Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Melk the Magnificent

We are staying at the Hotel Drei Kronen which is close to the City centre without being right in it. The room is very comfortable and nice and airy. The WiFi connection is fast and stable, and breakfast this morning looks very delicious. Looks delicious? Well, given that we ate so late last night, we are not very hungry! Scrambled eggs on seeded bread sounds just right, along with an orange juice and coffee.

The rain has really set in, so rather than spend half a day walking around in it, we opt to set off to Melk a little earlier than we originally planned. So, adieu Vienna. You will always hold a special place in our hearts.

Our journey through to Melk while not far takes us a good couple of hours. Because we have decided to leave earlier due to the rain, there is no need to hurry and we choose the non-motorway route – I mean we saw the motorway when we came from Salzburg to Vienna. We travel through the back suburbs of Vienna next to a fast flowing canal. The weather is dismal – at the best, raining lightly and overcast, at worst, raining so heavily that we have trouble seeing the road markings. It is nice though to see that Vienna’s stunning architecture extends out of the city centre and in to the outer suburbs.

Past the stunning summer palace – the Shönbrunn Palace, complete with the ‘royal’ yellow paint job and a pair of royal but rather surprised lions sitting guard at the entrance to the plaza. We don’t go in today – we are a little of the impression that seen one grand palace filled with gilt and glass and china, seen them all. And we still have to see the Palace of Versailles with Hels! We do however later see an impressive castle high on a hill and decide we might stop and have a quick look, but despite all our attempts we can’t find the road up to it. So we turn to Kate who seems to find a route – good old Kate! Alas, the road is blocked with a sign saying the castle is closed. Ah, well.

The road we travel is through lots of small villages – most of them between 500 metres and 2 kilometres apart. It’s starting to feel a bit like England! And here as we have found further east, the crops of the moment are corn and sunflowers. The sunflowers are getting closer to maturity and there are more and more of them standing tall with their sunny faces following their namesake. There are lots of quirky little touches in each of the towns. Such as:
+ the robot outside a mechanic’s workshop
+ the chemist shop displaying all the herbs used in their cures (supposedly!)
+ a local sign for an upcoming carwash – fundraising maybe?

We are now getting very close to Melk and I expect to see the magnificent Abbey around every corner. But no, we are coming in to the town from the back and we actually reach the car park (that we could not get in to when we came through here a couple of weeks ago) without yet seeing the Abbey. So we park the car and set off. The first view we get today of the complex from above the entry gardens. Down a stepped stairway with carved balustrading into a formal garden with sculptured hedges and fir trees. And up close it is just as stunning as from afar –although you don’t get the full view as the complex is so huge.

We have tickets for an English guided tour at 2:55 pm. But it is only 1:45 now so we decide to have some lunch first. There is a restaurant at the Stift Melk and the menu seems OK. I am determined to have schnitzel at least once before leaving Austria so I order the Weiner Schnitzel served with parsley potatoes while Michael has the Austrian braised beef with roast potatoes and fried onion rings with a butter and chive sauce. While one of the local equivalents of fast food, they are surprisingly good. The Schnitzel is huge, only lightly breaded and the meat cooked to perfection. And Michael says the same of his beef.

It is nearing 2:50 when we arrive at the meeting point for the tour. We don’t have long to wait for our guide who collects a very large group and heads off with a “All the people for the English tour follow me” at a fast trot across the large quadrangle towards the guest wing. Once there, we are split into two groups thankfully and she remains with our group while another guide takes half of the group. And so our tour is with the lively ‘local’ guide Angela. She speaks a beautiful English with the clipped accent that denotes it is not her native tongue. Angela is knowledgeable and eagerly and enthusiastically shares what she knows. She is happy to take and answer questions in English. I tell her that she is lucky to work in such a beautiful place and she genuinely agrees. We move up the Imperial Staircase to the Imperial Corridor were the much loved Maria Theresia stayed here with her retinue of up to 300 people, as well as Napoleon and his army of more than 1,000! While we don’t see into any of the individual guest rooms, the high baroque decorations and the magnificent art works set along the walls of the 196 m twin arcades are truly beautiful.

The Abbey is home to a community of 30 Benedictine Monks. In fact, it has been continuously home to this order for 900 consecutive years! Presently there is a contemporary exhibition on the history of the Abbey that only survived the reforms of Emperor Joseph II in the 18th Century because of its school. To this day it houses a school for 900 pupils between the ages of 10 and 18. It is a private Catholic school – but a very affordable one at only €80 per month – gosh, that is so much less than what it cost us to school our children at St Marys in Maryborough!

Today, only half the monks live at the Abbey while the others work and live in 15 of the parishes that belong to the Abbey in the surrounding towns. The historic exhibition moves through the good times and the dark times of the Abbey in a very sympathetic way with rooms lit by coloured lights to represent Benedictine symbolism. It displays many of the treasures held by the Abbey community including the most exquisitely embroidered cope, stole, gloves, hat and shoes worn by the Abbot responsible for the restoration of the Abbey. But this is more than a showpiece – it is brought out every Easter for the Easter Mass. (Oh, the gloves and shoes are not worn – they were custom made and don’t fit the present Abbot!)

Our tour then takes us through the Marble Hall that was used for lavish royal dinners and the like. It is interesting to note the door frames and gables above the doors are made from real marble, whereas the walls have been lined with stucco marble. In the centre of the floor is a massive grate where hot air was forced into the hall for heating. Similar to the other rooms, the frescoes are just as impressive with images depicting heroes of the Classical period and angels as the balance between good and evil. One fact I found amusing was that the Classical images were representations of the Hapsburgs who liked to see themselves represented as these gods and champions – oh, woe to the Heroic Age!

Angela then leads us out of the Hall and onto The Balcony which connects the Marble Hall and the Library. Walking onto The Balcony one has a commanding view over Melk, as the balcony is like the prow of a ship. However, when you turn around towards the Church facade you are smitten by an amazing sight. I don’t quite know whether these edifices were erected for the glorification of ‘God’, man or just purely to intimidate. Whatever the reason the façade is quite impressive as architecture with its imposing towers reaching towards heaven and the dome purely dominates the monastic complex. Between the two towers (…no, nothing to do with Mordor or Isengard) is a monumental statue depicting Christ carrying a cross flanked by two angels.

Leaving The Balcony we are ushered into The Library, which is no less impressive than the previous rooms. The bookshelves are inlaid and the collections of books have matching bindings, while peering down from its lofty ceiling – you guessed it….frescoes. This library boasts a collection of 100,000 texts, 1200 manuscripts from the 9th to 15th centuries and 600 manuscripts from the 16th to 18th centuries. The collection includes globes of the heavens and earth that were designed and constructed in 1690.

Here the tour ended and Angela suggested a visit to the Church would prove most interesting. However, she did point out that all the gold decoration in the Church is not solid but gold leaf. Mind you, only 4kg of gold leaf was needed to apply the decoration. Acting upon Angela’s recommendation we entered the church and were just taken aback by what we saw. There is just insufficient space and/or time to provide any adequate dissertation. So, our picture of the Church interior will provide some idea. One rather macabre inclusion are two sarcophaguses that contain the skeletons of martyrs from the Roman catacombs.

As we left the Church and made our way towards the exit, we noticed a sign indicating there is a movie depicting the history of the Abbey. We settle ourselves to watch the presentation when about halfway through it an employee enters the small auditorium, advising us the show is over and the Abbey is closing! Like good little sheep we all hurriedly exit. Obviously the Abbey operates to a very tight schedule, so we make our way back to the car park and set a course for the hotel.

The Hotel Der Post is in the main street of Melk. With the size of the Abbey, we had expected that the town would be larger, but no, it is quite small. Again the room is sizeable and thankfully the beds comfortable. But no matter what I do I cannot connect to the internet connection – which is frustrating because I always book accommodation that says they have good connection – and here, at €8 an hour, it is not cheap either – we eventually return the access cards and get our money back! Will check email on their connection in the lobby, but the blog uploading will have to wait until we get to Brno. Yes, tomorrow we are off to the Czech Republic for a week or so.

Neither of us is hungry, so we forgo dinner. In fact, I am just plain tired after a few very busy and long days so at 9:30 pm I go to bed and by 9:32 I’m asleep. Michael braves the continuing rain to dash out and get a few photos of the Abbey lit at night and I am sure you will agree it is impressive to say the least!

No comments: