THE BOAT edges its way through the dark waters of the Danube towards the Wachau Valley. Woodland, vineyards, pastureland and high mountains line the banks, interspersed with the odd village that looks as if it might have tumbled out of a fairytale.
Then, the boat rounds a wide bend on the river, and there she stands – arguably the most magnificent baroque building on the whole Danube, perhaps the world: the Benedictine monastery of Melk. What makes it even more intriguing is that this gloriously flamboyant abbey was built in honour of an Irishman, St Colman (or Koloman) of Stockerau.
Melk is this year celebrating the 1000th anniversary of the martyrdom of St Colman on October 16th. Like many Irish pilgrims and missionaries, Colman of Stockerau journeyed through a Europe ravaged during the Dark Ages, helping to reintroduce Christianity.
Colman’s European adventure ended badly. During what is assumed to have been a pilgrimage to omni-coveted Jerusalem in 1012, he was accused of being a spy and hanged. But no sooner did the execution take place than the dead tree acting as gallows began to flower; to this day the bush is credited with astonishing healing powers.
Colman’s reputation steadily grew. Word got about that the dead Irishman could be invoked to perform any number of miracles. Local rulers the Babenbergs soon heard about this, his remains were interred in Melk and the Benedictines were persuaded to build a monastery.
Today Melk Abbey is one of the world’s foremost monastic sites. Originally a castle dating from the 10th century, it has since had the builders in, regularly, with today’s awesome structure being mostly constructed in the early 1700s.
The main entrance, with saintly A-listers St Peter and St Paul flanking the gate and St Colman lurking in the background, opens dramatically onto the first of two courtyards. In Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose the Benedictine novice accompanying the Franciscan monk William Baskerville is Adso of Melk. Eco gave prominence to the abbey in honour of the great library, with its thousands of ancient leather-bound tomes embossed with gold leaf stacked high on shelves made from carved aspen, maple, walnut and oak.
Much of the abbey is free to wander about – you don’t have to join an official tour party. Bits of Colman’s body are dispersed throughout – a lower jaw bone here, a molar tooth there, and in his honour some of Austria’s finest artists have decorated the buildings over the centuries.
The other great set piece of the abbey is the Marble Hall featuring the stunning grandeur of local boy Paul Toger’s superb frescos. The one thing you can’t accuse the abbey’s designers of is lack of ambition.
In 1089 Colman was adopted as patron saint of Austria. Many Irish monks since Colman brought their learning to “Mittel Europa”; part of Vienna, Schotten, is named in honour of their scholarship – Irish people at that time were known as Scots. The Schottenstift, or Benedictine Abbey of Our Dear Lady of the Scots, as it likes to be called on formal occasions, was founded in Vienna in 1155 by Irish monks.
St Colman retains a special place in Austrian affections, celebrated without greetings cards, chocolates, crackers – or indeed anything else from the great organ-grinder of commercialism. You’ll work hard to find a green leprechaun hat in Melk, but you will get a friendly, traditional Austrian town, and one of the world’s finest baroque buildings which, despite its obvious attraction as a tourist destination, manages to retain its tranquil, ecclesiastical atmosphere. Who knows, you might even find redemption here – if that’s in your holiday plans.