On the path of the Nibelungs…

July 17, 2010

By way of introducing ourselves, we thought we‘d do a belated post about a little trip out of town we took last Sunday because it might give you a good idea of who we are, how we spend our time and, consequently, what you are to expect from this blog.

With the weather forecast promising 30 degrees Celsius or more we got up early and left Vienna, heading west. After an hours drive we arrived at our (first) destination, the lovely, hilly landscape of the Wachau, a river valley of great beauty, stretching along the Danube, praised by the poets and by the Austrian tourist board alike. There we put on our walking boots and made for the ruins of Aggstein Castle, situated on a rocky outcrop high above the Danube. The path we followed was almost entirely shaded by bushes, trees and forest, so despite the efforts of the scorching summer sun the walk was cool and pleasant, and after little more than an hour of uphill and downhill we reached what is rightly considered one of the finest medieval ruins in the country. As with many other „medieval“ castles the general layout is still determined by foundations dating to the 12th and 13th centuries but the walls and buildings you actually see today are the result of mayor refurbishing campaigns in the 1400s and the 1500s, not to mention restoration and reconstruction work done from the 19th century onwards.

Aggstein‘s main attraction, however, isn‘t so much the castle in itself but the spectacular views it offers across the Danube valley. Probably even more spectacular – though definitely verging on the bizarre – is a permanent exhibition dedicated to the „Nibelungenlied“ in one of the castle‘s vast undercrofts.

The hero Siegfried and the dwarf king Alberich (Nibelungen exhibition, Aggstein Castle)

As the medievalists and, perhaps, the opera-fans among you might know the so called “Nibelungenlied” (“The Nibelungs’ song”) is a Middle High German epic written around 1200. After its rediscovery in the 19th century it became some sort of German “national poem” and a touchstone for modern artists ranging from composer Richard Wagner (The Ring of the Nibelung, 1863) to movie director Fritz Lang (The Nibelungs, 1924) and, probably most importantly, writer Auguste Lechner (The Nibelungs, 1951) who turned the story into a children’s book and helped spread it to every household in the German speaking world. Not that the plot of the “Nibelungenlied” is exactly what you’d call suitable for the little ones: The long and twisted tale begins all merry with the wedding of Burgundian princess Kriemhild to tall, blond, brave and handsome hero Siegfried, but it ends with what is best described as the medieval equivalent of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, leaving all the main characters and thousands of extras dead and mutilated. So, if you’re among those who believe the Harry Potter series to be too grim for children, make sure to avoid Lechner’s “Nibelungenlied” for kids!

Kriemhild beheading Hagen

Now, you may wonder what this whole story has got to do with Aggstein Castle. Strictly speaking: Nothing at all. But the thing is, one small episode of the “Nibelungenlied” is actually set in a part of the Danube valley that scholars have identified as the Wachau. So, on the one hand there is this well known medieval story associated with the Wachau, on the other hand there is this handsome medieval castle situated in that very same region, and apparently the local tourist board figured that those two things just belonged together. On that basis someone came up with said exhibition, a display that consists mainly in a sort of diorama where wooden puppets act out the epic’s central scenes in diligently elaborated settings dispersed along the walls of a dimly lit, vaulted basement.

Turrets and cobwebs (Nibelungen exhibition, Aggstein Castle)

The set decorations abound with sparkling amethysts and glimmering quartz, real twigs and plastic flowers, while props like spinning wheels and spindles on the floor and stuffed birds on the walls add to the supposedly “medieval” atmosphere. There are even cobwebs on some of the exhibits but we were not quite sure whether they are intentional or not.

The spat between Kriemhild and Brunhild (Nibelungen exhibition, Aggstein Castle)

While the scenes are accompanied by panels explaining the story and its legendary background, unfortunately no information is given regarding the maker of the diorama or when it was installed. Judging by the dresses and the decorations we could only guess that it dates to the 1970s because, frankly, some of them look like they have been done by a close associate of ABBA or the Spiders from Mars.

Siegfried and Brunhild (Nibelungen exhibition, Aggstein Castle)

Having returned to the light of day from the gloomy underground world of the Nibelungs we had a quick lunch and then we headed back east along the Danube. We didn’t go all the way to Vienna though – at least not immediately – but stopped halfway in the small town of Tulln. There we took a stroll to the former cemetery chapel which was built in the 1240s and boasts one of the most beautiful Romanesque portals in the eastern part of Austria.

We also paid a visit to the adjacent parish church which, architectonically speaking, is all piecemeal, displaying elements from almost every period and style from the 12th to the 18th century. Its most important feature, however, is a set of twelve sculptured busts adorning the western gate which are believed to show the twelve apostles and date back to ca. 1200. That means they were executed around the same time some anonymous poet composed the original Middle High German “Nibelungenlied”. Which reminds us: Tulln, too, claims to be one of the locations featuring in that great epic, so that Sunday we unwittingly ended up on the “path of the Nibelungs” or whatever you want to call it.

Tulln, of course, has a lot more to offer than just a couple of Romanesque monuments, e.g. some interesting Roman excavations, a splendid set of Baroque murals in the monastery of the Friars Minor and a whole museum dedicated entirely to the life and works of the city’s most famous son, the painter Egon Schiele (1890-1918). We didn’t go to see any of those, however, but succumbed to the lure of another local attraction, the “Aubad”, a large artificial lake surrounded by an extensive park with lawns and trees and ice-cream-vendors. In other words: We skipped culture and went swimming instead. But, seriously, who could resist this…

…on a hot summer afternoon?

2 Responses to “On the path of the Nibelungs…”

  1. Mandy said

    This is one way to make me homesick.

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