The penultimate day of our biking adventure dawns, gray clouds a shroud stitched over our heads. Despite the state of the skies, the weather forecast is positive. I opt not to pack rain gear in my bike's saddlebags.
We roll out around 9:00, and the first thing I notice is that a great slug migration is under way. Perhaps there is a threat of frogs and our slippery friends are trying to get away from them. The bike path is crawling with green invertebrates and it requires an attentive gaze and agile maneuvering to avoid leaving a trail of slug jelly in my wake.
We cross to the south side of the river at a dam above Melk. Much to my great delight, a tug boat is pushing a barge into the lock as we arrive, so I am able to record more exciting nautical photos. In the background is the yellow dome of Melk abbey, which is our morning destination.
Nearing the abbey we realize that we weren't the only people to decide to visit today. I count seven cruise ship docks along the river at Melk; six of them are occupied with large river cruisers, and as we ride past, I see another ship angling toward the empty seventh. Tour buses disgorge their passengers like mother wasps popping out shiny white eggs. We park our bikes and trudge up the hill to the abbey, past souvenir shops and tourist restaurants. Monastic life is big business in Melk.
Founded near the end of the eleventh century, Melk Abbey is a Benedictine monastery, arguably one of the most famous in Austria. The monastery specialized in scholarship, especially the copying of manuscripts. Before the invention of the printing press, books had to be copied by hand. Melk Abbey was one of the leading scriptoria (copying centers) in the West. The abbey also had a huge library of its own and it made a very important contribution to the rebirth of education and culture in the High Middle Ages.
The buildings that occupy the site are relatively new; they date from the eighteenth century, erected by a particularly vigorous abbot, Berthold Dietmayer. The abbey is huge and it makes me wonder how large the present community of monks might be. Surely thousands could be housed in these vast halls, but we don't see any. Visitors pass through a long line of connected rooms which serve as a museum for the abbey's treasures: reliquaries, bishop's croziers, paintings. We are then funneled through the roped-off spaces of the monastery library. The guidebook claims that the abbey has a 100,000 volume collection, but I imagine that the main library is closed to visitors. How could a person work in a library that had an unending stream of tourists strolling through it?
The last stop on the tour is the abbey church. A fierce guard stops me from using my tripod to get a few shots. so I have to handhold my camera at high ISO. The church is beautiful and I am rather taken with a group of carved angels who are playing musical instruments in the back near the organ.
I enjoyed our visit to Melk abbey, but Wilhering remains my favorite of the Danube monasteries. It wasn't as grand as Melk, but there were few visitors and I had the sense that it was more of a working monastery than a show piece or tourist curiosity.
Down the hill for lunch where we tempt fate by eating at a tourist restaurant. Here is a rule that I am developing this trip: never eat at a restaurant on a main tourist route. The food is usually twice as expensive and a quarter as nice as at a restaurant that is two blocks off the beaten path. Despite the wisdom of the precept, I caved in without a quiver today, and was led like a placid lamb to the sacrifice. It all worked out well this time: we had a waiter who said he was born in Oregon (although from his accent I would say he has spent most of his life in Germany). I tried a new delicacy, Wachau Groestl, which turns out to be bacon and potatoes fried together and then topped with an egg. Very tasty. Mary had her adventurous ham and cheese sandwich, while the girls ate ham and eggs. Very satisfying.
We crossed back to the northern side of the Danube on a bridge east of Emmersdorf. After the bridge the trail veers away from the Danube, running through the small town of Grimsing. As I pedal along, I idly wonder if Grimsing is the place where Austria stows its bad opera singers. We push along under the hot sun, the smell of drying hay in our noses.
Melk marked the beginning of the Wachau district of Austria, famous for its vineyards and fruit orchards. We roll past more apple trees (but where is the cider?) plums, and other tasty fruits. Then, approaching Spitz we see the vines of the famous “thousand pail hill.” This hill above town, planted in long green rows of vines, allegedly provides 1,000 pails of wine (56,000 liters) of wine every year.
We have some difficulty in finding our hotel. We rode most of the way through Spitz, bruising our bottoms against the cobblestones, before we realized that we had missed our turn. Reverse course, find the right road, grind up a long valley, until we finally reach our destination for the evening. As the girls splash in the pool, I nurse my sore legs and reflect on the fact that tomorrow will bring us to Vienna and a fond farewell to bicycles.