One of the finest baroque buildings in the world, Melk Abbey and the Stiftskirche (abbey church) are the major attractions today. However, Melk has been an important place in the Danube Basin ever since the Romans built a fortress on a promontory looking out onto a tiny "arm" of the Danube. Melk also figures in the Nibelungenlied (the German epic poem), in which it is called Medelike.
The rock-strewn bluff where the abbey now stands overlooking the river was the seat of the Babenbergs, who ruled Austria from 976 until the Hapsburgs took over. In the 11th century, Leopold II of the House of Babenberg presented Melk to the Benedictine monks, who turned it into a fortified abbey. Its influence and reputation as a center of learning and culture spread all over Austria, a fact that is familiar to readers of Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose. The Reformation and the 1683 Turkish invasion took a toll on the abbey, although it was spared from direct attack when the Ottoman armies were repelled outside Vienna. The construction of the new building began in 1702, just in time to be given the full baroque treatment.
Most of the design of the present abbey was by the architect Jakob Prandtauer. Its marble hall, called the Marmorsaal, contains pilasters coated in red marble. A richly painted allegorical picture on the ceiling is the work of Paul Troger. The library, rising two floors, again with a Troger ceiling, contains some 80,000 volumes. The Kaisergang, or emperors' gallery, 198m (650 ft.) long, is decorated with portraits of Austrian rulers.
Despite all the adornment in the abbey, it is still surpassed in lavish glory by the Stiftskirche, the golden abbey church. Damaged by fire in 1947, the church has been fully restored, including the regilding statues and altars with gold bouillon. The church has an astonishing number of windows, and it's richly embellished with marble and frescoes. Many of the paintings are by Johann Michael Rottmayr, but Troger also contributed.
Melk is still a working abbey, and you might see black-robed Benedictine monks going about their business or students rushing out of the gates. Visitors head for the terrace for a view of the river. Napoleon probably used it for a lookout when he made Melk his headquarters during the campaign against Austria.
Throughout the year, the abbey is open every day. From May to September, tours depart at intervals of 15 to 20 minutes. The first tour begins at 9am and the last is at 5pm; guides make efforts to translate into English a running commentary that is otherwise German.