Durnstein Castle in Austria's Wachau

In addition to my interests in food, wine and travel, I am also a HUGE history dork. That is why, during my recent trip to Austria, I made sure I would have time to hike up to the desolate ruins of Durnstein Castle in the Wachau region of the Danube Valley. It is the setting of one of my favorite stories of all time. Legend has it that that is where Richard the Lionheart was rescued by his faithful troubadour, Blondel de Nesle.

Situated just about 45 minutes east of Vienna by car, the little town of Durnstein is a postcard-perfect village nestled into the steep, lush hillsides carved by the Danube. Conveniently for me, Durnstein also lies in the heart of what is perhaps Austria's most famous wine-producing region (though also one of its smallest), the Wachau. This is that recognizable region of vertiginously terraced vineyards that trace the course of that mighty, muddy river that bears no resemblance to Strauss's "Blue Danube." Chances are if you've had a Gruner Veltliner lately in the U.S., it has come from the Wachau...or from nearby in the Kremstal and Kamptal Valleys.

I digress, however. It was important to me to see the ruins of Durnstein because it occupies a distinct place in history--and a distinct place in my own historical interests. Part of being a history dork who is interested in the finer things in life has led me to study medieval troubadour culture. Now, I'm no expert, but I have done some reading on the subject, and it was this same romantic interest that led me to southwest France to hike part of the Cathar Trail earlier this year.

Back to Duernstein. The little town that now occupies the tiny bank of the river was not what drew me there. Don't get me wrong, the town is absolutely gorgeous...and clogged with tourists and cyclists in the summer months. There are lovely hotels, fantastic restaurants, and stunning views of the valley to be enjoyed from there. However, it is the lonely castle keep that seems to sprout from the rocks that occupied my interest.

You see, it was there over Christmas and New Year's of 1192-1193 that Richard the Lionheart was kept prisoner by Duke Leopold V of Austria. Richard had been captured outside the bustling new city of Vienna by Leopold's forces while he was trying to return to England after his failed Crusade. The whole episode was provoked in Acre when Richard had thrown Leopold's standard down from the battlements of that beseiged city. As Richard tried to secretly make his way home over land--he feared being captured by pirates or agents of his other great enemy, the French king Philippe Auguste, on a sea voyage--he was found out and captured. Not knowing what to do with his regal prisoner immediately, Leopold had him held at Durnstein, away from prying eyes, until the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV could figure out what to do with Richard. The two wanted to extract a heavy ransom for him.

Meanwhile, the English found out that Richard had been captured, but no one knew where he was being held. This is where the troubadour legend comes in. According to the classic tale, a troubadour of unrivaled talent from the north of France named Blondel de Nesle had accompanied Richard as his faithful servant to the Holy Land. During their fateful return voyage, Richard was captured, but Blondel managed to escape, and relayed the news to the English. No one knew how to find the king, though, until the Holy Roman Emperor was ready to open negotiations. Hoping to get the upper hand with a surprise initiative, the English sent spies all over the Continent to find out where their king was being held. All to no avail. Richard seemed to be lost.

Not giving up hope, Blondel set off on a desparate one-man mission to wander Europe searching for the king. This is an interesting part of the story since troubadours were practically the only members of society in that day and age with the carte blanche to travel the Continent and interact with all echelons of the social order. Blondel spent months wandering around singing in the great castles of Europe. He would stop outside and sing a particular song that only he and Richard, who was a famous amateur musician himself, knew.

Finally, when Blondel reached Durnstein, he hiked up the crag (you can see how far up it is in my video), took up a guarded position in the woods by the north tower, and sang the first verse of his song. After a moment, he heard the second verse being sung back to him. He had found his king! Though legend (and opera) has it that Blondel helped Richard escape that very night, the historical record shows that the English somehow managed to locate Richard and force the Holy Roman Emperor to negotiate for his release.

Though the historical facts contradict it, it is still such a beautiful tale of loyalty, friendship and art, that it has persisted for over 800 years now, and has inspired many others besides myself to make the hike up to the castle and have a look around.

Then when you're done, you can enjoy the fine wines of the regions from wineries like F.X. Pichler, Knoll, Geyerhof and Nikolaihof, or countless others at the tasting terrace overlooking the river at the Kloster Und in Krems. Sample the delicious food like the Waldviertel duck I enjoyed at the restaurants at Richard Lowenherz and Schloss Durnstein, or just wander around the town and find a friendly heurige (tavern) to patronize.

Whatever you choose to do, Durnstein's intriguing romantic past, and its breathtakingly beautiful ambiance in the present make it a phenomenal destination for a trip to Austria.


Frank said…
I've been to the Durnstein castle myself. The place gives me an eerie feeling I've ben there before.The entrance to the interior was fenced off when I was there. I suspect there is a hidden passageway that leads to the shore of the Danube far below. You can find the sealed exit from the tunnel below the river road. I suppose this was an escape tunnel in case the castle was taken.
Have pictures.
Jeni Robinson said…
Loved your piece on Durnstein. It was one of my most favourite places on our five week autumn/fall journey through Europe. Spectactular colourful foliage enhanced the township attractions as we made our way up to the ruined castle. So quaint and so much history in one little pristine township with such an awe-inspiring ruined castle overshadowing the town itself. I, too, was fascinated and inspired by the story of Richard the Lionhearted's rescue by his faithful minstral friend. Thanks for sharing and invoking wonderful memories of a lovely day wandering those picturesque cobblestone streets.