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Melk on the Danube: A Great Abbey and Its Library

Melk, Austria

The pleasant town of Melk, perched on the banks of the Danube River, has a magnificent 18th-century abbey, complete with Benedictine monks, an elaborate library with priceless books, and a glorious Baroque church.

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The Danube River is an integral part of Vienna — for both trade and for recreation. The mighty river flows nearly two thousand miles through 10 countries — from the Black Forest in Germany to the Black Sea in Romania. Western Europe's longest river, it's also the only major river flowing west to east, making the Danube invaluable for commercial transportation.

The town of Melk — just a short trip by boat, car or train from Vienna — is a fine base for exploring the Danube River Valley. Its traffic-free and cobbled town center with cheery eateries and budget guesthouses is dwarfed by its magnificent abbey.

Melk's newly restored abbey, beams proudly over the Danube Valley. Established as a fortified Benedictine abbey in the 11th century, it was destroyed by fire. What you see today is 18th-century Baroque.

Today, as they have for 900 years, monks pray, meditate, and follow the rules of St. Benedict right here. The institution survives — that's the point of the modern frescoes gracing the courtyard. Like the monks, visitors stroll past six centuries of Habsburg emperors as they tour the building.

For the Benedictine monks, the library was — after the actual church — the most important room in the entire abbey. That's made clear by the extravagant investment in its elaborate decor. Many of Europe's finest old libraries are housed in monasteries like this.

In the Middle Ages, Monasteries horded and controlled knowledge. Monks were Europe's educated elite and it was in information power centers like this that that they decided what was… and what wasn't.

Long before Dewey and his decimals, the books here were organized starting with Bibles, then theology, and from there into law, philosophy, medicine, and so on. Many of the collection's oldest books were written and transcribed here. It's a visual reminder of how monasteries were the storehouse of knowledge through the ages. There would be a Gutenberg Bible… but it was sold to Harvard University to raise money to restore the library…

… and this. The gilded church is classic Baroque. Everything works together theatrically — the architecture, frescoes, pipe organ, and opulent chapels — all combining to make the Benedictine's theological point: A just battle leads to victory. In the front, below the huge papal crown, Saints Peter and Paul shake hands before departing for their final battles, martyrdom, and ultimate triumph. And, high above, St. Benedict makes his glorious entry into heaven.