultural tourism. Pity that a delightful garden café and an unhindered perspective into the ancient alleys of Stein had to make way for this monument to provincial political hubris. Local residents are reluctant to comment.

The good news is the unique Karikatur­museum itself, currently showing a selection of the great Erich Sokol’s piercingly accurate portraits, a special exhibition of Czech artists like Miroslav Barták, Jiřzí Slíva and Josef Blecha and a freshly curated show of the delightfully vulgar Manfred Deix from their house collection. Sokol and Deix would have had a field day with the pompous politicos responsible for the concrete pile looming next door.

GET TO KNOW KREMS FROM THOSE IN THE KNOW

General information Krems Tourismus: Utzstraße 1, 3500 Krems an der Donau

Take your morning coffee where the rumors start: at CAFE BERGER: Obere Landstraße 8, 3500 Krems an der Donau

Well-earned lunch break where the walls have stood for 500 years: SALZSTADL, Steiner Donaulände 32, 3504 Stein an der Donau

Find your Heuriger: HEURIGEN-KALENDER DER STADT KREMS

Ride the vineyards in style: WACHAUBAHN Krems to Dürnstein and Spitz daily 08:00-17:00

All aboard on the blue Danube: BRANDNER SCHIFFAHRT Krems – Melk nearly 3 hours, back in less than two Krems – Spitz 1 1/2 hours, back in less than one (0) 7433 25 90-21

Dedicated to pricking pomposity of all kinds: KARIKATURMUSEUM KREMS: Steiner Landstraße 3a, 3500 Krems an der Donau Daily 10:00–18:00

Lower Austria’s international modern art museum: KUNSTHALLE KREMS Franz-Zeller-Platz 3, 3500 Krems an der Donau Tue-Sun 10:00–18:00