Category Archives: Apricot schnapps

Leaving the MT; our first stop en route to Vienna, the glorious abbey of Melk

After our gala farewell dinner, we bade farewell to our favorite servers in the dining room, went to the lounge for a while and then headed to our room to pack. Some of the passengers were taking advantage of their last night on the MT enjoying the music and atmosphere. We would undoubtedly see the new  friends we had made on the cruise during the next three days, but we didn’t think it likely we would be in the same place at the same time again.

Chad handed out our next days schedule in the usual information session before dinner. As it turned out, we would all be staying at the Ritz-Carlton for our two nights in Vienna. Budapest was another story. It is a much smaller city and though it has its share of hotels, there was not one which could take all of us. Chad told us he was still working on placing us in Budapest Hotels, but they would all be four star hotels.

Actually most of us were pleased to be staying at the Ritz. It has a central location off the Ringstrasse and we would be able to walk to many places on our own. If we had still been on the Maria Theresa, we would have been quite a distance from the city center, requiring either a bus, taxi or tram ride.  Finally, because we wouldn’t be eating our meals on the MT, we each got 90 EU spending money for our lunch and dinners in Vienna. Breakfast was included in our hotel stay.  The Ramblers were surprised to hear a few people grumbling about the amount, as we thought it was quite fair and actually came home with Euros left over. However, we spent no time at the bar, didn’t order room service and enjoyed eating regional food at local places. We felt that Uniworld had treated us very well, adjusting as best they could to the low water problems.

We were asked to have our packed luggage outside our cabin door by 4 AM, so it would be ready to be loaded onto our busses just as if we were leaving for our flight home. And so it was, after a last excellent  breakfast, we headed down the gangplank  of the MT for the last time. Of course, a number of the staff were there to wave good-by as we left.

Before we leave the Danube behind, the Rambler would like to say her bit about exiting a river boat. If you are at all familiar with boats, you may recall that all gangplanks have some sort of cleat on them to prevent people from slipping on rainy days. These cleats stick up from an otherwise smooth surface. In the case of the Maria Theresa, they were very prominent, and placed every foot or so along the gangplank. Those of you who are prone to tripping or have trouble walking please look carefully before you place your feet when walking up or down, even when it’s not raining. It is possible to take a nasty tumble when leaving the ship, especially when you are walking downhill.

Our first stop today would be the beautiful Abbey of Melk,  nearly 200 miles from Regensburg.

We had arrived at the abbey parking lot. The abbey is still quite a ways off.
We had arrived at the abbey parking lot. The abbey is still quite a ways off.

We left the quay at 8:30 and expected to get to the Abbey around 12:30. On the way we would stop for a break at a rest stop off the Austrian version of the US Interstate. Of course we all got out to check out the rest stop. Some wanted to visit the bathrooms and others looked over the shops. It wasn’t quite as nice as the  one we had stopped at on our way to Salzburg from Linz, but clean and neat, nevertheless.

We got to Melk at 12:30, but would only be able to stay for an hour as we were scheduled to go on a cruise of the Wachau Valley at 1:30. Seeing the abbey in an hour was a tall order as it is huge. It also turned out to be a fairly long walk from the parking lot to the Abbey entrance.

These steps were quite a haul for the Ramblers and many of the other passengers.
These steps were quite a haul for the Ramblers and many of the other passengers.

Some of us were dismayed to find that we would have to climb an extensive series of steps to reach the main path to the Abbey.  After having both her hip joints replaces, the Rambler can now walk quite well on level ground but steps are still a chore. Nevertheless, Melk is a spectacular place, so climb we did.

Last December we had visited Gottweig Abbey, another Benedictine monastery near Krems, only a sixty miles from Melk. It too is an impressive baroque structure, founded a thousand years ago but rebuilt during the late 17th century. However, I found Gottweig to have a museum-like quality as its current congregation is quite small, and there is a sense of loneliness within. Melk, on the other hand, exudes a welcoming warmth, and not just because the sun was shining.almost thereWhile Gottweig has a pink and white exterior, another favorite baroque color, Melk glows in Hapsburg gold and white. Evidently that particular shade of gold was a favorite of the Habsburgs; think of the Schonbrunn Palace…  In fact, Hapsburg gold is a popular colorchoice today in Vienna paint stores.

A little bit of history before we enter the abbey. It was founded in 1089 by Benedictine monks. A century later, the monks established a school there and it soon became renowned for its manuscript collection. some of the monks who worked there excelled in copying manuscripts and it soon was renowned for its collection. The Benedictine life included both work and prayer; some monks were farmers, others copied books.

This photo is from Wikipedia's public domain photos. We could look but not touch.
This photo is from Wikipedia’s public domain photos. We could look but not touch.

The abbey was rebuilt in the early 18th century in the baroque style so popular in Eastern Europe. Its library is renowned for its collection of incunabula. Although the word sounds like some sort of mystic spell, it actually refers to books printed before 1500. When you consider that the printing press was invented in Europe between 1440 and 1450 (the Chinese much earlier) these books date to the beginnings of the printed word in Germany.

One of the many long interior hallways; the walls are lined with portraits of assorted Habsburgs.
One of the many long interior hallways; the walls are lined with portraits of assorted Habsburgs.

Melk has 750 in its collection which is amazing. There are many rooms to the library but only one is open to the public. The others are for research purposes only.

Melk also has a famous and expensive gymnasium or high school which currently has over 900 pupils, both boys and girls. Perhaps that it one thing that give it such an air of vitality.

We would have a quick walk through of the abbey, which included a stroll on the terrace with its magnificent views

To me, this view of the town looked almost like it could be a miniature train setting.
To me, this view of the town looked almost like it could be a miniature train setting.

After being awed by the  the library and admiring the views from the terrace at the top of the abbey, we headed for the church. Now Austrian baroque churches are similar, lots of gilding, curves and gorgeous frescoes but the Melk abbey church actually had something more unusual to offer. Nearing the end of a two week river cruise, we had already seen many churches and frescoes. Quite a few of the passengers took a quick look around and headed toward the gift shop. The Rambler on the other hand, had to get her money’s worth so she walked down the side aisles and stopped, looked, looked again. Yes, that was a skeleton dressed in velvet and pearls reclining in a glass coffin at one of the side altars. Looking further, I saw there was yet another elaborately dressed skeleton in a coffin at another side altar. Looking at them closely I decided they were relics of saints, but there were no identifying signs to tell just who these saints were.

St. Friedrich in his glass coffin in the Melk abbey church.
St. Friedrich in his glass coffin in the Melk abbey church. For a gruesome close-up, check out the link.

We Catholics do have a penchant for relics of saints which dates back nearly to the time of the apostles but they are usually not displayed in skeletal form, or so I had thought. When we got home I found an interesting article on these skeletal saints on the web here, if you are interested.

Incidentally, the saints at Melk are Saints Colomon and Friedrich. These saintly skeletons can be found in churches in Eastern Europe and Switzerland, and are still considered by many to be a devotional aid, although others have been packed away, vandalized or stripped of their precious gems.

After communing with these saints, I was more than happy to spend time in the Melk gift shop staffed by jolly and helpful Austrian women. Since we weren’t going to be able to spend time in Krems or Weissenkirchen, I was able to buy some of the apricot schnapps which this region produces in large quantities. It makes wonderful souvenirs. For the non-drinkers, they also sell delicious apricot jam. The ladies kindly wrapped my purchases very carefully so that they would travel home safely.

On the way out, I noticed this back parking lot, must be the tradesmen's entrance.
On the way out, I noticed this back parking lot, must be the tradesmen’s entrance.

By 1:30, we had boarded our busses and were on our way to Krems, where we would board yet another boat for an afternoon cruise to the Wachau Valley. The Ramblers wouldn’t have minded staying on at Melk as its restaurant looked very inviting and the food smelled delicious.


Krems and the Wachau Valley

The small Austrian  city of Krems (population, 25,000) was named a UNESCO world heritage site in 1990. One of the oldest cities in lower Austria, Krems and its twin city Stein have many attractive restored homes build over a span of 1000 years. In addition it is the eastern gateway to the Wachau Valley of the Danube River, famous for its wines and its apricots or Marille, as well as its  tidy vineyards and farms.

On the way back from Gottweig Abbey, we got off the bus close to the Krems  medieval gate, the Stein Tor (stone tower)walking thru city gates one of two  dating to the middle of the 15th century.  This was in walking distance of the River Beatrice. From there we wandered the streets simply enjoying the scene. Krems has several museums and an art gallery as well as a town hall, but the Ramblers were content to look from outside. It was not a museum kind of day.

It was very pleasant to stroll around enjoying the weak December sun. Yes, the sun actually came out for a while. We did some window shopping and had the opportunity to visit yet another Christmas Market. It was not large but had many locally-made items , small enough in size to tuck into my carry on.

Entrance  to Christmas Market, with St. Nicholas on right.
Entrance to Christmas Market, with St. Nicholas on right.

Luckily I had enough Euro’s to purchase several attractive gift items. The ladies in charge were smiling and helpful, many wearing traditional Austrian dress.(more about this later) They carefully wrapped our treasures for their journey to the States.

Our next to the last stop was a  store selling the wine and schnapps produced in the area. Here again I was lucky to find sets of small bottles of the various liquors produced in the Wachau Valley.  Again, easy to stow in our checked bag. The most famous schnapps produced here is made of apricots (Marille). It is not like the apricot brandy you find in your local liquor store which often has little apricot flavor. Marille  liquor  is absolutely delicious tasting strongly of apricots.. Unfortunately it is hard to find in the US. Wachau Valley apricots must have a much better flavor than those sold at home in Georgia considering the wonderful end product. Austrians  use the apricots not only in schnapps but in syrup, as jam, and in cakes, strudels, dumplings etc.

Although the area produces fine white wines, I didn’t buy any, too expensive to ship. Fortunately  wines from each region we cruised through  both white and red were served on the Beatrice, so I did get to try them. Unfortunately many of the wines made by the smaller wineries never find their way to the United States

Since we had to be back on board by 1:15, we wandered back to the boat; by now we had worked up an appetite. However, the Rambler made one more stop. Near the dock I had spotted a promising  building which offered  tourist information, a small gift shop and even a restaurant. The gifts in the shop were just what I had been looking for; St. Nicholas chocolates, and more apricot schnapps in different sized bottles.They were also priced well, for local tourists not for river cruisers.  Since it was December 4th only two days before  St. Nicholas day, December 6th, the shop displayed an array of of favors featuring the 4th century Catholic bishop.  St. Nicholas leaves gifts for good children the night of the 5th, and is also revered by people of many lands, both Catholic and Protestant.

On board, we enjoyed a relaxing afternoon of cruising; No land tours were scheduled . Instead we were captivated by a series of villages we saw on both sides of the river as the Beatrice glided by. I wondered how the people who lived in the village and towns that lined the banks of the Danube got to the other side. There were no bridges for miles along this stretch of the river.

cable ferry for crossing the Danube
cable ferry for crossing the Danube

Then I noticed a dock and cable ferry on one side. They obviously  use a simple cable-drawn ferry to get themselves and a car or two at the time across the river when they need to cross.

Ruined castles were often  spotted on the highest hills; the most famous being the Burg-ruine Durnstein, where Richard the Lionhearted, the English warrior king was briefly imprisoned when he was first captured by the Austrian Duke.  The  remains of Durnstein Castle (Burg-ruine Durnstein)still brood above the small town of the same name.

Durnstein with Burg-ruine Durnstein in the distance
Durnstein with Burg-ruine Durnstein in the distance

Richard was later moved to Trifels castle in Franconia.

In German, there are two words for castle, burg and schloss.  A burg is generally a castle that was built for defense, while a schloss refers to a castle that was built as a ruler’s palace. Unfortunately, even in German, the words are sometimes used incorrectly, which can be confusing. This is one time English does it better, using only one word, castle.

Finally to enliven our afternoon, chef de cuisine Michael had set up a strudel-making demonstration. The strudel would be made by his pastry chef and samples would be handed out to the spectators.

Chef Michael leads the strudel making demonstration.
Chef Michael leads the strudel making demonstration.

I was a little skeptical about the demonstration. My mother made dozens of strudels during her lifetime, stretching a ball of dough of the size used for a large pizza, paper thin. By the time she was done, it covered the white cloth which which she had spread on our dining room table. Strudel dough has few ingredients; just  water flour,and salt, it is not a rich pastry. The rich ingredients are placed on top of the dough and it is rolled up and baked. Real strudel is delicious when done correctly. However,many restaurants and bakeries make a fake strudel with  with phyllo dough which is simply not the same.

I should have know that the Beatrice’ pastry chef would know how to make a real strudel. Not only did he make the correct dough but he quickly stretched it to a paper thickness, even whirling it around like a pizza.  Bravo!