The Wachau – A Cultural Landscape of Wonders

If you are thinking about traveling to a place you can fall in love with, you might be thinking of the Wachau.

In 2000 UNESCO anointed the Wachau as a cultural landscape, one of three in Austria, for all the right reasons. It is a region of Lower Austria in one of the most beautiful river valleys of the Danube.  The entire region reflects centuries old traditions and agricultural practices. Thousands of years of human use have left their traces on the landscape, some faint, some fairly intact and obvious. In turn, the landscape has shaped the people who live there.

The Wachau begins where the Danube turns north near the town of Melk. The river then cuts a gap through the southern rim of the Bohemian Plateau and the hills of the Dunkelstein Forest.  Some 25 miles downriver the river stands the town Krems, arguably the wine capital of Lower Austria. Between these end points lies the Wachau, a region of beauty and cultural heritage.

Generalized Map of the Wachau

Generalized Map of the Wachau

The entire region reflects centuries old traditions and agricultural practices. Thousands of years of human use have left their traces on the landscape, some faint, some fairly intact and obvious.

People have lived in this area more or less continuously for tens of thousands of years. Two of the oldest statues of ever discovered, both of women, come from this region. One, the Venus of Galgenberg, is over 30,000 years old. The other, the Venus of Willendorf is slightly younger, but that’s no reason for her to be vain.  She was created around 25,000 years ago, give or take.

The towns Krems and Melk, with its ancient abbey sitting on a bluff above the Danube, have been around since the beginnings of Austria in the 10th century. Mautern, just across the river from Krems was a settlement on the Roman Frontier dating to the 1st century CE.

In between, smaller towns and villages have held their place at least since the middle ages. Several castles, a few of them intact and others in ruins, still stand to remind us of strife and conquest the region has experienced for its entire existence.

Behind the towns and around them, vineyards climb steep hills in terraces as they have done at least a thousand years. It was the Romans, though, who brought viticulture to this land, although they kept largely to the right bank of the river, at the boundaries of their empire. They grew grapes in the Region for the same reason as today’s vintners: wines flavored by a rich combination of soil, humidity and sunshine.

Wachau Agriculture:

Fruit and products of the region, especially apricots and wine, are one of the hallmarks of the Wachau.

Behind the towns and around them, vineyards climb steep hills in terraces as they have done at least a thousand years. It was the Romans, though, who brought viticulture to this land, although they kept largely to the right bank of the river, at the boundaries of their empire. They grew grapes in the Region for the same reason as today’s wine growers: wines flavored by a rich combination of soil, humidity and sunshine, and a convergence of several different climates.

wachau landscape

A Wachau Landscape 

Wine:

You can taste the Wachau in the wines it produces. The French call it terroir – the influence of locality on taste, in this case a convergence of climate zones, soils, slopes and river. Scores of vintners grow select varietals of grape like Gruner Veltliner (Green Veltliner) and Zweigelt on terraces climbing steep hills next to the Danube.  Some claim the Riesling was born here near the town of Spitz.

Of course, the Wachau still produces Riesling in quantity, along with other varieties. You can find it, along with other wines, everywhere from a roadside tavern to the finest restaurant. We prefer the roadside tavern variety, where it is served by vintners who produce it on their estate.  We find these settings tend to be more congenial, the wine loses nothing in quality, and its cheap.

Sturm - Served Only at Special Times - Image: „Federweisser“ von Dot Nielsen via Wikimedia Commons

Sturm – Served Only at Special Times
Image: „Federweisser“ von Dot Nielsen via Wikimedia Commons

 

One of our favorite beverages is Sturm (German for storm; so called in Austria because of its cloudy appearance). Sturm is wine in its first stages of fermentation – fermented grape cider. It’s generally mildly alcoholic and it invigorates the spirit. Unfortunately, it’s available only for one or two months/year – around harvest time. It also doesn’t keep well.

 

 

Apricot Dumplings -  Image: de:Freedom_Wizard via Creative Commons

Apricot Dumplings – Image: de:Freedom_Wizard via Creative Commons

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Apricots:

In the Spring, the entire region celebrates Apricot Blossom time – the weeks when apricot trees flower, around the middle of April. In July, towns in the Region celebrate the harvest. He makes sure to eat few whenever he visits Austria, regardless of season, but dumplings with apricots fresh from the tree are unbeatable.

The EU designated the Wachau Marille (Austrian for apricot) as a special variety. The latest evidence suggests the Romans already found apricots growing in the region when they arrived. It may have arrived here from areas near the Black Sea, possibly Turkey, by way of the Danube valley, the migration highway of Europe.

In any case, apricots from the Wachau are the sweetest we have ever tasted. Around harvest time in July, restaurants and food stalls offer an assortment of regional dishes featuring fresh apricots. You can wash them down with with shots of apricot brandy or liqueur. The spirits, as well as various apricot dishes, are available at other times of the year, too, but dumplings made with apricots fresh from the tree are unbeatable.

Roland grew up eating sweet apricot dumplings rolled in butter-fried breadcrumbs and dusted with powdered sugar in the summer. As a variation, his mother rolled them in poppy seed, a regional variation she served in summer. He makes sure to eat few whenever he visits Austria, regardless of season.

Landscape and Cultural Heritage of the Wachau

Just as the Danube gives life to the vineyards and orchards, it also gives meaning to the medieval towns and villages along its course. Castles and ruins take us to a time when the rulers of the land exacted their toll from shipping traffic on the Danube and fought off invaders. Their knights rode off to the Crusades in service to their lord, king and emperor.

Before that, the land saw Celts, Romans, Germanic Tribes, Huns, Slavs, Magyars (I’m sure I missed a few) using it as invasion route, establishing territorry, and fighting whoever was there before they arrived.

Fortified churches and the remnants of town walls are a further reminder of this land’s feudal past. It has been fought over by just about every ruler and conqueror that ever went to war since the Wachau became part of Austria in the 10th century. Hussites, Hungarians, and Turks fought bloody battles here. The slaughters between Catholics and Protestants in the 30 years war put all of them to shame. The French under Napoleon fought it out with the Austrians and Russians near Durnstein.

Just as the castles remind us of a feudal way of life, centuries old monasteries and abbeys are witness to the religious side of life in the Wachau – the refuge of ordinary citizens and the unfailing companion of the most viciously fought battles.

Why You Should Visit

If you’ve read this far, chances are the Wachau is a place in which you might linger, a region you may want to explore. It’s a place to pursue your interests. Whether it’s sight seeing and hiking, or painting, photography, archeology or history, it’s a save bet you can indulge it in this region of orchards and castles along the Danube. But it’s important to understand that this is not a place you can comprehend by reading or hearing about. Its a place you have to see, feel and touch; you have to let the landscape and everything in it fill your senses before you can grasp the Wachau.

Of course you can visit it on your own, in fact you should. We recommend you go there many times. The Wachau is easily accessible from Vienna or Salzburg, or places in between.

But if you want an introduction to the Wachau and enhance your experience with a congenial group of art-journalers, we suggest you come with us on one of our art-journaling treks. We’ll introduce you to a different way of seeing. We also know our way around, and one of us speaks fluent German and English to help your comprehension.

In any case, you should start by reading more about the Wachau and the various places in it. We’ll post some several articles on this site, starting with brief descriptions of the major towns and attractions of the region.

In the interim, you’ll find links to suggested reading on our read more page.

Stay tuned as we update thes pages. Better, yet, subscribe to get automatic updates.

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