Austria is home to many enchanted locales that evoke the melodies of famed composers, the sensation of dizzying whirls atop lush hills, and picture-postcard-perfect views. Yet beyond the bustling cities of Vienna and Salzburg, there's the charming hamlet of Dürnstein.
Nestled deep within the rolling Wachau valley of Austria, Dürnstein lies only 50 miles west of Vienna, crowned by the ruins of the mighty castle fortress that once imprisoned King Richard the Lion-hearted of England.
While strolling through the narrow, cobblestone streets, you can step into one of the town's wine taverns and sample the unique vintages of this fertile land. The Wachau valley is known for its nectarous Apricot spirits, and every shop in town offers free samples of brandy, liqueur, or schnapps. Once your thirst has been quenched, you can continue walking through the town towards the castle and the baroque monastery. Along the way, feel free to admire the old burgher and townhouses dating from the 16th and 18th-centuries or linger a few moments by the banks of the Danube river.
The name "Dürnstein" stems from the rocky terrain, "dem dürren [dry] Stein [stone]", upon which the town was founded. During the middle ages, the steep riverbanks protected the site against flooding but left enough room to build the little town and fortify the walls of the castle. Since Dürnstein is located in the narrower, lower part of the valley, both the roads and the river could easily be closed off against invaders.
The fortress that sits 520 ft (159 m) above the town is linked to the turbulent history of the Crusades. Within the towering stone walls, Leopold V, the Babenberg duke ruling Dürnstein, held the English king Richard the Lion-Hearted of England prisoner in 1193. According to legend, when Richard tried to travel through Austria incognito, Leopold captured and imprisoned the English monarch in retaliation for the insults Richard had spat at the powerful Austrian when they both fought in Palestine for the Holy Land.
For many years, nobody knew exactly where in Austria the English king was incarcerated. However, Richard's minstrel, Blondel, went from castle to castle, playing his lute and singing the king's favorite tunes. While at the castle of Dürnstein, Blondel played and Richard sang the lyrics in reply. The revelation compelled the duke to move his prisoner to a fortress in the Rhineland Palatinate, and demand a high ransom for Richard's release. After the sum had been met, the Lion-Hearted king was free to return to England.
There are two ways to up to the castle. (1) Outside of the town-wall there is a path that is covered with asphalt, but only for the first few meters. The rest of the distance is mostly sand and loose stone, so make sure you wear shoes with plenty of grip in the soles. (2) Inside the town there are two paths with steps. These paths wind through the woods, and can make for a cool, refreshing hike in the summer months.
The 15th-century Pfarrkirche (Parish Church) is also a great place to visit. Originally part of an Augustinian monastery, the chapel was reconstructed in the baroque style, and the church tower is considered to be one of the finest architectural landmarks in the Danube valley.
If you're driving to Dürnstein from Vienna, take Route 3 west. From the town of Krems, continue driving west along Route 3 for 8 km (5 miles). If traveling by train from Vienna, remember that there is a transfer in Krems, where the trains depart approximately every 2 hours on river-running routes; it should be a 6 km (4-mile) trip to Dürnstein. For schedules, call tel. 05/1717 in Vienna or visit http://www.oebb.at/vip8/oebb/de/. You can also take a 20-minute bus ride form Krems to Dürnstein.
For more information, feel free to visit Dürnstein's tourism website or the little tourist office, housed in the town in the east parking lot, Parkplatz Ost (tel. 02711/200), open only April to October, daily, from 11 am to 6 pm.
Although it may only take a few minutes to walk from one end of the town to the other, travelers should not rush through Dürnstein and risk missing all its hidden charms. Rather, relax, kick up your heels, and try some good wine. As they say in Austria, "Prost!"