Published: 05/10/2015 11:54 - Updated: 05/10/2015 12:13

On the trail of Richard the Lionheart

Written byRon Smith, travel writer

LET’S start out from the small ancient Roman town of Bad Deutsche Altenburg, to the East of Vienna, to go along the Danube. The river Rhine on Germany is famous for its scenery and many castles, the Danube is just as picturesque but not so well known. There are small villages strung out like pearls along the banks, catering discreetly for tourists so you are never short of somewhere to stop and have a meal, which in Austria always means huge portions and good food.

Then we came to a whisky distillery. The Waldviertaler Whisky Company (are they really allowed to call it "whisky" ???) is very modern, it dates from 1995, and is not in any way looking like our traditional distilleries, it is more like a small oil refinery. They make rye whisky, malt whisky, and chocolate, fruit or coffee flavoured whisky liqueur, whisky marmalade and even after shave! It is spotlessly clean, and the wooden barrels in their individual shelves look well cared for, but it is not for me ( www.whiskyerlebniswelt.at).

From here it is a short run crossing the Danube to see the breathtaking Melk Abbey. This amazing collection of buildings sits on a rocky outcrop where the rivers Melk and Pielach run in to the Danube. It was described centuries ago as "On a cliff a fortress of God". It has such a history, including the wonderfully named Duke Heinrich the Quarrelsome around 976 who helped fortify the site. Its importance includes the name Ostarrichi (Austria) being first used here in 996. Leopold ll of Austria turned the fortress into a monastery, and the first Benedictine monks arrived here on the 21st of March 1089, and have been here ever since.

The breathtaking Melk Abbey.
The breathtaking Melk Abbey.

There was a disastrous fire in 1297 which did major damage including to the library, but many important beautiful hand crafted documents still exist and are on display. Major rebuilding work was carried out between 1702 and 1736 when there was another fire, and 1746 and again in 1947. The Abbey survived the difficult years of World War 2 and today is in splendid condition, shining out across the countryside in all its considerable splendour. It has fabulous works of art, sculptures, paintings, artefacts and religious precious objects from many centuries.

There is also the fascinating Inschl clock. This grandfather clock was made in 1810 entirely from wood, using wood from 10 different types of trees that grow round about the Abbey. In 1970 it needed some repairs and some metal parts were inserted, but it is still a masterpiece of craftsmanship. Melk is busy today. There are still monks living here, and a school with around 900 pupils, and it is full of life with music concerts and activities all year round. The monastery used to be financed from its farms and forests, but today it is mainly tourism, so there is a big shop, restaurant, park and gardens, and of course a big bus and car park.

As you go round, looking at all the treasures, there are discreet panels explaining the objects, with an English language translation as well alongside. There are also audio and written guides and all the modern trappings but it is all just too much to take in at one go, and you need to take your time to appreciate all the wonders here ( www.stiftmelk.at). It is glorious, not at all dim and dusty, and although it receives over half a million tourists a year is not "tacky", and is well worth a visit.

Durnstein Castle … where Richard the Lionheart was imprisoned.
Durnstein Castle … where Richard the Lionheart was imprisoned.

Tired out we returned along the Danube, to go to Durnstein. This is another small town that clings around the skirts of a large rocky outcrop right against the river, another natural site for a fortress and monastery. The church here is painted white and blue. During restoration it was discovered that the original paintwork under the centuries of repainting, was blue, and so it was repainted in its original colours, and is the only blue church in all Austria. It really stands out, perched on its ledge against the river. Above the village are the ruins of the castle.

There appeared to be a path of sorts going up, so we decided to investigate. This was a struggle, climbing over stone outcrops and stone steps two feet deep, and in over 30 degrees centigrade! Finally reaching the ruins we found that this was the castle where Richard the Lionheart had been imprisoned. The story of the Crusades has always been amazing to me; 900 years ago men decided to take their armour and weapons and go off on foot and horseback to Jerusalem and fight the Arabs.

Richard the Lionheart was King of England for about 10 years, but only spent six months in England in all that time – he didn’t like the place and was French anyway. He set off and waged war in the Holy Lands, but eventually realised that even if he took Jerusalem, he couldn’t defend it for long against the Arabs. Also, while he was away his brother John was wreaking havoc in England and Philip of France was using his absence to take over some of his lands in France. So, he signed a truce with Saladin and set off back on the 2nd of November 1192, by ship. There was a storm and he was shipwrecked on Corfu (enemy territory) set sail again but was wrecked again and had to walk back across Europe.

Richard the Lionheart's cell.
Richard the Lionheart's cell.

Legend says that he was spotted with his few men because he wore a royal ring and insisted on eating roast chicken – which only the upper classes would do at that time. He was arrested at Christmas time 1192 by Leopold V near Vienna and sent to Hadmar ll’s care at the castle of Durnstein. In the ruins there is one dungeon remaining, and this is said to have been where Richard was kept, although this is disputed as it is thought that he was well treated, as he was worth a fortune in ransom, so it was worth looking after him. It was fascinating to find out all this in the mighty ruins looking down on the blue church and the huge barges slowly passing along the Danube.

The interpretive panels in the ruins (in German and English) also showed the roadway down to the village, with more panels and things linking the route –trust me to take the difficult way to the top! By the way, imprisoning a Crusader was not allowed at that time, so the Pope excommunicated Leopold, who then passed Richard on to the Emperor Henry Vl who transferred him to Trifels Castle in southern Germany. The ransom was set at 150,000 marks - that is around 23 tonnes of silver – about two and a half times the GDP of England at that time, and around £2 billion at today’s values!

Richard’s brother John and Philip of France offered Henry half that sum if they would keep Richard locked up until the end of 1194 while they got on with plundering the Kingdom. Amazingly, on the 4th of February 1194 the money was paid and successfully delivered (which must have taken some doing!) and Richard was released. This whole episode gave rise to some well known folk lore tales. Blondin the minstrel was credited with wandering around European castles singing a sing known only to him and Richard, and when Richard responded with a verse at Durnstein, they finally knew where he was held. In Richard’s absence Robin Hood fought against the evil John’s reign and the Sherriff of Nottingham. Even if these stories are not believed to be true by historians, I like them.

The blue church at Durnstein.
The blue church at Durnstein.

Hadmar ll used his share of the ransom money to expand Durnstein, Leopold used his larger share to build the new city of Wiener Neustadt in 1194 (which became a quite important city even today) and fortified some other towns including Hainburg, while Henry Vl used his to finance a war and conquered Sicily.

It was fascinating to find out all this history is a small town clinging to the bank of the Danube. We strolled down the roadway to the quaint and historic centre for a meal and a well needed cup of tea. Durnstein is a bonny place, and as we wandered along a huge cruise ship came up the river and moored at the landing stage. This operates river cruises to and from Vienna. Once passengers had landed and embarked, they slipped the ropes and it swiftly was taken backwards by the fast flowing water until it was clear, when the powerful engines turned it round and off it sped back to Vienna, and calm descended on Durnstein once again.

The Danube is a vital artery in the freight transport of Europe. The barges are ever present, carrying bulk loads of coal, stone, gas, oil, containers and even cars to and from far flung places, and are the most environmentally friendly way of moving goods.

This part of Austria is not so well known in the UK, it is not the winter sports mountainous part in the west with the Alps, but it is a great area to discover. Prices are in Euros and of course dearer than here, but not too much so, especially in these more rural areas. You can visit here from Vienna, but you need a car – or of course do it in style with a boat!

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