Travels & Traditions: Melk to Budapest - #1207

BURT WOLF: As the Danube River runs west from the Austrian city of Vienna it passes through some of the most picturesque scenery in Europe. For over 35,000 years people have been living on these shores. They were originally attracted to the area because of the mild climate and the ideal conditions for farming. The ancient Romans occupied the region and when Christianity became the official religion of Rome the local population slowly gave up its pagan beliefs and built dozens of monasteries on the hills.

But a monastery was not just a center for religious activities. The monks were skilled craftsmen, architects, and technicians. They set up permanent facilities that organized the peasants and showed them how to improve their farming, how to build better houses and upgrade the construction of roads and bridges. When a ruler donated land and money for the creation of a monastery it may or may not have improved the rulers’ value to the Almighty but it was definitely a mighty improvement in the value of the lands that the ruler ruled.

The ideal way to pass through this part of Austria is to travel on one of the river cruisers. I sailed on one of the AMAWATERWAYS ships.

BURT WOLF: The cruise directed had an excellent understanding of the local history.


BURT WOLF: The town of Melk was founded as a Roman garrison at the point where the Melk River joins up with the Danube about 50 miles west of Vienna. In the year 976 the Emperor of Germany chose the Babenberg family to rule the neighborhood which they did from a series of fortified castles. The castle at Melk was their most important stronghold and became the cradle of Austrian history.

The Babenbergs decided to bury their ancestors at Melk and to make sure that the family burial site was cared for properly they set up a monastery inside the castle. The Babenbergs ruled for just over 100 years, at which point the castle and the surrounding lands were turned into a Benedictine monastery and Benedictine monks have been living and working here ever since.

For centuries Melk was able to support itself with taxes from the local peasants and a profitable agricultural program on its own land. These days, however, the major source of income is tourism. Each year almost five hundred thousand people visit Melk.


BURT WOLF: St. Benedict’s motto was pray, work and read and the physical structure of Melk is designed to serve these functions.

Up until that time monks were primarily hermits living separately in huts and caves. St. Benedict did that for a while but then he decided that monks should be together in a community. The Benedictine model is to bring people together in a life of holiness, but at the same time it should be a life of wholeness. He promoted a balanced personality of work, spiritual life, and intellectual advancement. The Benedictine communities became an oasis of learning within Europe, an oasis that preserved the idea of scholarship that was so much a part of the European tradition.

The Rule of St. Benedict requires that nothing be more important than the worship service and the Melk Abbey church clearly reflects that instruction. Work on the church began at the beginning of the 1700s, under the direction of Abbot Dietmayr. Dietmayer decided that the subject matter of the art work should be based on the idea that without a just battle there is no victory. And that theme is reflected throughout the interior.

St. Peter and St. Paul in a farewell handshake as they set off to meet their deaths--- their final battle. Christ crowned with thorns battles through suffering to glory. A panel shows the woman of the Apocalypse who battled the dragon. The entire area around the altar represents one idea---God’s people battling on the road to salvation. The design reaches its peak in the dome. We see the heavenly Jerusalem---the great victory that follows a just battle.

The paintings present the idea of a journey, a struggle, a spiritual battle in which each individually has to participate. There is no room for the passive bystander, you must be involved, you must be part of the struggle.

The abbey library is one of the worlds finest with over 100,000 books including many ancient hand written and illuminated manuscripts.

This book was written in the 1100’s and presents elements from the mass.

By the early 1200s Melk had its own writing room which produced hundreds of illustrated books and was probably the inspiration for Umberto Eco’s medieval murder mystery----“The Name of the Rose”.


BURT WOLF: In 2001 the Melk monastery museum was built to illustrate the history of the abbey and to help visitors understand the forces that shaped its past.

The most precious treasure and the holiest relic in the monastery is the Melk Cross. It contains a fingernail-size piece of the cross of Christ that was given to the abbey in 1040. The gold screws that hold the two sides of the cross together are the oldest known screws with a right-hand thread which is now the norm.

There is also the lower jaw of St. Coloman. Coloman was the son of an Irish king who was on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, but because of his strange language and clothing he was suspected of being a spy. In the year 1012, he was imprisoned, tortured and hung. Almost immediately a series of miracles began taking place and the local population began to view Coloman as a saint.

The Badenbergs heard about the miracles and had Coloman’s body brought to the castle for a ceremonial funeral. The Badenbergs knew that having the body of a saint in their castle would be considered a divine confirmation of their authority as rulers. Coloman became Austria’s first patron saint.

The museum represents all the periods in the history of Melk---the good, the bad and the truly bizarre. Some of the more bizarre stuff came in during the second half of the 1700s when everything was being subjected to what, at the time, was considered to be logical behavior.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): In 1784, Emperor Joseph II reached a high point or perhaps a low point depending on your view point in terms of logical thinking. He’d come to the realization that the Lord wanted the human body to return to the earth---ashes to ashes and dust to dust and that a coffin only stood in the way and so he demanded that all coffins be reusable.

BURT WOLF: This is a model of the reusable coffin he introduced. Once it was lowered into the grave a pulley opened a trap door in the bottom and the body remained in the earth while the coffin was pulled up to be used again.

Now as much as Joe loved his reusable coffin, he didn’t think it was quite right for Emperors.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): You see there really weren’t that many Emperors and so it wouldn’t get used that often. And therefore it really wasn’t a very efficient piece of equipment – for Emperors.


BURT WOLF: The Melk Abbey museum also contains some of the greatest religious art of the late middle ages. These paintings were produced as works that would teach the bible to people who could not read, which was the case for the majority of the population.

An excellent example is the painting of The Twelve-Year-Old Christ in the Temple. Mary and Joseph are looking for him and find him with the scribes. Jesus is sitting on a ‘teachers chair' on the same level as the highest teacher symbolizing that what Jesus says is as important as what the scribe has to say. In addition, the scribe is using a book. Jesus needs no book ---he is saying what God has taught him. In the lower right hand corner is a scribe who has closed his book. All the scribe needs now is the wisdom of Jesus. Paintings like these were explained to the viewers and thereafter each time they were seen, the message was remembered and understood.

The monasteries of lower Austria are still teaching tools. They can remind a visitor that for thousands of years people have struggled to lead a more meaningful life and their belief in a superior being or higher force has been an essential part of that struggle.



BURT WOLF: During the 1500s, the Protestant Reformation spread throughout Europe and introduced an architectural style that was much less decorative and ornate than what had been in fashion up to that time. Much of the elaborate art and sculpture was removed from the Catholic Churches, which were being converted for use by Protestants.

Baroque art and architecture was the Catholic Church’s response to the simple decorative style of the Protestant Reformation. The Baroque got started in Italy during the late 1500s and continued for about 200 years. The objective was to build a church that was so elaborate and so ornate that it overwhelmed the observer.

It asked, “Where do you think God really belongs, in that plain undecorated modest Protestant church or in this magnificent structure?” The architect was trying to evoke an emotional response. Elaborate decoration was essential; for a Baroque artist, more was never enough.

A favorite element was a scene from the Bible that was so powerful that it inspired conversion. The ceilings of Baroque churches were often covered with scenes of heaven suggesting that the Church was the only reliable road to salvation. The Baroque was propaganda in the form of art and architecture.

You looked up at the ceiling of a Baroque church and you saw the coming attractions. The art was a call to action. Step this way, there’s immediate seating in the balcony and our operators are standing by.

The style was not limited to churches. This was a period when the kings of Europe were consolidating their power and a monumental Baroque palace clearly indicated who was in charge. The outstanding example is the royal palace and gardens at Versailles. It was built to illustrate the power of the state. Baroque architecture was about domination.

The last places to undertake the construction of a series of major Baroque buildings was Southern Germany and Austria. The monastery at Melk is a perfect example of the style.

In music, the most famous examples of the Baroque are the works of Vivaldi, Handel, and Johann Sebastian Bach.


BURT WOLF: Vienna was built at the crossroads of two major trade routes. The north-south axis was the Amber Road that went from Northern Germany to Greece. The east-west traffic was handled by the Danube River. The Danube was essential for the growth of international trade. Vienna got rich because the city controlled the traffic heading down river.

And Vienna was controlled by the Hapsburgs. The Hapsburg family came to power at end of the 1200s and hung onto it for almost 700 years. This is Schonbrunn Palace, it was their summer place. Now, most royal families increased their land and their power by using military might, but the Hapsburgs used marriage.

It all started when Maximilian married Mary, the daughter of the Duke of Burgundy, which added the Netherlands and Luxembourg to his lands in Austria. Then Max’s son Phil married Joan, the heiress of Castile. And that got him Spain and Naples and Sicily and Sardinia and all the newly conquered Spanish lands in the Americas.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): These guys were getting married all over the place and getting all the places where they got married. But at one point they made a fatal mistake. In order to avoid anybody marrying a Hapsburg and getting their land they started marrying each other--- a genetic disaster. It’s good to have a close family but not that close.

BURT WOLF: Swimming in the same gene pool made them weirder and weirder and in the end they lost everything. Fortunately, what they lost is now on display to the public.

Our AMA cruise manager arranged for a tour of the Palace.


BURT WOLF: Robert Tidmarsh has been a senior guide to Schonbrunn Palace for over twenty years.

ROBERT TIDMARSH (ON CAMERA): This room is the so called Marie Antoinette Room; it dates back to the time of the Emperor. What we've done is to try to show the public what a dining room was like at the time of the Emperor.

ROBERT TIDMATSH: The napkins are the so called Kaiser Serviette. They're shaped similar to a fleur d'lys, and they were used, or are used for the head of state. 

ROBERT TIDMARSH (ON CAMERA): Even today when we have a state reception, if the President of Austria gives the reception then they will use the Kaiser Serviette. If it's the Chancellor, then they don't. 

ROBERT TIDMATSH: The Master of Ceremonies chose the length of the candles. So if it was going to be a long reception he would use long candles, if it was going to be a short reception, the short ones. Most of the people that came to a state reception were Austrians that had been to thousands of receptions before, and they would automatically look at the chandeliers to see how long the reception was going to take.

ROBERT TIDMARSH (ON CAMERA): The Emperor ate very quickly, which is not quite true. If he did, he would have looked like me. 

ROBERT TIDMATSH: He ate very little and finished very quickly, and that led to a problem. As soon as the Emperor stopped eating everybody else was obliged to stop.

Most of the restaurants near to the Schonbrunn or near to the Hofburg or the hotels, knew about the problem. They knew that the reception would be over very quickly, and they were getting ready for the end of the reception. And the end of the reception would have been that moment, as soon as the Emperor stopped eating and everybody left the Hofburg or Schonbrunn and went to the next best hotel for a meal.


BURT WOLF: After our tour of the Schonbrunn Palace, the AMA cruise director made arrangements for us to visit one of Vienna’s traditional coffee houses.

Coffee originated in Ethiopia, and by the sixth century Arab communities in the area were cultivating coffee. The Moslem sect called the Dervishes loved the stuff. They realized that when they drank coffee, they had more energy and they were able to stay up longer. That gave them more time at prayer. So they figured it was a gift from God. They called it 'kava,' which is where our word coffee comes from. Moslem armies attacked Vienna in 1683. When their siege failed and they headed back to the Near East, they left behind sacks of coffee beans. The Viennese discovered them, figured out how to brew it and opened up their first coffee house.

A coffee house is a place to read the newspaper, play a game of billiards, have a light meal or a dessert, a glass of wine, and definitely a cup of coffee.

The waiters in a true Viennese coffee house will be dressed in tuxedos. They will offer you over 20 different types of coffee and with each cup there will be a small glass of water to aid your digestion.


BURT WOLF: Vienna is the epicenter of European baking and famous world wide for its pastries and cookies. The official home of Vienna’s cookie monster is Demel. Demel got started in 1786 when a confectionary assistant settled in Vienna and started selling decorated baked goods. His shop, which served coffee and hot chocolate along with the pastries, became a gathering spot for the local aristocracy.


BURT WOLF: The last stop on our cruise was the city of Budapest, which is actually made up of three cities: Buda, Pest and Obuda.

These days Budapest is a peaceful, beautiful and culturally interesting city, which has managed to hold on to much of its history while adapting to the needs of a modern capital.

This is the Castle Hill area. The capital of Hungary was originally a few miles up the river on a flat plain that was almost impossible to defend. During the middle of the 1200s, the Mongol Tartars, who had become wealthy as a result of their invention of tartar sauce, invaded the town and destroyed it. So the next time a town was built in the neighborhood it was put up on a steep hill. Good move---safer neighborhood.

The hill is about 200 feet high and about 5,000 feet long and it holds an entire city district filled with historic houses.

The district also contains the Mathias Church. The original church on this site was put up in 1255 for use by the German residents of Buda. At the time it was known as the Church of Our Lady but people started calling it the Mathias Church after it was used for the first wedding of King Mathias in 1463.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): Mathias used it again for his second wedding to Beatrice of Naples. And I’m sure if he had a third wedding he would have been here too. He loved getting married in this Church and he was getting a fabulous deal from the florist.

BURT WOLF: Next to the church is an equestrian statue of St. Stephen who converted to Christianity in the year 1,000 and became the first king of Hungary. There is a story that the number of legs connected to the ground on an equestrian statue is related to the way in which the rider died: one hoof raised means the rider was wounded in battle; two hooves raised means death in battle. All four hooves on the ground means the rider survived all battles unharmed. 

This is a popular story but not always true. It depends on when and where the statue was made and who made it.

Behind the statue is an area known as the Fishermen’s Bastion. During the 1200s each group of tradesmen were responsible for defending a part of the city wall and this was the part defended by the fishermen. 

The spot has a great view of the Danube and Pest. The building that dominates the Pest bank is the Parliament.

When we finished our tour of Budapest we headed back to our ship where we celebrated our last evening on board. 

Well, that’s river cruising on the Danube. For Travels & Traditions, I’m Burt Wolf.