Wachau Cultural Landscape


Brief Description

The Wachau is a stretch of the Danube Valley between Melk and Krems, a landscape of high visual quality. It preserves in an intact and visible form many traces – in terms of architecture, (monasteries, castles, ruins), urban design, (towns and villages), and agricultural use, principally for the cultivation of vines – of its evolution since prehistoric times.

Wachau Cultural Landscape © Jakob Hürner More pictures …

Justification for Inscription

Criterion (ii): The Wachau is an outstanding example of a riverine landscape bordered by mountains in which material evidence of its long historical evolution has survived to a remarkable degree.

Criterion (iv): The architecture, the human settlements, and the agricultural use of the land in the Wachau vividly illustrate a basically medieval landscape which has evolved organically and harmoniously over time.

Long Description

The Wachau, a stretch of the Danube valley between Melk and Krems, is an outstanding example of a riverine landscape bordered by mountains in which material evidence of its long historical evolution has survived to a remarkable degree. The architecture, the human settlements, and the agricultural use of the land in the Wachau vividly illustrate a basically medieval landscape which has evolved organically and harmoniously over time. The Wachau is a landscape of high visual quality which preserves in an intact and visible form many traces – in the form of architecture (monasteries, castles, ruins) urban design (towns and villages) and agricultural use, principally for the cultivation of vines – of its evolution since prehistory.

Clearance of the natural forest cover by man began in the Neolithic period, although radical changes in the landscape did not take place until around 800, when the Bavarian and Salzburg monasteries began to cultivate the slopes of the Wachau, creating the present-day landscape pattern of vine terraces. In the centuries that followed, the acreage under cultivation fluctuated, under the influence of changes of climate and the wine market and acute labour shortages and the resultant wage increases in the 17th century.

In the 18th century, hillside viticulture was actively promoted in ecologically optimal regions. The areas released in this way were given over to pasture, with the ensuing economic consequences: some enterprises had to close down whereas others were enlarged. It was at this time that viticulture was finally abandoned in the upper stretches of the Wachau. Development of the countryside in the 19th century had particularly far-reaching consequences for the Wachau. The ratio of acreages devoted to viticulture and fruit growing respectively continues to be closely linked with recurrent fluctuations in markets for the products, giving the Wachau its characteristic appearance.

The basic layouts of the Wachau towns date back to the 11th and 12th centuries. The development of the settlements with their homogeneous character becomes evident in the town structures, both in the fabric and arrangement of the houses on mostly irregular lots and in the street patterns, which have remained practically unchanged since the late Middle Ages. Some town centres have been extended to some extent on their outer fringes by the construction of small residential buildings, mostly from 1950 onwards. The buildings in the Wachau towns date from more recent periods than the street plans. In the 15th and 16th centuries, stone construction began to replace the wooden peasant and burgher houses.

The winegrowers’ farmsteads, which are oblong, U-shaped, or L-shaped or consist of two parallel buildings, date back to the late Middle Ages and the 16th-17th centuries. Most of these, with lateral gate walls or integrated vaulted passages and service buildings, feature smooth facades, for the most part altered from the 18th and 19th centuries onwards. Street fronts are often accentuated by late-medieval/post-medieval oriels on sturdy brackets, statues in niches, wall paintings and sgraffito work, or remnants of paintwork or rich Baroque facades. The steeply pitched, towering hipped roof occurs so frequently that it can be regarded as an architectural characteristic of the Wachau house.

The 18th-century buildings, which still serve trade and craft purposes and are partly integrated in the town structure, such as taverns or inns, stations for changing draught horses, boat operators’ and toll houses, mills, smithies, or salt storehouses, frequently go back to the 15th and 16th centuries. There is a number of castles dominating the towns and the Danube valley and many architecturally and artistically significant ecclesiastical buildings dominate both townscape and landscape.

Source: UNESCO/CLT/WHC

Historical Description

Clearance of the natural forest cover of the Wachau by man began in the Neolithic period, although radical changes in the landscape did not take place until around 800, when the Bavarian and Salzburg monasteries began to cultivate the slopes of the Wachau, creating the presentday landscape pattern of vine terraces. In the centuries that followed, the acreage under cultivation fluctuated, under the influence of changes of climate and the wine market and acute labour shortages and the resultant wage increases in the 17th century.

As a result, the forest recolonized the upper edges of the vine-growing land; viticulture in the valleys was replaced by other agricultural activities. The soils of the fallow areas, degraded by failed attempts at cultivation, have never recovered, which explains the distinctive types of special vegetation found in these habitats (dry grassland, shrubs, and woodland).

In the 18th century, hillside viticulture was actively promoted in ecologically optimal regions. The areas released in this way were given over to pasture, with the ensuing economic consequences: some enterprises had to close down while others were enlarged. It was at this time that viticulture was finally abandoned in the upper stretches of the Wachau.

Developments of the countryside in the 19th century had particularly far-reaching consequences for the Wachau. The appearance of Phylloxera, the ravages of war, and increasing competition from the Burgenland and Italy necessitated changes in business structures, the areas under cultivation, the methods of viticulture, and the acreages. Apricot growing, typical of the Wachau ever since, began to take over the valleys and lower slopes. The ratio of acreages devoted to viticulture and fruit growing respectively continues to be closely linked with recurrent fluctuations in markets for the products, giving the Wachau its characteristic appearance.

There has been human occupation in the Wachau from Palaeolithic times, as shown by the figurines from Galgenberg (c 32,000 years old) and Willendorf (c 26,000 years old). The region of Krems and Melk was densely settled as early as the Neolithic period (4500-1800 BCE), and there have been many finds from the Bronze Age (1800-800 BCE). In the Iron Age the Illyrian Hallstatt Culture (800-400 BCE) was gradually replaced by the La Tène Culture coming from the west: at this time the Celtic kingdom of Noricum developed to the south of the Danube.

When the Romans annexed Noricum in 15 BCE, the Danube became the frontier (limes) with the Germanic peoples to the north. Mautern (Favianis) was an important frontier garrison town where one of the Roman Danube fleets was stationed. The limes collapsed at the end of the 4th century, and Noricum found itself on one of the main invasion routes from the north.

In 453 St Severinus, the “apostle of Noricum,” founded the first monastic community in the province outside the gates of Mautern. As a result of his activities Mautern developed into an important spiritual and religious centre, where pilgrims assembled and departed for Italy.

The name “Wachau” is first mentioned in 853 as locus Wahowa. Krems first appears as Urbs Chremisa in 995, making it the oldest Austrian town to be mentioned in a document. The Wachau is the setting of the Nibelungenlied, the great German epic poem, which was written some time after 1200 and depicts the political situation at that time. It mentions the Wachau towns of Pöchlarn (Bechelaren), Melk (Medelike), and Mautern (Mutoren).

In 976, the Wachau came under the rule of the Babenberg margraves, beginning with Leopold I. The Austrian march was elevated to a dukedom in 1156 and bestowed upon the Babenberg Henry II Jasomirgott, who renounced his claims to Bavaria.

The great knightly family of the Wachau, the Kuenrings, came to the Babenberg march in the 11th century. When the line died out, the major part of their lands passed to Duke Albrecht V (King Albrecht II) in 1430. Owing to the fragmentation of land holdings and the absence of large unified administrative structures, the burghers of the Wachau enjoyed considerable freedom as early as the Middle Ages, enhanced by the ius montanum de vinea. The four towns of St Michael, Wösendorf, Joching, and Weissenkirchen formed an independent community from about 1150 to 1839, to be reunited in 1972 as Wachau or Tal Wachau.

Even after the power of the Habsburgs had been consolidated, the Wachau was repeatedly the arena for armed conflicts. During the Hungarian invasions of the late 15th century, Krems and Stein were besieged in 1477 by Matthias Corvinus.

The Counter-Reformation (1530-1620) had a strong impact in the Wachau, until Protestantism was finally repressed under the Göttweig abbot Georg II Falb (1612- 31). His support for eleven Austrian Benedictine abbeys was a major contributory factor to the importance attained by the Austrian abbeys (and Göttweig in particular) in the Baroque period. Victory over the Protestants also found expression in the construction of churches, chapels, and small monuments.

From 1700 onwards, artistic and architectural monuments that are among the most important examples of Austrian Baroque were built in the Wachau. These include the rebuilding of Melk Abbey (begun in 1702), the conversion of the Canons’ Abbey in Dürnstein (1715-33), and the large-scale rebuilding of Göttweig Abbey from 1719 onwards.

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries the Wachau began to lose its historic importance. The closures of monasteries in Austria and the secularization of Bavaria destroyed ageold ties. River transportation was increasingly superseded as a result of competition from road transport and from 1909 onwards by the railway. The late 19th century saw a new perception of the Wachau, as the “Golden Wachau,” a blend of history and legend, art and folklore, wine and hospitality. An action committee was set up in 1904 for the economic promotion of the Wachau, with the participation of all the local communities between Krems and Melk. In more recent times, there has been a return to the historical roots of the region, resulting the intensive promotion of “sustainable” tourism, with the vineyards protected by law.

Source: Advisory Body Evaluation

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