June 4: Durnstein and Melk, Austria
Viking encourages you to buy local wine and beer and stash it in your stateroom cooler. In practice this is superfluous because there is so much of it aboard, especially with the premium drinks package; you only have to lift a finger or a wine list, and it’s there on a 24/7 basis.
However, if you’re serious about wine or cocktails, the premium (“Silver Spirits” package is worth the money at $300 per cabin. (It also includes espresso and other specialty coffees, juices and mineral water.) Acceptable house wine and beer are poured freely, but not the premium stuff, and mixed drinks cost extra. If you order an Old Fashioned or a Grey Goose, $8 or $10 will go on your tab every time—as will any of the pricier bottles on the wine list. We are sure the four of us made out against the $600 we paid, considering a dozen bottles of €35-40 premium wines—plus a bottle our kindly waiter slipped us “to go” on the last day, an uncounted quantity of martinis and vodka-rocks, and the many Bailey’s with which we closed the bar several nights. (Aldefonso’s bottle made it all the way home, but is getting a deserved rest in my wine cellar after all that shaking.)
A discovery worth experiencing is Austrian red wine. It is not widely exported, but now accounts for a third or more of production, most of it enjoyed locally. A revelation was Markowitz “Rubin Carnuntum” 2011: 100% zweigelt grapes, a velvety red with a flowery nose, normally €38 the bottle, freely poured on our premium package. The predominant white is gruner veltlinger, like a spritzy sauvignon blanc. You can find veltlinger in North America, but not in the varieties and quality of the vintages sold locally. Other grapes are St. Laurent, blaufränkisch, riesling, muller thurgau and chardonnay. You can find dealers stocking these delectables on the wine-searcher website.
A name like “zweigelt,” says Tony Cenicola, has obstacles to overcome: “the American wine-drinking public is attracted to melodious wine terminology….chardonnay and merlot and chianti and rioja flow beautifully from the tongue, with connotations of captivating pleasures. Germanic words like zweigelt, blaufränkisch and, yes, rotwein, do not….It’s time to get over it. The pure pleasures available by being open to some of the less familiar Germanic wines are now too great to allow a little matter like language to stand in the way.”
North from Vienna is the most scenic section of this part of the Danube, and this is the one day on the Danube Waltz cruise where the ship really is your viewing platform. You cruise along the attractive countryside past mini-castles and stately homes, punctuated by stops at two picturesque towns, and even at 90 degrees there’s a nice breeze on the water.
Tiny Durnstein is pretty and medieval, Melk larger, with a monastery. No need for coaches today: For the optional morning tour of Durnstein (€29=$33) the ship ties up at the town pier and you walk into the village in ten minutes. Included in the package is an afternoon tour of Melk’s 900-year-old Abbey, its church packed with baroque carvings and frescoes. Google these towns for a review of the details. Durnstein was celebrating a festival, with grasses spread all over the cobbled or flagstone streets; still, it’s uphill and downhill, so be prepared.
In Durnstein, Richard I, the Lionheart, returning from the Crusades, ticked off the locals and was held for ransom in the castle—bailed out, so the story goes, with the help of Robin Hood. The place was packed with tourists, including cyclists following flat river paths from Ravensburg as far down as Budapest, but they’re not Tour de France types. I noticed right away the lack of pedal clips and helmets, the prevalence of well-laden hybrid and mountain bikes, as opposed to lightweight road bikes. These are everyday people enjoying themselves; many are shuttled about on riverboats. They’re very polite and only once did one disobey the signs asking riders to dismount in the narrow streets.
As you’ll see by Googling Durnstein and Melk, they are attractive, oldy worldy places, and the crowds underline their appeal. I think it was Bennett Cerf who said he always headed for the tourist traps on a holiday, because they are tourist traps for a reason.