By Jim Ferri
I first saw the Melk Abbey as I was cruising on the Danube aboard the Grand Circle Cruise Line MS River Harmony.
We had been moving slowly through Austria’s beautiful Wachau Valley in the early morning and I was watching the morning fog rising slowly off the vineyards that flowed down the hillsides. And then around one bend, there it was, a huge Baroque Benedictine Abbey set high on a hill overlooking the Danube, one of the more imposing sights in Europe.
Melk Abbey was originally built in the 11th century but was later destroyed by fire and rebuilt in the early 18th century in Baroque style. It’s a building so huge – it has 497 rooms and 1365 windows – that it obviously was difficult to maintain which necessitated a large-scale 26-year restoration beginning in 1975.
Many guides and online sites perpetuate a rumor that renovations were financed by the sale of the Abbey’s Gutenberg Bible to Yale, which is untrue. The restoration of the beautiful building you see today was financed by the Austrian government and local governments; Yale was given its bible in 1926 by a private individual.
It’s incredible that the Abbey has survived at all through the Reformation of the 16th century and the occupation by Napoleon in the 19th and the Nazis in the 20th centuries. In the past farming and agriculture sustained the monks. Today the 30 monks who still live in and maintain the Abbey, which also houses a school of 900+ students, survive thanks to the admission paid by the ½ million tourists who wander through it every year.
You enter through an inner courtyard where you see that everything is Baroque except for four frescoes at the top along the roofline. When the building was renovated it was impossible to save the frescoes so it was decided to paint more modern ones.
Walk across the courtyard and you’re following in the footsteps of many notables who used to stay here including Mozart and Maria Theresa, Archduchess of Austria. Once inside you’re ushered up to the second floor to the Imperial Rooms where a modern exhibition, bathing the rooms completely in green and blue lights, highlights the history of the Abbey.
We wandered on through the exhibition and followed our guide into the ornate Marble Hall where noble guests dined. (Musicians, we were told, sat and played in an outer room so they would not be seen.) The flat ceiling is faux, painted in such a way in the 18th century to give it a three-dimensional look.
One of the most incredible areas of Melk Abbey is its library where, unfortunately, they don’t allow you to take photos. The 12 rooms of the library are covered with inlaid wood, some of it gilded, and filled with more than 100,000 volumes of old books and 1186 manuscripts. The oldest book is from 988.
The books are on many different topics including history, law, medicine, etc. and are in several different languages including English, Hebrew and Latin. While most, if not all, of the books are from the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, the bindings are all from the 18th century, rebound to look the same because the monks wanted everything to be symmetrical.
Any type of fire was forbidden in the library but there are six hidden doors in the bookcases, constructed so the monks could sneak in and out and study at night by candlelight. Even when pointed out by your guide you need to look closely to see them.
Exiting the library we were told to take the spiral staircase from the library down to the church. Everyone was shocked when we stepped on the staircase since it appeared to be hundreds of feet deep. Like the faux ceilings, though, it turned out only to be an illusion – the monks had put mirrors at the top and bottom of the staircase to trick visitors.
After a few minutes we were inside and marveling at the Abbey’s beautiful Baroque church with its 200-foot-tall dome, a fitting finale to our visit.
We finished our visit at a Keller adjacent to the Abbey where we were led through a wine tasting by our humorous host, before setting off to wander about the sleepy little town of Melk.
Although you’re no longer allowed to take photos in the Abbey library, reader Paul Abramchik sent me the photos below that he had taken of the library during a visit to the Abbey in 2008. How fortuitous for all of us! His photos certainly give you a better idea of the beauty of the place more than my words ever could. Thank you Paul.
If you go:
A 3390 Melk
Admission: € 11,50 (with tour), € 9,5 (without tour)
Note: Melk can be visited via ship on a Danube cruise as well as by car, train and bus from Vienna.
Austrian Tourist Office
120 W 45th Street
New York, NY 10036
Tel: (212) 944-6880