19 May 2011

Stift Melk

Time spent traveling has to be regulated somehow, so that the senses aren’t fried and individual impressions can be made. Sometimes, seeing too much can feel like overexposing a picture - a building that might seem extraordinary in a vacuum becomes a blur of windows and carvings, a town that should feel quaint turns stifling, landmarks become part of the wash of scenery. Dosage is important. What can be taken in safely in one week cannot be doubled and crammed into two. Our energy wanes at times, and an extraordinary place can be too strenuous a challenge for us, even as we go through the motions of “seeing it.”
Stift Melk, (stift means abbey) which demands attention on this stretch of the Danube, is spectacle brought to a syrupy, overwrought end. It’s huge, yellow and filled with wonders, but seemingly devoid of monks or meaning. After a frustrating experience at a Subaru service center, a quick tour through the grand rooms and gardens seemed like a visit to monastic Disneyland. We tried to think of the perfect way to describe why it was displeasing to us – Rebecca said it felt like a bad jewelry store or some Las Vegas casino called “Austrian Monastery.” I thought it looked like a hypothetical Versace’s Miami abbey. We agreed that it was gauche and strange and had fun laughing about the whole thing.
Having recently spent too much time in grand religious spaces, we fled the cathedral pretty quickly. It is a dizzying space, and it fits in well with the rest of the buildings – the route one takes through the complex swells in grandeur until this point, where pink and gold erupt into a soaring fantasy. If it were possible to come across this room without being prepared for it, the effect would likely be overwhelming.
The place was built in the 800's AD, but was important to the Romans before and was destroyed much later by fire. The structure that replaced the original was erected in the early eighteenth century. Mozart and Napoleon and a whole host of other luminaries have slept here, which is a point of pride. I felt less of their presence, though, than that of the tourists and gift shops. It’s hard to imagine this place ever feeling particularly religious or important for any reason other than its splendor.
Our favorite place in the abbey was this little staircase, perhaps because it was moderate and functional. In the strange, almost phantasmagorical language of this architecture, a little space can seem the pleasantest. We ate apfelstrudel in the garden, at tables arranged around a pink folly, then left, seeking out the simplicity of our picnic table and tent.

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