From its headwaters in the Black Forest of Germany the Danube, Europe's second longest river, flows through 10 different countries before spilling into the Black Sea near the Rumanian port of Constanta. For a landlocked country like Austria the Danube is both a gateway to the rest of the world and a national treasure steeped in romance, legend and myth. Few of the world's great rivers have had such a profound influence on history as the beautiful "Blue Danube."
We began our cruise across Austria in the German border town of Passau, the "city of three rivers," where the Danube meets two of its major tributaries and nearly doubles in size. Across the border in Austria our ship, the Viking Spirit, shares the broad slow-moving river with other sightseeing craft and a variety of heavily laden merchant ships - cars and machinery moving downriver from Germany and barge loads of raw materials heading upriver from Hungary and Slovakia.
For centuries the Danube has been a trade route between eastern and western Europe. The ancient Celts were the first to settle along its banks. They were displaced by the Romans in about 30 B.C. and for more than 400 years, the Danube served as the northern frontier of the Roman Empire. The Romans used the river to move their legions and supplies inland and many of today's towns and cities along the Danube, including Vienna, had their origins as Roman garrisons or defensive forts. But while they share a common history each town along the Danube has its own unique relationship to the river and its own story to celebrate.
From Passau the river takes us through the foothills of the Bavarian Forest and around a sweeping curve to the Austrian town of Linz, capital of Upper Austria. Behind the industrial docks lining both sides of the river stacks of steel mills rise above the roofs of factories and warehouses. Linz is an iron and steel town but, like many of Austria's industrial towns, it has preserved much of its original charm.
From our dock we followed a narrow laneway leading to the town square, once the largest in Austria. Surrounded by ancient warehouses and well preserved patrician houses, the square has not changed much since the middle ages when it was a salt market and transfer point where tradesmen bought and sold their wares. At the centre of the square the Trinity Column is a reminder that the river has been a mixed blessing, bringing wealth and war, pleasure and pestilence to the people living along its banks. Made of polished white marble and standing 20 metres high, the intricately carved baroque column was built in 1723 and dedicated to the Holy Trinity in gratitude for deliverance from the plague and the Turkish invasion which ravaged the town in the early 1700s.
I was still sleeping when our ship pulled away from Linz and slipped into the locks of the Abwinder-Asten Power station a few kilometres farther downstream. From there to our next stop at the town of Grein the Danube has been tamed and harnessed by a series of hydroelectric stations, each with its reservoir and set of locks to lift and lower passing ships. Before the dams went in Grein was the site of a whirlpool that claimed many of the ships that tried to run its treacherous rapids. But the hazard was an economic boon for the townspeople who charged for a portage by oxcart. The smart captains paid the toll, saved their ships, and the town thrived on the revenue.
In the narrow valley beyond Grein the Viking Spirit is swept along by a brisk current but no trace of the treacherous whirlpools remains. A half hour of smooth sailing takes us to the ancient town of Melk. Originally the site of a Roman fort named Namare Castellum, Melk has been a spiritual and cultural centre for more than a thousand years. The ruling Babenberg family occupied the original castle for a time but in 1089 Leopold II donated the building and land to the Order of Benedictines. The monks are still there and after 900 years the once bleak Roman garrison has been turned into one of the most stunningly beautiful fortified Abbeys in all of Europe.
Standing on a ridge 70 metres above the river the Abbey is a tribute to the tenacity of the monks who built and rebuilt it despite the plague, repeated fires and damage during the Turkish wars. The present massive baroque structure was rebuilt between 1702 and 1736. Its seven inner courtyards and numerous outbuildings are dominated by the monastery church with its twin spires and octagonal dome.
We spent most of a day wandering through the Abbey, soaking up the magnificent view from the church balcony and marveling at the artistry and craftsmanship of the frescoes and statuary that adorn its interior. The museum is a gold-plated display of baroque gone mad - room after room full of prancing angels, flocks of winged infants and bejeweled replicas of long-forgotten saints and patrons. But "Stift Melk" is much more than a museum.
The Abbey is still a place where monks pray and work, teach and study. With more than 100,000 ancient hand-written volumes the research library is one of the finest in the world and the Abbey school has some 800 regular students. As active members of the community the monks still work in forestry and agriculture, and they regularly host cultural events that draw visitors from all over Austria and beyond.
And when you've had your fill of culture there is always the wine.
Beyond Melk the Danube plunges into a narrow gorge through the foothills of the Bohemian Massif. Known as Wachau Valley the 35 km stretch of river between Melk and Krems is blessed with a unique combination of soil, climate and sun exposure that make it one of the world's great wine producing areas. The Celts began making wine there more than 2,000 years ago, Roman vintners settled in the valley during the middle ages, and during the Renaissance 31 monasteries owned vineyards in the Wachau.
Unlike much of the Danube the Wachau Valley is unspoiled by dams and heavy industry. The river follows its natural course, meandering past charming towns, steep terraced vineyards and the ruins of castles and fortified monasteries still clinging to rocky cliffs high above the shore. From the top deck of the Viking Spirit, with a glass of good local wine beside my deckchair I leaned back, took in the passing scene and thought to myself, "this is river cruising at its very best."
Next stop Vienna.