Stories of this Canadian girl's adventures exploring Europe...join me!

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

an enchanted place...melk abbey, austria

There is a place upon a hill overlooking the Danube, just a stone's throw from Vienna, which as soon as I stepped foot upon its grounds it held my breath.

"Ora et Labora et Lege" - Pray, Work, Learn.


Melk Abbey stands guard at the entrance of Austria's enchanting Wachau region, an area dotted with cathedrals and steep vineyards, glistening with elegance and fascinating history. This Benedictine Abbey, which surely is one of the most beautiful in the world, is home to two of my now-favourite buildings...a library like no other, and a garden pavillion out of a fairytale. Take a look...


But first, as you enter the Abbey's imposing inner square, a series of modern murals representing the four virtues (wisdom, justice, temperance, and fortitude) will catch your eye almost immediately, juxtaposed against the Abbey's  Baroque facade.


The Abbey itself dates back to 1089 when a group of Benedictine monks were gifted a castle by Leopold II of Austria. This explains in part the opulence of the home of such a simple people. What the monks did with their generous gift was to immediately put it to good work, creating a monastic school and library, both of which are still in existence today and continue to be renowned institutions.


Many of the Baroque additions and renovations were undertaken between 1702 and 1736, but because of the Abbey's international reputation for education and its well-known extensive collection of manuscripts, the buildings were spared from countless wars, confiscations and conflicts in the centuries which have since followed.


I highly recommend taking a guided tour when you visit because of the volume of interesting stories and historical information that you will hear. It costs 13€/adult and includes the Abbey church, library and gorgeous marble hall...all worth the price.

The staircase leading up to the 196 m long Kaisersall (Imperial Hall)

I love libraries...always have. Some of my earliest happy memories are sitting at the feet of my elementary school librarian and listening to her read to us. So, whenever I visit a new place, I try to pop into a library. I especially love the smell of old books...the well-worn covers, the musty pages filled with tales and wisdom, and the millions of fingerprints from long-gone souls. For some reason, this all inspires me to no end.

"Pray, work, learn" - the highly regarded Abbey library

The Abbey library does not disappoint. I snuck a couple of unflashed photos because I absolutely wanted to be able to remember these rooms. Over the centuries, the library has amassed a collection of 100,000 books and manuscripts, including 750 printed before 1500 AD!


The Abbey, especially the library, was the centre of the 'Melk Reform Movement' in the 15th century, a sort of counter reformation building on Jesuit teachings. The monks held the library in such high regard, second only to the church, that they commissioned Paul Troger to paint the incredible ceiling fresco. The centrepiece of the painting is a female representation of faith, surrounded by four groups of angels again depicting the virtues of wisdom, temperance, fortitude and justice.


I have to confess, one of the details which enchants me most about castles and historical rooms, such as libraries, is the almost certain occurance of stumbling upon a tiny door. Okay, 'tiny' might not be the right word, and I'm jumping the gun if I make an 'Alice in Wonderland' comparison, but the small, often hidden or unnoticeable doors secretively blending into a wall of books or nestled into the floorboards fill me with a whimsical, fairytale-y feeling.

  
This particular door seen above had, as I found out during the tour, an interesting but unfortunately, fairly boring purpose. On the other side of it is a very large ceramic stove for heating the inner room. These little doors, which almost every room in the Abbey has, allowed the house staff to fill the stove with wood from the outside hallway without bothering (and dirtying) the room's inhabitants. Nonetheless...I still find them enchanting.

The Marble Hall from the outside

The Abbey church, and believe me, to call it a 'church' seems to do it an injustice, is impressive. It seems, for lack of a better word, strange to walk into such an opulent cathedral-like place of worship while visiting the home of Benedictine monks. I mean, St Benedictine charged his followers to live simply, dedicating their prayer (obviously), their work and their life-long journey of education to the glory of God.


And therein lies most likely the reason behind the incredible ceiling frescoes and altar paintings (7 famed masters of their time were commissioned to decorate the church in 1722)...to glorify God.

But, what also struck me during my visit through the Abbey is that the monks were, and continue to be, just plain smart. They have, over the centuries, with hard work and incredible dedication, built a compound for everyone to fall in love with; a school offering high quality education, scholarly achievements to research and study, and an incredibly beautiful tourist destination that everyone wants to visit!


The Abbey Park and Garden Pavillion are part of this gorgeous visiting experience. I fell in love with the pavillion, designed as part of the Baroque park in 1750 as a place of relaxation for the monks.

  
Only since the year 2000 has this area been open to the public, and it is now a highlight. The park includes a 'Garden of Paradise', a 'Jardin Méditerranéen', a meditational path with an incredible view over the Danube and 250 year-old Linden trees.


Inside the pavillion, the beauty continues, with fantastical exotic frescoes climbing across the walls. Johann Bergl's creations in the two window-filled rooms are rife with plants, animals, jungle themes, and native people, instilling a longing to learn about and to explore far-off lands.


But look up and you will again be transported to the Baroque scenes of the heavens. Really, it is such a dreamy building.


When your time at Melk Abbey comes to an end, you will be sent off with the parting words, "Höre und du wirst ankommen" - a blessing reminding us to stop and listen, to come to peace in order to know you have arrived.

St. Benedictine encouraged his faithful to never stop beginning - in prayer, in work, in learning. To always dedicate oneself anew to living a life in peace with God and with others. He taught that living compatibly within community, to ask forgiveness and to come clean whenever needed, glorifies God and allows us to focus on that what is important. Melk Abbey...an inspiring place indeed.

Listen and you will arrive


If you go, you should know:

For opening times, prices and interesting information about all of the rooms in Abbey in case you forget some of the details after your visit (like I did):  http://www.stiftmelk.at/englisch/

How-to-get-there information, including hiking trails and boat tours in the area: https://www.outdooractive.com/en/tourist-information/danube-lower-austria/wachau-info-center-melk/3234748/

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