Durnstein : A rollicking good yarn!



On the climb to Durnstein Castle

I was captivated by Durnstein.

It is a quiet little historic town (below) surrounded by the vineyards of the Wachau region. Part of the old town wall still exists and dates back to the 12th century. Just 800 people live here.

But my fascination with Durnstein stems from the ruined castle that perches atop the hillside overlooking the town.

This is where Richard the Lionheart was imprisoned on his way back from the Crusades. The Austrian Arch Duke, Leopold V had unfinished business with the English king and held him for ransom here. Meanwhile Richard’s dastardly brother John, usurped his throne, leaving his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, to raise a fortune in silver to secure her son’s release. Its a dramatic story of derring do that can’t fail to capture the imagination. Put yourself in Richard’s position as you stare out from the ruins of his prison to the valley below, imagine his despair. This place is catnip for anyone who loved the legend of Robin Hood! (he was said to have fought assiduously against King John while King Richard was absent)

The story goes that Richard’s faithful servant, Blondel, searched for his master through much of Europe, singing the first verse of the King’s favourite song underneath the battlements of every castle he came across. He knew he’d reached the end of his search when at Durnstein, the sound of the second verse wafted down from the castle to meet him. And so began the long and arduous efforts to get Richard the Lionheart back to his rightful home.

Its a brisk 20 to 30 minute walk uphill to the castle and well worth the effort when you get there. There are plenty of signs to enlighten you about the history the place. Make sure you take some water with you though, its thirsty work in the heat of summer.

It is about now on our river cruise that I begin my obsession with May Poles. They seem to pop up in nearly every little town we visit. The Austrian and German variety don’t involve Morris Dancers but there’s plenty of celebrating that goes on when the May Poles go up in the town squares. The poles are often decorated with emblems that represent local craftspeople and industries. They’re usually erected on 30th April or 1st May. There may be a procession beforehand accompanied by brass bands and its generally a cause for much beer drinking and sausage eating!


No one knows the actual origin of May Poles.  Some believe the tradition dates back to pagan times as part of the Germanic tradition of revering certain sacred trees, others think they were originally a Roman tradition, part of the worship of the Roman God Priapus, so a phallic symbol.

And there are still others who hold that they are merely part of a summer festival, a time to rejoice that winter is past and celebrate the return of summer.

Whatever their origin, I love the romance that surrounds them!

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