Last Updated on January 7, 2023

Scattered throughout Europe are small towns and villages that somehow have retained their hauntingly beautiful medieval heritage. Located along the Danube River, Durnstein in the Austria Wachau Valley is one of those special places. Although this medieval village has a long history stretching back to 1019, it wasn’t officially recorded as a town until 1347. But even that is impressively old.

The town’s location was ideal during the Middle Ages. The rocky, steep riverbanks protected against flooding and allowed for additional fortification and protection. Its bastion was an impressive castle situated high on the cliffs above this river town.

I had the opportunity to spend a day in this lovely Austrian hamlet regarded as one of the most romantic places in the Austria Wachau Valley. Only 900 people live here. With its many wineries dotting the hillsides, its medieval castle and sleepy, small-town ambience trapped in time, I found it easy falling in love with Durnstein.

Durnstein Castle Ruins

Durnstein derived its name from the medieval Durnstein rock castle whose brooding ruins loom over the village. It rests upon the highest rocky elevation peering over the Danube River and Wachau Valley.

The castle is most notable for the English monarch King Richard the Lionhearted who was imprisoned here for 14 months after being captured near Vienna by Duke Leopold V of Austria in 1192 after returning from the Third Crusade.

A fairly steep 10-minute hike from the town to the castle is worth the climb if you’re able for the amazing views. One can only imagine walking through the shell of this haunting prison and if these thick walls could talk what stories they would tell.

Durnstein Abbey

Durnstein Abbey Clock Tower-photo by Michael Kompanik
Durnstein Abbey Clock Tower-photo by Michael Kompanik

The iconic structure most photographed in Durnstein is the Durnstein Abbey’s soaring steeple housing its striking blue clock tower. The Baroque jewel contrasts sharply with the more austere buildings and town fortifications. In 1410, the complex received its dedication as an Augustine monastery.

The chapel dates back to 1372, but the tower wasn’t completed until the 17th century during a time when the Baroque form of architecture swept across Central Europe.

Wine Tasting

Austria Wachau Valley is a major wine-producing region and one of the country’s oldest and most notable. The valley specializes in dry wines made from Riesling and Grüner Veltliner grapes. White wines are arguably their best.

It was surprising to discover that the Durnstein Abbey Augustine Monastery hosts Wachau Valley wine tastings in an impressively large barrel-room setting filled with bench tables and lots of flickering candles. Both reds and whites were offered and I particularly enjoyed the Grüner Veltliner from the Weingut Bohmer Estate. My wife and I actually brought a bottle of this delightful white home to California in our suitcase.

Exploring Durnstein

Durnstein River Gate path- photo by Michael Kompanik
Durnstein River Gate path- photo by Michael Kompanik

Following a winding inclined cobblestone walkway, we entered the town from its river gate on the Danube walking under several stone archways. The town’s meandering streets were surprisingly narrow with the main intersection not wide enough for two carts to pass.

The architecture remains much as it did from the 14th and 15th century with turreted roofs and vine-covered walls on many of the buildings. Stepping back into its crooked alleyways was like stepping back in time.

Numerous shops marketed their wares along the brick and cobblestone streets. On rare occasions, a delivery vehicle would have to squeeze past. Strolling through the town was an absolutely delightful experience.

In a few short hours we did everything we wanted to in Durnstein, but felt a tug at our heartstrings upon leaving. Something magical about this fairy tale town grabs a hold of you upon arrival and won’t let go. Our traveling companions felt exactly the same way.

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