on-line contest

What's New

Most Popular


Story and photos by

Benedictine Abbey of Melk church
Benedictine Abbey of Melk church
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

The imposing yellow-and-white buildings of the Benedictine Abbey of Melk crown a rocky bluff 165 feet (50 meters) above the Danube River. At the end of the 19th century, nearly 100 monks lived here.

Nowadays, a couple dozen monks remain. Some of them work in the abbey. The others care for neighboring parishes.

During the days of the Habsburg Empire, the monks opened rooms so that the Royal Family could spend the night. The journey by horse and carriage between Vienna and Salzburg was a long one. The monastery was a safe and convenient place to stay overnight.

How to get to Melk from Vienna

Nowadays, you can drive from Vienna to Melk in only 1-1/2 hours, following the Danube west of Vienna for 52 miles (84 kilometers). It's a picturesque journey through Dürnstein and the Wachau wine region.

The Imperial guest rooms are now a museum filled with treasures. One of the most unusual is a tiny prayer book created for traveling monks. As long as a thumb, and twice as thick, it's completely handwritten and ornately decorated with gold leaf.

Books and frescoed ceiling in the library
Books and frescoed ceiling in the library
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

What to see

Another treasure is a gold cross that reputedly houses a tiny piece of the real crucifix. The fragment was lost until the 12th century, when it was discovered in a Vienna abbey. Because monks in both Melk and Vienna laid claim to it, they agreed to place the piece of wood halfway between the two cities and let it decide. The relic apparently turned toward Melk, where it remains to this day.

Other curiosities include a gold monstrance and a treasure chest with 14 latches that can be opened or closed with one turn of a key. Peering inside its glass window, you can see the lower jaw and tooth of St. Koloman. (Austria's first patron saint, he was an Irish pilgrim who was mistaken for a spy and hung.)

Rare books

During the 12th century, the monastery became a school that created and collected valuable manuscripts. Today, 2,000 of them remain in the library. An additional 80,000 books, bound in gilded leather, line the wooden shelves below the elaborately frescoed ceiling. Written in Latin and ancient Greek, the texts are still used, primarily by scholars doing research.

In 1925, one of Melk library's most valuable possessions, a Gutenberg Bible, was auctioned to Yale to help finance renovations.

Frescoed ceiling above the Marble Hall
Frescoed ceiling above the Marble Hall
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Currently, more than 900 students come to the monastery for their education. The secondary school and boarding house surround the largest of the abbey's seven courtyards. Another courtyard faces the monks' rooms.

Optical illusions

We toured the 656-foot (200-meter)-long Emperor's Gallery, lined with portraits of Austria's early rulers, and viewed a music theater where Mozart once performed. The highlight was a space-saving giraffe piano, which looks like a baby grand on its side.

In the Marble Hall, guides showed us some optical illusions. Columns painted on the ceiling tilted to the left when we entered the room. As we walked to the center, they appeared perfectly straight. Although the frescoed ceiling looks like a dome, it's actually quite flat.

An angel, lying on its back, miraculously turned to its stomach as we walked from the center to the edge of the room.

Outside, the terrace overlooks the Danube River on one side, and on the other, the twin-steepled church that is the jewel in the abbey's crown. Inside the baroque interior, gilded box seats and great fluted marble columns drew our eyes toward a golden altar.

When music from the large pipe organ reverberated through the nave, we could almost hear the monks chanting as they did 1,000 years ago.


Austrian National Tourist Office

More things to see & do in Austria:

Vienna Choir Boys MuTh Concerts

Graz Austria Tour

Innsbruck, Heiligenblut and Wattens Crystal World Tour

The Largest Ice Cave in the World

Vienna Vacation