Perhaps you’ve heard of Melk Abbey so if someone says “Melk” your brain probably tosses in the word “Abbey” Kind of like hearing “Marco” and immediately thinking “Polo”. Blonde’s brain also reacted only in terms of “Melk Abbey” with no clue of the history behind it or of the town below it.
On a Viking River Romantic Danube cruise we stopped to see the Abbey. Blonde had been there 11 years earlier in the month of September and remembered the beautiful greenery surrounding the Abbey. However, in December the greenery was gone which somehow made the Abbey itself come into focus more. (Note to self: Upgrade attire consistently as age advances; distractions work and help maintain curb appeal.)
History of Melk
Melk, the town, was first established by the Romans as a fortress. For some reason this caused massive migration to the area; particularly by Slavic peasants. They built their community near the mouth of the Els River which flows into the Danube. Supposedly this led to them naming the town “Melk” as it was a Slavic word meaning “slow-moving stream”. The river sort of dribbles listlessly along there so maybe they knew what they were talking about.
Melk went through a lot of “management reorganizations” over the centuries. Under Charlemagne the first monastery (not the current Abbey) was built in 787. Then there were the Badenbergs who had relationship issues with a lot of people. Around 1040 some dude (or was he a Duke?), Margrave Adalbert, is said to have given the Abbey a splinter from the cross Christ was crucified on. The splinter is still there hidden away from view and called The Melk Cross. It’s hidden in part because it was stolen twice in the past by inept thieves. The second thief was caught and executed. (What about that “Thou shall not kill” thing? We digress…)
Reforms, counter-reforms, Enlightenment and other religious upheavals ensued and Melk became a “go to” destination for Benedictine monks.
Melk Abbey’s original construction
Melk Abbey was first established in 1089 but wasn’t built in its current Baroque architectural glory until 1702- 1736. A 30-year-old abbot, Berthold Dietmayr, was put in charge and straight away aimed to establish the Abbey’s importance in religion, science and politics. He commissioned the Baroque reconstruction of the Abbey and hired a master builder, Jakob Prandteur, who oversaw the construction until his death.
Melk Abbey, architecture and art
As you may imagine, a lot happened since then but we’ll skip it and fast forward to Abbot Reginald Zupanic who was the head of the Abbey from 1964-1975. He got a very out-of-date Abbey from the perspective of both the building and its rather dismal financial situation. He modernized both the building and the financial model, grew the school at the Abbey to 900 children and for the first time allowed girls to attend.
As always seems to happen, the Abbey suffered from a fire that badly damaged the dome in 1947. Over time the whole building had also fallen into disrepair.
The entire interior of the Abbey received a serious restoration intended to last for a very long time in 1987. You know how those home repair projects go. You paint the bathroom then you realize it really needs all new fixtures. The next thing you know the whole project expands and suddenly you’ve added a 3 car garage.
That (in terms of an analogy) happened at the Abbey too, so for the Abbey’s 900th anniversary in 1989 the exterior was also completely restored.
The Abbey’s finances continued to be problematic. Their traditional sources of income had been agriculture and forestry. However, they had to give up a huge amount of their property for a power plant that was built on the Danube. They sold off a smaller monastery in a different town and even leased out their vineyards when they realized they couldn’t run them profitably.
The Abbey’s Salvation
But these are smart monks and they realized that they could probably make some good income from tourism. They built a parking lot, a restaurant and defined what areas could be seen by the public. Tourism now provides enough income for the monastery and the school to be maintained. At this time there are only about 30 monks residing at the Abbey.
Now that you know all of this if you get to see Melk Abbey you can wisely spend your time taking selfies and ignoring the guide because you already know the history (more or less) of the Abbey!
When you finish touring Melk Abbey
When you complete your tour of the Abbey go out the front and take the steps on your right. They will lead you down a minor hill into the town of Melk. It’s well worth a walkabout or a “sit about” in one of their coffee shops and has quite a few charming buildings.
If you are there on a Viking River cruise pay attention when they tell you how to walk back to the ship from town and allow plenty of time. No identities will be revealed but two women were the last ones back to the ship and had to run most of the way. The late arrival (4 minutes, but who’s counting?) was noted by many fellow travelers (you know who you are) .
The two women were never late again.