With all due respect to the capitals of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, we have become even bigger fans of the Wachau Valley. Yes, Prague is unforgettable: cobblestoned streets, all those statue-lined bridges leaping over the Vltava River. Under its historic skin, the vibe is cool and culturally hip. Budapest? It felt to us like a favorite-old-sweater of a city—graceful and grand, with great neighborhood cafes and arm-in-arm promenades along the Danube at dusk.

Woman overlooking the skyline of Prague on a sunny day

And then there’s Dürnstein, nestled deep in the Wachau. Population: 450. So small you couldn’t get lost if you tried. The skyline consists of exactly one powder-blue steeple. It sits so close to the banks of the Danube that we wondered about the town planners’ wisdom. Then we learned it’s been here since at least 1192 when Richard the Lionheart was held prisoner in the ruined castle above the town.

If he could have jumped ransom, and gone out for a vineyard walk, Richard would have had a memorable experience a lot like the one we had on our walking tour of Austria, Prague and Budapest with Martin, the local Classic Journeys guide since 1999. “The terraces are truly ancient,” he explained—no surprise given the rustic jumble of rock that holds them in place. The vineyards are narrow ribbons, practically stacked on top of each other. Martin passes through so often that the workers know him, and they greeted us very warmly as we wandered through tiny villages and the yards of old farmhouses. “This is how a Dürnsteiner sees the world,” he said. “The Wachau Valley is so big, but the grower only sees his few meters of vines.”

Wine barrel in the Wachau Valley

It’s a fascinating insight. Microclimates affect the vineyards so that the same grape grown at different altitudes yields very different wines. We tasted the proof at a traditional Heuriger, a sort of in-home café where the grower can serve only his own bottles. He laid out local cheeses and sausages to show off his most recent year’s wine. Oh, did he watch us closely as we swished and sipped the Riesling and Grüner veltliner. But we had no trouble giving him a thumbs up and a big “Ja!” Later, Martin told us that for guests who taste these wines for the first time, it’s one of the big surprises of the week that they are so complex, refreshing—and not sweet. We gladly agreed.

The day wound down with a glorious ferry ride on the Danube. Because it’s the river that influences every bit of local life and culture, it was a fitting way to circle back to our convent-turned-luxury-hotel. (You can only wonder what those long-ago Sisters would have thought of the fine swimming pool in the garden.) Soon enough, it was time to head for Hungary. But what a relaxing treat it was to have been Dürnsteiners for a couple of days.

Click for more information on Classic Journeys’ walking tour of Austria, Prague, and Budapest, or call 1-800-200-3887 to speak with a Guest Services Coordinator.