by Tim Dawe
On starting my cycle tour along the Danube I discover it takes me past the Austrian village of Melk. There’s a frisson of excitement at the prospect. That’s because it’s central to one of my favourite novels: the dankly-dark, medieval murder mystery, The Name of the Rose.
Later I realise this story of an abbey with a scriptorium of priceless manuscripts is set in northern Italy and its narrator is Adso of Melk. When travelling, it’s easy to confuse fact with fiction.
Viewing the massive bulk of Melk Abbey it’s anything but my brooding imaginings. It’s layered in yellow-ochre and cream like a delicious Viennese cake. It’s light, bright and…baroque!
Day-trippers to Melk Abbey (Stift Melk in German) arrive from Vienna by river boat, less a vessel than an elongated viewing platform, to trudge 700m over river flats. The size of the abbey means these boat people see the towering domes well before their arrival – as others have for centuries.
I arrive by bike; it’s very different. Riding along the shaded riverside path I see nothing but overhanging trees until, whoomph, suddenly I’m looking up at the rounded rear of the abbey, framed by trees and moat. A few metres more, over a little footbridge, I pop up in the main street of town. On a bike there is no approach, no traffic or signposts. Melk’s pretty and peaceful.
Given its strategic setting high on a rocky outcrop with a commanding view of the Danube, Melk Abbey has some serious history. The Romans built a garrison in the first century, then in 976 the Babenberg kings made it their seat from which to rule Austria. In 1089 Leopold II of Babenberg gave his castle to the Benedictine monks to endow a monastery. The current building, designed by Jakob Prandtauer, was built from 1702-1736.
Today, Viennese residents on a Sunday outing stroll around, join town folk in window shopping or a long, late lunch. It’s been a hard day in the saddle; I join them at Café zum Fürsten for coffee and Linzertorte.
I walk up the main street of the village that is literally defined by the monastery’s long rocky foundation. With no possibility of cross roads, the entire village is spread out along the wall. I deviate up the steep and staired Steingasse passage to the entrance, and an extraordinary plateau in the sky. A sign invites visitors to wander through the abbey’s extensive formal gardens.
Saints Peter and Paul welcome me as I enter and cross Prelates Court to a modern ticket office. There’s nothing medieval in this modern, high-tech museum with mood lighting, special exhibits, whirring and purring and lots of interactivity. It’s a little incongruous. Parallel to this ultra-modern exhibition arcade is the uncrowded, 200m-long Imperial Corridor and a traditional line of Hapsburg portraits.
I enter the Marble Hall. It’s beautiful, made more so with shafting golden sunlight. For a while I have the room to myself. It is a formal, yet not overwhelming, space for special occasions, perhaps to receive a pope or a potentate.
It’s spare. There are large wooden cabinets at each doorway and pilasters in red marble, but overhead is wow and wonderment. The fresco by Paul Troger (1731), cunningly contrived to make the flat ceiling curved, is a baroque masterpiece. Its allegorical centrepiece features St Benedict ascending to heaven. This room may be sublime but most visitors continue interacting with museum machines.
With one step I’m outside on the rounded rear balcony – on top of the world. Down there are towns, fields, the Melk River and, crossing it on a small bridge, dark ant-shapes: first-glimpse cyclists, like me.
“The library is this way”. I follow. It takes two steps just to get through the doorway. This is more like it; books stacked to the ceiling…another Troger ceiling. Books in aged brown line every wall and glass-topped cases display special books, maps and manuscripts. It’s a reminder that for hundreds of years, long before schools, universities and the world-wide-web, all knowledge resided in monasteries. If knowledge was power, that made monasteries, particularly world-renowned Melk, very powerful indeed.
In alcoves there are globes of the known world at various centuries. There are more than 80,000 volumes held on 10 floors, two available to the public. The lateness of the day precludes me from ascending the spiral staircase to the second. Dubbed the staircase to God, it is stunning. Viewed from underneath it resembles a giant luminescent seashell.
My self-guided tour brings me to a highlight: Melk Church. Fittingly, light descends from above through a large cupola spreading over the brown and burnished-gold altar. Here I meet Peter and Paul again, this time bidding each other farewell. It is astonishing; perfect proportions designed to inspire with awe. Exploratory instincts take me to niches along the sides. In glass cases abbots and other important figures down the ages rest, not in stone or plaster, but as skeletons. One suggestively leans on a former elbow; all are “dressed” in their official clothing. It’s a reminder how customs and sensibilities change.
Having finally sorted fact from fiction, I reflect on this memorable visit of architectural and religious history presented through 21st century technology. My imagined medieval monastic traditions remain: Melk Abbey today is a thriving community of Benedictine monks and scholars. But without the murders.