The Wachau, a narrow stretch of the Danube valley, forms the heart of Lower Austria, famous for its fertile plains, its vineyards, and picturesque villages. Formidable fortresses, castles, and fortified abbeys rise along the high banks of the river, including the imposing Benedictine Abbey in Melk. Further east, the Wienerwald (Vienna Woods) is perfect for walking and cycling. Burgenland Province has its own unique flora and fauna around Neusiedler See. It produces the finest red wines in Austria and celebrates the memory of Joseph Haydn, former court musician to the Esterházy family in Eisenstadt.
POINTS OF INTEREST
The capital of Lower Austria since 1986, St Pölten was the first Austrian city to be granted municipal rights, in 1159. Its history dates back to Roman times, and it achieved considerable status under the Augustinian orders in the 8th century. St Pölten’s fastest period of growth, however, was during the Baroque period, when outstanding masters of that era, such as the architect Jakob Prandtauer and the painters Daniel Gran, Paul Troger, and Bartolomeo Altomonte, made their home here. Economically, St Pölten became the most important city in Lower Austria when trade switched from the Danube waterways to overland roads.
This large town, some 25 miles south of Vienna, is an industrial city and an important road and rail transport hub, and also the largest shopping city of Lower Austria. In the center of the town is the attractive Hauptplatz, with a part-Gothic Rathaus (town hall) rebuilt in Baroque style. Gothic houses line the northern side of the square, and the St Mary’s Column (1678) stands in the center. The Dom (cathedral church of the Ascension of Our Lady) was built in the 13th century. Its outstanding features include 12 wooden statues of the apostles by the columns of the central nave and the Baroque main altar. The Brautportal (Portal of the Betrothed) dates from 1230. In Stift Neukloster (Holy Trinity church) you can see a beautifully carved stone on the tomb of Eleanor of Portugal, wife of Emperor Friedrich III, by Niklas Gerhaert of Leyden, dating from 1467. The former castle now houses the prestigious Military Academy, once commanded by General Rommel. In its west wing is the 15th-century St-Georgs- Kathedrale (St George’s Cathedral), with the tomb of Maximilian I under the main altar. A corner tower, a remnant of the old fortified city walls, now houses a Criminology Museum and a gruesome exhibition of instruments of torture.
The Vienna Woods (Wienerwald), to the west of the capital, are a favorite weekend destination for the Viennese. Crossed by numerous walking and cycling tracks, the wooded hills covering an area of 480 sq miles are a perfect place for recreation. The main town in the area is Baden bei Wien, one of Europe’s most famous spa towns, and to the north lie Klosterneuburg, the former capital of the Babenbergs, and Tulln. There are also some interesting works of art and unique scenery.
Much of the popularity of the idyllically situated town of Dürnstein is due to the adventures of the English king, Richard the Lionheart. On the Third Crusade, undertaken with the French King Philip August and the Austrian margrave Leopold V, Richard fell out with his fellow crusaders. On his journey home through Babenberg territories, in 1192, he was imprisoned in Kuenringer castle above Dürnstein, whose ruins can still be seen today. As legend has it, the King’s faithful French minstrel, Jean Blondel, discovered him with a song known only to the two of them. A ransom of 77,100 lbs of silver was paid and Richard released. The Babenbergs used the money to fortify Enns, Hainburg, Wiener Neustadt, and Vienna, while the name of the faithful servant lives on in many of Dürnstein’s establishments. The Baroque silhouette of the Stiftskirche (Collegiate Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary) towering above the town was created by the masters of the day. The courtyard is probably the work of Jakob Prandtauer; the entrance is embellished with lovely, decorated portals. The former convent of St Claire is now an inn; the Renaissance castle a hotel.
Bitterly fought over by Germans and Slavs, who both wanted to settle here and exploit the area’s natural resources, Austria’s Waldviertel boasts numerous historic sights, from abbeys built as defensive structures to the magnificent residences of the nobility built during times of peace. The wooded region became known as an idyllic spot for hunting trips and excursions, and today it is still its natural beauty and recreational facilities that draw most visitors. The traditional crafts practiced in the area’s numerous villages are another attraction.
The town and abbey of Melk, the original seat of the Babenbergs, tower above the left bank of the Danube, some 37 miles west of Vienna. In the 11th century, Leopold II invited the Benedictines from Lambach to Melk and granted them land and the castle, which the monks turned into a fortified abbey. Almost completely destroyed by fire in 1297, the abbey was rebuilt many times. In the 16th century, it withstood a Turkish invasion. In 1702, Abbot Berthold Dietmayr began a thorough remodeling of the complex. Jakob Prandtauer, Johann Michael Rottmayr, Joseph Munggenast, and other renowned artists of the day helped to give the present abbey its magnificent Baroque form.
A boat trip is the best way to enjoy the Wachau, though for the energetic, there are cycle paths along the banks of the river. Landmarks to look for traveling downstream include the picturesque castle of Schönbühel and the ruined medieval fortress at Aggstein. Though not visible from the river, nearby Willendorf is the site of famous prehistoric finds. At the eastern end of the Wachau are the well preserved medieval towns of Dürnstein and Krems. The latter’s tiny hillside streets offer fine views across the Danube to the Baroque Göttweig Abbey.
Both the Schneeberg and Raxalpen mountain ranges are popular with the Viennese for short winter breaks. Situated some 60 miles from the capital, they offer excellent and well-developed skiing areas as well as many attractive walking trails for summer outings. The world’s first high-mountain railway line was laid here, through the town of Semmering. To this day a ride on the railway is a thrilling experience.
The jewel of Burgenland, Neusiedler See is the largest steppe lake in Central Europe. On the border between Austria and Hungary (a small section – around one-fifth of its total area – at the southern end belongs to Hungary), it covers an area of 124 sq miles and has no natural in- or outlets apart from the Wulka river. The water is slightly saline and never more than 6½ ft deep, so it warms up quickly in summer. The banks are densely overgrown with reeds, which make ideal nesting grounds for birds, while the lakeside beaches are popular with visitors. In 2001, the lake and the surrounding countryside were declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
The main attraction of Eisenstadt is the grand residence of the Esterházy princes, the Hungarian aristocrats who claimed to be descendants of Attila. Schloss Esterházy was built for Prince Paul Esterházy in 1663–73. In the Haydnsaal, a huge hall of state decorated with 18th-century frescoes, the famous composer Joseph Haydn (1732–1809) conducted the family orchestra. Haydn lived on Haydngasse, and his house is now a museum. He is buried in the Bergkirche, west of the palace. Until World War II, Eisenstadt had a large Jewish community, and there is a Jewish Museum near the palace.