Dürnstein’s Silhouettes

In the valley of the Wachau, where the legend of Richard the Lionheart still lingers

The castle ruins of Dürnstein | Photo: Andreas Xell

My first experience of the ancient town of Dürnstein in Lower Austria was via a grainy old home movie shot in the 1960s. The film was of a wedding, where the bride and groom move awkwardly through a church courtyard overwhelmed by well-wishers and a polished brass band, trumpeting the ceremony in grand Austrian tradition.

Watching the film with me was a retired friend engrossed in reliving the moment with that look of misty incredulity most of us experience when gazing at old photographs. The following weekend we arrived at the place of her upbringing, under a fragile November sky, and quietly set about retracing the rites of her passage.

Winter is a solitary time of year in Dürnstein. During springtime and summer, folks from the four corners flock to this UNESCO heritage site on boat, boot and wheel – and for good reason. It is a truly disarming town, even for the seasoned traveler. A tiny, ancient settlement with barely 1,000 inhabitants, its past is as rich as the verdant Wachau Valley in which it has lain for centuries, on a narrow stretch of the Danube some 13 kilometers from its much larger neighbor Krems.

First settled in the 12th century, Dürnstein derives its name from the German “dem dürren Stein“ (dry stone), its steep rocky riverbanks affording ideal protection for former rulers, the belligerent dukes of Babenberg and the Kuenring dynasty, who fortified the town to complement the lofty castle fortress.

It takes more than a strenuous half-hour to climb up to what is left of this once formidable bastion, 160m (525ft) above the town, and twice as long if you take the gentler route from the direction of Krems. But however you go, the effort is mightily rewarded with spectacular views across the valley and the vast terraced vineyards beyond, which produce some of Europe’s most exquisite white wines.

Despite the ravages of time the castle remains a dramatic attraction. Having withstood the great siege of Friedrich III in 1458, it finally succumbed to the troops of the Swedish Empire, who virtually destroyed the stronghold in 1645. Wandering through the ruins I wondered whether any of those Scandinavian conquerors gave a second thought to the illustrious guest who was once imprisoned there some 500 years before.

The legend of Richard the Lionheart is almost as old as the Wachau hills. The tale is told of an arrogant English king who offended the powerful Austrian duke Leopold V by casting his standard from the walls of Acre during the crusades in the Holy Land in the 12th century.

Later, on making his way back to his beloved France in 1192, Richard’s boat foundered on the rocks in the Adriatic, forcing him to continue his journey through Austria disguised as a peasant. When his true identity was unmasked – allegedly when he used gold sovereigns to pay the fare in the Gasthaus where they were staying – the English monarch was seized and held captive in the castle by a gleeful Leopold.

Richard’s fate in Dürnstein, however, was played out more through myth than reality. Legend suggests that his loyal minstrel Blondel had the wit to wander across Austria, from castle to castle, strumming his master’s favorite song on his lute in the hope of finding him. On reaching Dürnstein, the music traveled up to Richard’s tower window, to which he gave full voice in reply. Once news spread of the king’s whereabouts, Leopold transferred his prisoner to the Rhineland, where he bargained his freedom for a handsome ransom.

Apocryphal or not, these actors probably did exist at this place in Wachau at a certain time. As would a certain young Austrian schoolgirl many centuries later, who had played with her friends on this same promontory to which she has now returned as an old woman to share her memories with a relative stranger.

It starts to rain and she suggests we make our way back down to the town. There is a sense of immediacy here. History throbs in the few narrow medieval streets, characterized by the wonderfully preserved Hauptstraße. Out of season, the emptiness in Dürnstein somehow reinforces its past, as if one is walking through a picture by Luigi Kasimir, whose pastel and charcoal studies capture the quaint archaism of the town, informed by shady figures of the Renaissance.

Out of the shadows one such character waddles by with a makeshift umbrella and mutters something about time. I look at my watch and listen to my stomach. All the walking has made us tired and hungry, but Dürnstein sleeps in winter, when even the five-star Schloss Hotel is closed. Perhaps it would have been better to have eaten earlier in Krems. But I trust to her local knowledge, because nothing changes here.

Bäckerei Schmidl on the Hauptstraße is always open. Founded over 300 years ago, this family bakery and Konditorei is renowned for its home-made tarts and breads. The Waldviertler Krustenbrot, Marillenmarmelade and Wachauer Torte are specialties, typical of a region abundant in apricots, viticulture and wheaten recipes. On the same street, the Altes Presshaus is a small, welcoming restaurant, serving satisfying food and the delightful fresh Grüner Veltliner wine, as does the nearby Weingut Böhmer, open until late December.

Your hosts will also be happy to point you in the direction of a Penzion or private apartment, should you decide to stay until Silvester in the comfort of solitude. Such a thing would be impossible during the tourist season, when the town multiplies in size, and every door now shut swings wide with confections, heady perfumes and trinkets.

Refreshed, we continue on through the gentle drizzle towards the 15th century Pfarrkirche (Parish Church). The building was originally an Augustinian monastery, established in 1410, before its Baroque conversion in the early 18th century, and houses a splendid portal and altar paintings by the gifted artist Kremser Schmidt. The church tower is one of the finest Baroque examples in Austria, and a prominent landmark in the Danube Valley. When open, entry is nominal, and visitors are invited to join Sunday Mass.

But the year is 1964, and we are here to share the memories of Sigrun’s wedding. The courtyard is quiet and empty now, no bouquets or cheering well-wishers, only the plash of rainwater dripping from the Gothic masonry onto the uneven cobblestones. The silence is full.

Turning back we stroll past the dripping walls of the 14th century convent of St. Clare, through the garden of the adjoining Richard Löwenherz Hotel, in the same family for generations. It was here, in this bushy quadrant 45 years ago, that my friend and her new husband led a procession of guests to their wedding party. She stops briefly to greet the proprietors, who are distant relatives.

Alone, I follow a path around the back of the building and peer through the windows into an antique room of neat porcelain and period armchairs. I imagine little must have changed in decades. Stone steps lead down to the bank of the Danube, where a boy throws sticks into the swirling current. Aimlessly, one after another. I begin to think there is, after all, some purpose in futility.

Then suddenly I hear, in the near distance, the sound of laughter and farewells tailing off into silence. My name is called, a crow is startled – and in that moment only it seems that, despite everything, life in Dürnstein and beyond will continue to drift serenely on and on.

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