River Rambling: Exploring Durnstein, Austria on the Danube


durnstein, austria
Durnstein is best photographed from the river. // All photos by the author.

If clients desire a quaint, fairytale-like port call and are wine enthusiasts, you might suggest a Danube River cruise that calls at Durnstein, a small, intimate port in Austria’s vineyard-rich Wachau Valley.

Part of a region designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Durnstein (www.duernstein.at) and environs are home to thousands of acres of vineyards, multiple wine processing facilities, wine shops and tasting bars.

Historically speaking, Durnstein has many other draws. Cruisers will peruse medieval buildings, a historic monastery and the imposing ruins of an 1130-era hilltop castle.

Reportedly, Richard I of England, better known as Richard the Lion Hearted, was imprisoned in the castle after a dispute with an Austrian duke during the Third Crusade. As the legend goes, he eventually was imprisoned in a different castle, paid a hefty ransom and went home to England.

While the castle was demolished by the Swedes in 1635, river cruisers will immediately spot the towering ruins upon their river boat’s arrival at Durnstein. Travel Agent did so recently during a “Melodies of the Danube” cruise operated by AmaWaterways’ (www.amawaterways.com) new AmaCerto.


castle in durnstein, austria
Durnstein has quaint Medieval architecture, wine bars, historic sites and mountain-top castle ruins.

Cruisers who wish to explore Durnstein independenly may just stroll a few blocks into town. It's a flat, easy walk from the river docking points.

If clients choose to take a cruise shore excursion, river lines typically offer several touring options. Most river lines operate walking tours - so guests stroll as a group into town for their tour.

Depending on cruise line arrangements, some guests instead might board a motorized “toy train” with several wagon cars. This motorized option is helpful for clients who have walking difficulties or just desire to ride for part of the tour.

One perk of the toy train option is that it covers more turf, so clients get a better overview of the area surrounding Dunstein. The train journeys through an adjacent village, into the vineyards and by wine processing facilities including those of Domane Wachau, one of Austria’s most famous winegrower societies.


wine bar in durnstein, austria
Durnstein is famed for its wine bars; clients strolling through downtown may simply drop in to browse wines for sale or enjoy a tasting.

After a quick photo stop at a historic vineyard mansion, it then drops guests in town where typically a guided walking tour begins. 
During any walking tour, guests likely will stroll along the Hauptstrasse, characterized by its cobblestone streets, pretty window boxes with flowers and centuries-old residences.

Cruisers also will peer into ground floor wine bars and may drop in for tastings of local Riesling and Gruner Veltliner vintages.

Our river cruise group from AmaCerto enjoyed wine and chocolate tastings at Taste & Beauty (www.taste.beauty.at). Beyond purchasing a favorite wine as a gift for friends back home, cruisers on our trip bought yummy “Schoko-Sahne Likor,” a chocolate-crème liquor, as well as chocolate trimmed with edible bits of rose pedals.

Apricots or “marille” in Austrian are also big business in Durnstein. Visitors will discover "everything apricot" from apricot dumplings to apricot brandy (Marillenschnaps), and, of course, apricot cake or strudel.

Shoppers will enter small, ground-level shops that offer hand-made dolls, Austrian chocolates, artwork and crafts, along with souvenirs and wine-related gift items, such as fancy cork screws, wine bottle holders and schnapps glasses.


stiftskirche in durnstein, austria
The 15th-century Stiftskirche in Durnstein is easily spotted by its blue Baroque tower.

With its fairytale looks, the exterior of the entire town of Durnstein is the top attraction for most cruisers. But for fans of Baroque architecture, the interior of the 15th-century Stiftskirche, a parish church that was formerly part of an Augustinian monastery, also deserves an interior visit.

The chapel interior was reconstructed in Baroque style with some altar art painted by artist Kremser Schmidt. The church’s blue tower is considered one of the finest architectural landmarks in the Danube region.

Our guide told us the best photos of the tower are taken from the river vantage point, and she was correct. Tell clients to have their cameras ready upon their ship’s arrival or departure from Durnstein.

If your clients aren’t in the touring mood during a port call at Durnstein, or if they've visited this port in the past, they might head for the Hotel Schloss Durnstein (www.schloss.at), a Relais et Chateaux property built in the early 17th century.

Its terrace restaurant overlooks the river, a great spot – weather permitting - to savor a late breakfast or lunch, depending on the ship’s scheduled departure time.

For very fit travelers, it’s possible to hike to the mountain-top castle ruins above the town. Two paths in town wind upward and locals will point out the way. The climb is steep so good hiking shoes are recommended.

Views from the castle over the Wachau Valley and Durnstein are stunning, but the roundtrip climb and a half hour at the top can take a total of 90 minutes to two hours or even more, depending on the traveler's fitness level.

Since some river boats only dock at Durnstein for a half day, clients should always consult the ship’s cruise manager before considering this hiking option. 

During peak times of the year, even quaint Durnstein becomes a bit crowded – as both motorcoach tour and cruise clients stroll its cobblestone streets.

In addition to AmaWaterways, Avalon Waterways (www.avalonwaterways.com), Scenic Cruises (www.sceniccruises.com), Tauck (www.tauck.com), Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection (www.uniworld.com), and Viking River Cruises (www.vikingrivercruises.com) and other lines also call at Durnstein.

But while crowds are possible on some days, the town is definitely a fairytale-like port of call that river cruisers talk about lovingly for days and even weeks and months after their visit.

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