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Byline: Susanne Hopkins Daily News Travel Editor

Bathed in the golden light of midmorning, the medieval town of Durnstein poses on the banks of the Danube, looking for all the world like the frontispiece for a literary tome on cities of the Middle Ages.

Its ancient rock walls snake up rocky green hills and terraced vineyards toward the ruins of Kuenringer Castle, where England's Richard the Lionheart was long ago imprisoned; old wheat-toned structures accented in pale yellow, green and other pastels are clustered close together along cobbled streets. And in their midst is the fanciful, Wedgewood blue and white baroque tower of Durnstein Abbey.

Now, much of Austria looks like a picture postcard. But seeing Durnstein, which dates at least to the 12th century, is akin to stepping into a storybook. The lovely village sits about 60 miles northwest of Vienna, in the middle of Austria's wine country, the Wachau Valley. The beauty of the place sparks romantic images of knights and fair ladies, of chivalry and lyre-strumming poets, of fine, rich wines squeezed from the mellow grapes that grow so profusely on the terraced hillsides.

I could, I think, stay in this fairy-tale place for awhile.

Durnstein seems in peaceful repose the day I arrive and climb up the narrow, cobblestone street to the center of the village. But looks can be deceiving. More than 1,000 people live here (1,003 to be exact), and small cars are navigating the winding lanes on their way to attend to some business or other. Behind a tiny restaurant/winery, a young man unloads buckets of pungent purple grapes into a small crusher. Wine season, it seems, has arrived. And at the abbey, folks are bringing in produce to sell; proceeds will go to the continuing restoration of the 15th-century abbey that once housed Benedictine monks.

A passel of bicyclists in neon-bright attire and white helmets rolls into town; some look athletic enough to hike up to the castle ruins, where their reward will be a panoramic view of the valley and the graceful bends of the Danube.

It is the abbey that beckons first, however. Built at the behest of a woman member of the Kuenringer family (her first name is apparently lost in the annals of time), it is a light, lovely place that now serves as a school for children ages 6 to 10 (although nothing of them is heard this day).

The inner courtyard reveals a pale gray structure accented in mustard yellow and white. Sculptures of angels bearing grapes are posed over the doors, and figures of the saints form an elaborate archway into the sanctuary. Inside, white ceilings are accented in a profusion of gold leaf; figures of angels and cherubs abound, as do fine 15th-century oil paintings and sculptures.

The bones of St. Clementine rest here; remains of dozens of former priests are buried below the church in a cold crypt.

The guide leads us out to the terrace. Across the Danube, rolling green hills dominate the view. Below us, white tour boats rest at anchor, a few passengers lounging on chaises on deck. I think they are missing something special by just sitting there.

I turn back and study the abbey's ornate, blue-and-white spire with its finely sculptured figures and turrets and its clock with the black Roman numerals. Yes, says our guide, answering the obvious question, this is indeed the original color, though it has been repainted over the years.

He takes us on a stroll to the beginning of the village proper, telling us that there are actually three churches in Durnstein, but the abbey is the most famous. It is, he says proudly, a very popular wedding church.

We congregate under a tree and the guide points to the castle ruins on the hill, launching as he does into another story.

Just before Christmas in 1192, Richard the Lionheart was captured on his way home to England from the Third Crusade. It seems Leopold the Fifth of Babenburg, duke of Austria, did not take too kindly to Richard's removal of the duke's flag from a tower captured during the battle of Acre in Palestine. He tossed Richard in the castle prison - and there he remained for 13 months, until, it is said, his minstrel Blondell happened upon him.

Legend has it that Blondell had traversed the countryside since his master's disappearance, singing a song known only to him and his king in the hopes of finding Richard. He had no luck until he reached Kuenringer, when a joyous Richard answered Blondell's song.

That's the legend. It probably isn't true, says our guide, but it makes a good story. What is true, he says, is that it took a massive ransom - 150,000 silver marks - to free Richard. (Alas, to no avail - he spent another year in a German prison and yet another huge ransom was required to free him again.)

I bid the guide adieu and wander up the narrow, spiraling streets of Durnstein. Tucked inside the old buildings are a surprising array of chic shops filled with antiques, handmade clothes, artwork and books. In front of one of the houses with its profusion of red geraniums tumbling from window boxes, an old woman has set containers of purple and green grapes for purchase.

A few tourists pay their schillings and snag a little box. Great expectations illuminating their faces, they bite into the juicy orbs. The grapes have seeds.

``Just swallow them,'' a young woman counsels her companions.

Next door is a charming inn with a little wrought-iron sign adorned with a bundle of fir twigs, the sure mark that this is a heurigen, a place that serves this year's local wines.

I meander to the crest of the hilly street, where the Hotel Schloss Durnstein is perfectly sited for views above and below. The Renaissance-style structure offers a sunny patio for dining, as well as a warren of understated dining rooms that bespeak taste with their silk and velvet upholstered chairs, oriental rugs and damask tablecloths.

A person could stay the night in the hotel's best room for about $215, including either lunch or dinner and breakfast. I fantasize briefly about doing that, retreating just for a night to this place called Durnstein where a gentle breeze carries aloft the sweet scent of ripening grapes, the sun shines and even a fairy tale seems possible.

Maybe next time ...

On Location To reach Durnstein from Vienna, Austria, take A22 north to Highway 3, go west and you will eventually come to the walled city. Travel time is about an hour and 45 minutes. For more information about Durnstein, contact the Austrian National Tourist Office Inc., (310) 477-3332.

For more information about Hotel Schloss Durnstein, you can write: A-3601 Durnstein/Wachau, Austria; phone is 0 2711/212.

Not far from Durnstein, going southwest on Highway 3, is Melk Abbey, a splendid golden-yellow baroque structure that dates to before 976 and has 476 rooms, a magnificent church adorned with statuary and a profusion of gold leaf, and a museum of antiquities. For about $5.50, you can tour the abbey, but I think it's wiser to spend a little extra money and pay about $6.75 for a guided tour, since written information about the abbey's art treasures is all in German.

Throughout this year, the abbey will feature a special exhibition in honor of the first-known reference to Austria in 996. On display will be the actual Cross of Melk (tourists generally see only huge slides of the fantastic bejeweled cross), medieval manuscripts (the abbey has a library of 100,000 ancient volumes), and a variety of changing exhibits.


6 Photos, Box

Photo: (1--Color) The medieval town of Durnstein se ems to have sprung from a fairy tale.

(2--Color) Visitors to Durnstein Abbey explore a terrace overlooking the river.

(3-4--Color) A worker loads grapes into a crusher, at right. Above, fairy tale architecture catches the eye at every turn.

(5--Color) Homes in the medieval town stair-step up the hillside in their picturesque setting.

(6--Color) The interior of the 15th-century Durnstein Abbey is filled with elaborate gold leaf, paintings and sculptures.

Susanne Hopkins/Daily News

Box: On Location (See text)
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Title Annotation:TRAVEL
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jul 7, 1996

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