When I travel abroad, I’m usually up early in the morning. It’s not that I’m necessarily a “morning person,” it’s more that my body-clock doesn’t know what time it is. When the sun begins to shine through my hotel window, my eyes automatically open.
Waking up with the sun has its advantages, especially when I’m day-tripping. I can always get an early start toward my destination.
This was the case in Vienna on a drizzly Thursday in September.
I woke early and joined the first round of locals commuting on the U-Bahn metro. At the Westbahnhof station, I caught a 7 a.m. train, and an hour later I stepped off into the small Austrian town of Melk.
I had come to visit the Benedictine Melk Abbey, a golden Baroque complex perched atop a rocky cliff overlooking the Danube. The abbey rises high above the sleepy little town, but the way up is poorly marked.
I wandered to the Hauptplatz, Melk’s main square, looking for a signpost. I was the only visitor in sight.
Luckily I met a shopkeeper, who pointed me toward a whitewashed lane that quickly became a winding stone stairway.
After a steep climb, I emerged near the entrance of the abbey.
It was just past 8:30 a.m., half an hour before the abbey was scheduled to open.
A smiling woman greeted me at the ticket office. “Guten morgen,” she said, “are you joining a tour group?” I answered that I was traveling on my own. She pointed toward a courtyard, where several groups were gathering, and I thought she might be indicating that I go outside to wait. But then she leaned toward me conspiratorially and said “I will let you go in early to get ahead of the tours.” What luck!
Excited at the prospect of seeing the famous Melk Abbey library before the crowds arrived, I buzzed quickly through the abbey’s museum-like exhibit halls and cut across a wide terrace overlooking the Danube River.
I approached the library and dutifully stowed my camera.
Then I heaved open the heavy library doors and walked smack into a startled woman with a vacuum!
Stepping carefully over the vacuum’s slithering electric cord, my eyes adjusted to the dim light. The Melk Abbey library seemed a perfect jewel box of a room, with panels of rich wooden bookcases and columns crowned with gilded capitals. I walked along the room’s perimeter, gazing up toward the graceful ceiling fresco. But my attention was drawn to the long glass cases in the center of the room containing breathtaking illuminated manuscripts.
I approached the cases and peered in. Over the whir of the vacuum, I did not hear another cleaning lady come up behind me. She whooshed me with her feather duster, so I moved to another case. She followed me, and I initially thought she was simply working her way down the glass cases. But then she began shaking her feather duster at me, and her vacuum-wielding coworker started squeezing me in from behind.
I was being shooed from the famous Melk Abbey library by the cleaning crew.
I smiled and nodded my understanding, and they eyed me skeptically as they swept me toward the exit. Then suddenly the library doors closed behind me and I was perched atop a spiral stone staircase.
No turning back from there.
The staircase led me to the abbey’s ornate Baroque church, where I met another employee armed with a push-broom.
But this woman didn’t seem to mind my presence, so I lingered a little longer among the marble columns and bony relics.
I sat in an elaborately carved wooden pew, gazed up at the ceiling frescoes and thought about circling back through with a later tour group.
But I’d already seen more than I could ever hope to see again once it filled with tourists.
So I left Melk Abbey just as the crowds were beginning to arrive, having enjoyed it ever so briefly while it was vacuumed, swept and dusted.
If You Go – Melk Abbey is open daily at 9am for individual visits from April through October. If you’re visiting from November through March, you’ll need to book a guided tour in advance. Visit http://www.stiftmelk.at/englisch/index.html or email email@example.com.