weekend away - Danube Valley
Written by Brian Johnston Illustration by Vesa Sammalisto
Just an hour from Vienna a sweeping bend of the Danube Valley known as the ‘smile on the face of Austria’ is lined with old towns, ruined castles, and vineyards.
The legendary Danube has good reason to be famous, and it isn’t just because of a Strauss waltz. This is one of Europe’s greatest rivers, its banks crammed with history, splendid architecture, rolling hill scenery, and sunlit vineyards. Just northwest of Vienna, you’ll find a condensed version of the Danube in a cheerful region known as Wachau.
Paddle-steamers operate along the Danube here between April and October, a laid-back way to enjoy the passing scenery. The more energetic can rent a bicycle and follow the Donauradweg, a cycle path along the north shore of the river, dismounting every now and then for a restorative coffee and cream cake.
Kremsis the gateway to the region, a preserved medieval town sitting among terraced vineyards. Its Dominican monastery retains 13th-century cloisters and medieval frescoes, and the town gate looks like a drawing from a Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale. Landstrasse, the medieval main street, is busy with café patrons and shoppers. Then head to the Hoher Markt, a cobbled square surrounded by medieval palaces and buildings with plasterwork showing merry folk festivals.
A short distance along the river brings you to the village of Dürnstein, where 16th-century houses line the pedestrian main street, bedecked with flowerboxes. The baroque parish church with its distinctive blue bell tower is one of the finest in Austria. Outside, a terrace overlooks a picturesque stretch of river, while down below a promenade meanders along the riverbank.
Make a last stop at Melk, the strategic western end of Austria’s Danube valley. Here you’ll find one of the most staggering baroque monasteries in Europe, a great yellow pile sitting atop a granite rock above the river. Outside, the gardens are aromatic with herbs as the Danube slides south.
Cycling the Danube
The Danube Cycle Path (Donauradweg) is one of Europe’s most beautiful cycling routes. It runs 365 kilometres from Passau, Germany to Bratislava, Slovakia, with the most picturesque parts lying between the Austrian cities of Linz and Vienna, where the path meanders directly along the river. Several companies offer organised cycling tours with accommodation and luggage transfers.
Where to Stay
Hotel Schloss Dürnstein is a romantic Renaissance-era castle overlooking the Danube in the historic village of Dürnstein. The lovely décor runs to oriental carpets, polished parquet, and old ceramic stoves, while a very fine Relais & Châteaux restaurant offers regional Austrian cuisine.