Feet as a time machine

In the Wachau, it’s one monument after another. Here, you can learn a lot about the epochs - from the Palaeolithic to the Middle Ages and Baroque to modern times.

What does the Venus of Willendorf tell us about the Palaeolithic Age? What was life like in a late medieval castle? What did it feel like to celebrate in the baroque halls of the stately abbeys? And why is the Lower Austria State Gallery considered a must-see on the Krems Art Mile? Tour guide Christine Emberger, who was born in Stein an der Donau, takes us on a journey through time.

The World Heritage Trail is a hiking path steeped in history with monuments and buildings from the widest variety of eras. Among other things, it is the place where the Venus of Willendorf was found in 1908. Today, you can admire an oversized replica on site. What do we know about it?

The Venus of Willendorf is a sensational find and certainly one of the most beautiful Paleolithic figures in the world. The original is 11 cm tall and carved out of limestone. What I find particularly interesting is that the head is purely ornamented. The artist of that time, and that was 25,000 to 30,000 years ago, designed the face purely with a structure; perhaps it was not important to him. The sexual characteristics, on the other hand, are depicted distinctly. What most people don't notice are details, such as the way the hands rest. I personally suspect that this figure was not the artist's first piece of work. A few years ago, arrowheads and other things were found on site through excavations; it is, after all, a former camp site. These finds are now being evaluated in years of research and exciting findings are sure to emerge. In any case, it’s always worth stopping at the village of Willendorf in the Wachau. Incidentally, the original is on display in the Natural History Museum in Vienna.

Along the World Heritage Trail, you come across one medieval castle ruin after another. It makes you wonder: what is actually behind all this?

These former castles date back to the 12th century. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the Wachau was Babenberg territory that had to be protected. This is why numerous castles were built at that time, mostly on prominent rocks and recognisable by certain characteristics such as the keep. The Kuenringers, one of the most significant and notable ministerial officials of the Babenbergs, often administered the castles of the Wachau and its surroundings. Many castles were made very solid, and a flourishing, structured trade began along the Danube. That was quite an achievement, and they got quite a bit of prestige and power for it. But as soon as power is involved, disputes quickly arise. This was also the case with the Kuenringers.

And that's where Aggstein Castle comes in?

Exactly. For example, in the time of Frederick II the Quarrelsome, he is regarded as the last male Babenberger. Some of the Kuenringers remained loyal to him, but not Hademar III, who instigated a rebellion with several other vassals. Frederick II did not tolerate this. Thus, he besieged and conquered the castle fortress of Aggstein. The lords of Aggstein Castle often ordered the ships on the Danube to be attacked and robbed. This is why you often read about the "robber barons" in old books and legends.

However, Aggstein Castle is best known for the legend of the little rose garden. This in turn goes back to the robber baron Jörg Scheck von Wald, who was lord of Aggstein Castle from 1429. He allegedly locked his prisoners up on a balcony-like ledge that jutted out from the castle, where they either starved to death or jumped to their deaths. Because the prisoners reminded him of roses, this ledge was given the name "Rosengärtlein” (little rose garden). In any case, the view from today's castle ruins, where there was also a chapel, stables and a well - in other words, everything that was needed at that time - is a sensation

Dürnstein Castle, today also a ruin, is always associated with Richard the Lionheart. The English king was imprisoned there by Leopold V after his crusade. Why was he imprisoned at Dürnstein Castle?

In contrast to Aggstein Castle, which was sealed off, Dürnstein Castle had a village-like structure. The walls go down to the town centre, which is located within the walls. This had the advantage of secure supplies. No wonder they locked up Richard the Lionheart there - they could have supplied him for years, also because of the river location, which enabled quick replenishments. In the Middle Ages, the inner city of Dürnstein had even more inhabitants than it does today. Dürnstein Castle was a very large facility for that time and our region. But even that has to be seen in relative terms. In Franconia, England or even in Syria, castle complexes were many times larger at that time.

The Hinterhaus ruin, a former fortification in Spitz, is another relic from the Middle Ages. What is interesting about it?

Hinterhaus was certainly the smallest castle at that time. It is one of my favourite ruins - a jewel in the Wachau. You could call it the little sister of the Aggstein. It is located at the entrance to the Spitzer Graben and was thus able to secure an important strategic fork in the road and the deep valley. The defence walls, the keep and a huge well are still well preserved and bear witness to the craftsmanship of the Middle Ages.

The monasteries of Melk, Göttweig and Dürnstein were renovated in the Baroque period. Melk Abbey is certainly one of the most magnificent buildings in the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site of Wachau and is known to visitors from all over the world. What is typical of the era there?

The prominent rock where Melk Abbey stands today was already used by the Romans, and from the 11th century it was the centre of power for the Babenbergs. In the Baroque period, people wanted to bring heaven down to Earth. They had extensive architectural knowledge and knew how to put it into practice. The monastery is a perfect building and not for nothing Austria's poster child for a Baroque jewel. At that time, an emperor's wing was intentionally built in order to provide his patrons, above all the Habsburgs, with appropriate rooms. However, their visits were very rare. Standing in the Baroque dance hall, you can imagine how people celebrated in those days. The music came from upstairs, and the kitchen was located in the lower wing, where the cooking was done and the heat generated was also used to heat the upper floor.

It was all very well thought out. The glasswork was of a perfectionist standard, allowing the rooms to be flooded with light. In monasteries, the library and copy rooms were scientific centres where people met, continued their education and exchanged ideas - the thirst for knowledge was enormous. And then there are the famous ceiling frescoes in the collegiate church by Johann Michael Rottmayr, which are a must-see - a tremendous programme of pictures, grandiose in terms of craftsmanship! Rottmayr was already a star at that time, as was the architect Jakob Prandtauer. They were top talents. But I have the highest respect for the craftsmen who created everything.

Dürnstein Abbey is another historic building on the World Heritage Trail. What history does the monastery have to tell?

Dürnstein Abbey, founded in 1410, used to be a monastery and was redesigned in the Baroque style in 1710. Hieronymus Übelbacher presided over the Augustinian canonical monastery as provost. He was a highly intelligent man in his 30s who drew the plans for the monastery himself and then hired a wide variety of artists and experts to implement them - star architects and master builders such as Jakob Prandtauer, Joseph Munggenast, Matthias Steindl and even the sculptor Johann Schmidt, the father of Martin Johann Schmidt, known as "Kremser Schmidt", the famous Wachau painter. The numerous craftsmen from the "common people" should also not be forgotten. The Abbey is like a picture book; you just have to be able to read it. The figures and statues tell biblical tales - both in the collegiate church and on the famous blue church tower. There, the provost tried to illustrate the word of God to the common man. For example, there are four obelisks, each with three heads on its base - these stand for the 12 apostles. Dürnstein Abbey is a wonderful example of the High or Late Baroque period.

Then there is Göttweig Abbey, a Benedictine monastery such as Melk Abbey and also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. What does it look like there?

Göttweig has a completely different Baroque style than Melk. When you enter the collegiate church, the cartilage style of the stucco work is striking. Compared to stone and marble, stucco was an inexpensive material for decorating the cartouches and the triumphal arch, for example. In contrast to modern times, craftsmen were affordable. The cost of materials was very high, while the cost of labour was low. The foundation by Bishop Abbot Altmann dates back to 1083. After a fire in 1718, the monastery was redesigned in the Baroque style. Johann Lucas Hildebrandt, who also built the Upper Belvedere in Vienna, was in charge. All the planned parts of the monastery were never completed - but that has its charm, because the lack of large wings makes it seem airier, calmer and more monastic. Today, the monastery hosts concerts, conferences and other events. And since 2021, it has also been home to the ISK, the "International School Krems", an English-language Catholic public school.

There is also an interesting building from modern times on the World Heritage Trail - the Lower Austrian State Gallery in Krems. Why is it considered a must-see on the Krems Art Mile?

The State Gallery is a very striking building. It always offers changing exhibitions from the 19th century, but also contemporary exhibits such as sculptures, paintings and photographs - mainly by artists from Lower Austria and Austria. As part of the Krems Art Mile, where there is also the art hall, the Minorite church, the art lending library, the sound space and so much more, it’s fantastic. This gives you a nice mix in our region; the modern age, the Middle Ages and the Baroque period. And all that in combination with quaint villages, beautiful nature, vineyards and countless cycling and hiking opportunities, some of which also reach over into the neighbouring forest region.