Falling in love with Dürnstein is easy. That is: if you are not Richard the Lionhearted – the young and prolific King of England. Answering the call of Pope Urban II, Richard had just fought in the third crusade and was returning to England. He had to exercise extreme caution for rumors were circulating that in the Holy Roman Empire at that time many influential forces, perhaps the emperor himself, desired his arrest.
Consequently, Richard took a detour, trying to avoid major ports and obvious routes back home. He decided on a more easterly route. Disguised and in clothes far from those of a king he was discovered in Erdberg, a suburb of Vienna. He was immediately arrested and brought to Dürnstein – an imposing castle strategically placed on a hill above the banks of the Danube virtually impossible to conquer.
According to legend, his loyal servant, a singer named Blondel, searched all over Europe for his king. In his quest, he used a song only he and the king would recognize. After singing the song countless times all over the continent, he arrived in Dürnstein in a state of utter despair. While he sang the royal song one more time suddenly, coming from the dungeons of the castle, he heard the weak but steady voice of Richard answering his song. His release was swiftly resolved after a substantial ransom was negotiated and paid, and Richard was free to return home. The Austrians used the money wisely for it paid for the fortification of Vienna and the building of an entire new town located some 30 miles away from Vienna still known today as Wiener Neustadt.
Eventually you should forget all about Richard and enjoy the town of Dürnstein, a small town with narrow cobble stoned medieval streets and hidden pathways and, more importantly, known for its delicious wine! Try one of the small wine taverns, known as Heurigen. Make sure to get a crisp Grüner Veltliner, a Riesling or a Gelber Muskateller, with its more intense flavors the locals call “da Schmeckarte” (or “the tasty one”). Don’t miss a Hauer Jause – a mouth watering combination of different meats, cheeses and spreads combined with the legendary local rolls, the Wachauer Laberl.
If that has satisfied your stomach, you may want some exercise. Walking up to the ruins of the once strong castle takes a steep but fairly short walk. The view is breathtaking. The entire little town lies to your feet, the surprisingly blue baroque church, the roofs of the houses and most prominently Dürnstein’s lifeline: the Danube. For those in for a longer hike, I highly recommend the Vogelbergsteig. But be warned: it’s quite steep at times and at some areas you’ll have to use a handrail helping you over some of the rocks. Please remember to sample the local wines after the hike!
The hike starts at the Western end of Dürnstein (outside the walls of the town) and leads up through the Talgraben where you turn left to the ridge of the Vogelberg. As you climb higher and higher the views become more dramatic. Continue to follow the path to the Fesslhütte and continue on the other side of the Talgraben to the ruins of Dürnstein’s castle. When you return to town you may get some well-deserved refreshment. The hike will take between 1 ½ and 3 hours – depending on your speed and the amount of time you spend admiring the beauty around you!
Some of the best rock-climbing of (Eastern-) Austria can be found just outside the walls of Dürnstein. The so-called Wachauer-Grat is legendary among rock-climbers providing a climb of 16 pitches up to the difficulty of 7+ on the UIAA-scale (which – if my calculations are right – equals 5.11b on the Sierra-scale). If climbing is not your favorite past-time you may choose to run the Wachau Marathon. Every September some 8,000 to 9,000 runners from around the world follow the 26 miles right through the entire Wachau valley. Your next chance to run is on September 17 and 18, 2011; check it out at http://www.wachaumarathon.com.
As you will see: falling in love with Dürnstein is easy. I even went a step further, and fell in love with someone from Dürnstein; so let me tell you: Dürnstein above all is also an excellent place to get married!
Markus Reiterer is Political Counselor at the Embassy of Austria in Washington, D.C.