I’ve just returned from the autumn-coloured villages of Europe. It was a dual mission – part novel research, part holiday. I was on the trail of medieval monks, amongst other things, and came across some wonderful sites.
(The view above is of the Danube Valley from the exquisite Benedictine abbey at Melk, Austria, its roots going back to the eleventh century).
There were some surprising finds, too. Perhaps they’ve hidden the monster in Slovakia, under that tarpaulin. I started my journey in Dubrovnik and Split, Croatia. They are on the Dalmation Coast facing the Adriatic Sea, where you need sunglasses to watch the intense sunsets.
Both Split and Dubrovnik are famous as sites in the HBO Game of Thrones series. When you look at Dubrovnik’s archaeology and the Adriatic Sea setting, you can see why.
Protected by its thick stone walls, Dubrovnik was once a prosperous free maritime state desired by many, including the Romans, French, Austrians, and Germans. Sadly, the poet Milan Milišić (translator of The Hobbit amongst other things) was one of the inhabitants killed in the seven month siege by the Yugoslav National Army during the 1990s.
In Europe there’s a stunning array of medieval cathedrals, but none as old as the Saint Dominus, Split, consecrated in the seventh century and converted from the Roman general Diocletian’s 300 AD mausoleum.
At right, the interior of St Matthias Church in Budapest, the coronation venue of several Hungarian monarchs. Budapest is the birthplace of the Nobel Prize winning writer, Imre Kertész.
Above the vineyards of the Wachau Valley, Austria, stands the blue tower of the Abbey Church at the Augustinian Convent in Dürnstein. This view (left) is from the castle ruins where in 1192, Richard the Lionheart was imprisoned by Leopold V of Austria. Richard had been returning to England from his third crusade.
Below right, is the 450 foot steeple of the Gothic cathedral of St Stephen, Vienna. Vienna is the birthplace of many prominent writers and was at various times the musical centre for Strauss, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms and Mahler.
You realise what a tiny speck you are when you enter the immense thirteenth century Dom at Cologne – the only building left standing in the district after the second world war.
The organ in the fourteenth century Grote Kerk, Haarlem, Netherlands was played by Mozart at the age of 10. In his novel, Moby Dick, the writer Herman Melville compared the bones in the whale’s mouth to the thousands of pipes in the Haarlem organ. In the exquisitely beautiful villages of Austria and Bavaria, there’s a real danger of suffering an overload of medieval town charm.
There’s plenty of folklore. There are tales of near-misses during the Second World War, about villages which were saved from British and American bombs by fog, or by the timely negotiation of the Allies with the German army. Relief, not only for the inhabitants, but for the millions of tourists now visiting.
There is a fascinating story about Rothenburg ob der Tauber. In 1631, this old protestant holding was besieged by the Catholic Imperial Army. The inhabitants attempted to placate the invaders by presenting them with an exquisite glass container of wine the size of a small barrel. To torment his captives before putting them to death, the invading Count challenged a captive to quaff the barrel’s worth of wine in one go.
The Mayor stepped forward and succeeded in this seemingly impossible feat. Impressed, the Count spared them from death and the city from burning. The local clock tower celebrates this event.