Midsummer Night’s Dream

Wandering the Wachau for the Sonnenwendfeier, Bonfires, Feasting and Dancing Into the Night

As the Danube slides westward from Vienna, the rolling hills surrounding the river valley become less inhabited and the buildings give way to open farmland and small villages.  But farther along the river, a transformation begins; the gentle hills become steeper, the surrounding forests denser, and the river narrower as it is pressed between rocky cliffs.  And then, as the Danube continues its journey through Lower Austria and the town of Krems is left behind, 2000 years of civilization unite with incomparable natural beauty, creating a world thought only to exist in fairytales.

Less than an hour’s drive from Vienna’s First District, the Wachau is as romantic as it is rich with history, as beautiful as it is unique.  It covers the Danube area of the Waldviertel, or Woodland Quarter, that stretches between Krems and Melk and has long been a popular destination for Austrians to enjoy the legendary white wines grown in the valley.

Terraced vineyards climb the south-facing hillsides, the vines enveloping medieval ruins crumbling at the outskirts of Renaissance villages.  Baroque churches stand framed by jagged crags and thick foliage, their blues and yellows highlighted by the lush geraniums cascading from nearly every farmhouse window box.

In the spring the apricot blossoms dot the hillsides and village gardens after long winters, when snow outlines the terraces and gives an eerie silence to the stone foundations still standing from 12th century ruins.

My recent trip to the Wachau was not an ordinary day of sightseeing. It was the 24th of June, the day the towns of Weissenkirchen and Spitz had chosen to celebrate the Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year.  Dubbed the Sonnenwendfeier, the holiday is celebrated throughout the river valley, each town sharing the Saturdays falling closest to the first day of summer.

Though there are various theories concerning the origin of the celebration, it is agreed that it is a Pagan tradition, shared by Celts, Germanic and Slavic tribes for centuries before the Christian conversion of Europe. The church tried to prohibit the festival in the middle ages, and finally acquiesced, deciding to  “Christianize” it as the Feast of St. John the Baptist.  The heathen rituals of lighting bonfires, dancing, chanting and leaping over flames were banned, but the celebrations continued.

The first documented Sonnenwendfeier of the area was in 1604 in Klosterneuburg, and by the end of the 17th century it was once again celebrated throughout Austria, most widely in the Wachau and neighboring Nibelungengau.  By the second half of the 19th century, the celebrations became a “Volksfest” rather than a religious event, and the blazing bonfires appeared once again, this time accompanied by fireworks.

And so the afternoon began at the Heurigenhof Gruber, a wine tavern located on an upper terrace of Weissenkirchen. My friends and I feasted on slices of bread thick with Aufstrich  and Kummelbraten pork roast, accompanied by a soft Grüner Veltliner,  one of the favorite area white wines.  With a solid layer of food in our stomachs, we bought several bottles of wine and started off for the main event.  From Weissenkirchen, it is just a short, steep walk up the hill and through a wooded area behind the town to Tausendeimerberg, or ‘Thousand Bucket Mountain,’ overlooking the town of Spitz and named for its generous wine yield in a good year.

Climbing in elevation, the panorama broadened and became exponentially stunning. To the back, Weissenkirchen grew smaller as other villages came into view, their churches and farmhouses positioned neatly in narrow creek-made vales.  The vineyards grew in number, the altitude allowing for a view of the surrounding hills planted with neat rows of vines, rising behind the river.

Around the final bend of our journey, the Danube reappeared, gliding silently far below.  The clouds and colors of the sunset created patterns on the cultivated hillsides as large ships sailed in from Vienna and surrounding cities.  To the right of Tausendeimerberg, stood the somber walls of Hinterhaus castle, once home to the Künringers who ruled the Wachau during the 12th and 13th centuries. And on every side, grape vines and their budding fruit were both at our fingertips and stretching as far as the eye could see.

We found a secluded spot near the summit of Tausendeimerberg and opened the first of many bottles of wine.  The hospitality of the local farmers is remarkable on this day, permitting visitors to climb through their crops and drink, party and play with fire late into the night.  Enormous bonfires are constructed, many with life-sized witch puppets suspended above the towers of wood.

Candles are set out between the rows of vines, lighting the way for the guests wishing to linger late on the hillside.

Far below in Spitz, those who had chosen to watch the celebration from the comfort of a Heuriger or a seat at the riverside listened to the raucous strains of traditional brass bands, accordions and violins, but the noise was drowned in the greenery as it tried to sneak its way up the hill through the grapes.

My friends and I were left with the sound of our own laughter, the taste of delicious wine, and an unimaginable view in the soft light of the setting sun.

And just as the last light escaped behind the horizon, a horn sounded and the fireworks began.  They were lit from the shores of the river, the peaks of the hills and even from the decks of ships.  The bonfire behind us was set alight, and our witch puppet was roasted to a slow death, the crackling of the fire background music for the boom of the fireworks.  Candles burnt on every ledge of the Hinterhaus castle creating an outline of the ruins against the blackness of the forest behind it.  I closed my eyes briefly, trying to take in only the sounds and smells. The smoke emanated from the nearby bonfires and the fireworks echoed repeatedly off the hillsides, first off one side of the river, then off the opposite; I thought briefly, I could be in a war zone.  But at the joyous sight of people dancing and fireworks lighting up the sky, I quickly remember where I was.

After the last of the fireworks faded and the ships made their way upriver for the next village, we finished off the rest of the wine and fell into philosophical ramblings that only a long day of gentle drinking can arouse.

Eventually, we found our way through the candle-lit paths downhill and thanked the designated driver for allowing us to enjoy the view from the car windows on the drive home.

On each side of the river, the hills were still dotted with fires both large and small, and the river still flocked with brightly lit ships.  Finally, we reentered the darkness of the farmland outside of Vienna and found our way back to the reality of the city.  With the taste of wine on our tongues and the smell of the vineyards still lingering, we made plans to return to the Wachau at the first opportunity.

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