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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.