“But it’s quite reasonable,” the salesclerk in the Austrian monastery of St. Florian defends the high entrance fees. “Just 7 Euro, including the guided tour through the monastery compounds. Melk and Klosterneuburg are even more expensive!,” he then adds a bit too pushy. We buy our tickets for St Florian and have a look around the crammed monastery shop. Religious paraphernalia, herb liquor made by Brother Stefan, and white milky goat soap.
“The monastery of St Florian is one of the oldest operating monasteries in Austria, and the world. Founded in 304 AD, it got its name from Florian. The early Christian saint, according to legends, suffered his martyrdom in the nearby river Ems.” What a pity – he was one of the last victims before Christianity was legalised in 313 by the Roman emperor Constantine. Gerlinde Hofer, guiding our tour in a baggy red dress with a matching jacket wound around her waist, is nevertheless excited to have the popular saint as a local patron. His drowning made him, in a somewhat bizarre chain of reasoning, patron saint against fire damage.
The Bruckner organ in the monastery of St Florian
We follow Gerlinde Hofer into the Crypt, where the main attraction is the grave of the composer Anton Bruckner. Bruckner started his musical career as a choirboy in the monastic choir, and later frequently returned to the church to play the huge organ later named after him. Cushioned by the thick monastery walls we hear the sonorous and orotund sound as the current organist starts his practice play. “I imagine Bruckner can hear it too” remarks Hofer, visibly moved.
Austria’s most well-known monastery
“So, do you know when Melk Abbey was founded? It was in 1089, when Leopold II, Margrave of Austria, gave one of his castles to the Benedictine monks.” We follow the friendly local who has offered to show us the way to the campsite and gives us a free introduction of Melk on the way. With his square head, the accurately clipped beard and the light pink shirt he looks like a middle-aged gay television cook.
Meanwhile a steady drizzle has started, and with our heavily loaded bicycles we have difficulties holding pace with the cook on his old silvery lady’s bicycle. The abbey suddenly comes into view at an unexpected angle above our heads. Originally a fortification above the stream and town of Melk, the monastery has preserved its castle-like structures.
Only the interior was completely revamped, Baroque-style with pink-and-light-blue frescoes and inlaid bookshelves, in the 17th century.
Classics in Goettweig Abbey
In the next church, Golden putti dance in front of a light blue ceiling and dark brown wooden furnishings. The High Altar with its twisted metallic blue pillars looks like an enormous Christmas tree decoration. Goettweig Abbey is a huge old monastery visible from far and wide along the lovely hills of the Wachau region. Its church has one of the most stunning baroque interiors we have ever seen.
But strolling through the church, the Imperial living quarters and the museum, we sense that something is not right. There are no more tourists except us. Instead, the place swarms with uniformed clones with yellow id cards dangling around their neck. Has something serious happened? Have we somehow escaped extinction by tourist-eating aliens? “From here, only with press accreditation,” one of the clones barks. Utterly absorbed by the sightseeing we have not realized that the compound has already been closed for the last two hours. All in preparation for the “Classic under Stars” event this evening: A classic concert held in the courtyard of the abbey.
A monastery for wine-lovers
Not far from Vienna, we visit the monastery of Klosterneuburg. It was founded in the 12th century, but reached its splendid height under Emperor Charles VI (1685 – 1740). The emperor was really planning a monastery-cum-palace complex after the model of the Spanish El Escorial. Money ran out and only a fraction of the plans could be realised. Instead, Klosterneuburg became seat of the Austrian Wine Research Institute in 1860 and is now famous for its quality-wines.
Highbrow visitors leaf through through the booklets and artefacts in the museum shop. In the music corner, the best selling Gregorian chorals CD, “Chant – Music from paradise” features prominently. The paradisiacal singers are the monks of the Austrian monastery Heiligenkreuz. At the futuristic semicircle ticket counter, a sign informs us about the three tours offered: The “Sacred Path,” the Imperial Path,” and the “Wine Culture Path.”
Each tour costs 9 Euro, and combination tickets are available. Luckily we have meanwhile invested in a regional All-you-can-visit card that includes one of them. The “Sacred Path” is a tour through the abbey church with its frescoes, the gigantic early baroque organ, and the Verdun Altar. Made by Nicholas of Verdun in 1181, it is one of the finest examples of medieval enamel and goldsmith work. Unfortunately it is quite difficult to see any details of the 51 panels from beyond the protecting iron gate.
The new look of old monasteries in Austria
As in the other monasteries we visited in Austria, the expensive guided tour in Klosterneuburg is designed to lure wine-lovers and culture connoisseurs back into the fold. Modern art and video installations are showing the daily life in a convent. Brother Johannes is lying flat on the floor at his ordination when we pass the large flat screen in the staircase, then smiling saintly at his bishop.
Even in his priestly robe, he looks very sophisticated and slick. All the monasteries in Austria that we visited have invested in a modern and sophisticated presentation. This rather similar style also creates a kind of uniformity between the historically quite different convents. We also wonder whether the fancy arrangement of religion and religious art, combined with the high entrance fees, will deter many of their traditional patrons from visiting the beautiful monasteries.
+++The trip to the monasteries of Austria was organized by ourselves and we did not receive any funding or sponsoring for it.+++