It wasn’t on our bucket list, or on any list at all. Yet looking back on our trip, I often revisit that Sunday morning in Engelhartszell as a favorite moment of our river cruise. Here we were, standing with a small group beneath a medlar tree in a grassy patch of the Trappist monks’ garden, watching other tourists stream in and out of the Abbey. They looked neither right nor left, because unlike us, they didn’t have a private guide showing them all the nooks and crannies of the monastery’s surrounds.
How do you travel best? For us it had always been “on our own terms”. Today I was having to re-think that a bit. Yes, we’d had to roll out of our comfy stateroom a bit earlier than we would have liked. In fact, one of us (hrmmph!) was so late that we missed our bus. “Your coach has already departed”, gently chided our tour director Julie, who I will forever think of as one of our two fairy godmothers for this trip. Julie hails from Arizona and Gillian from Austria, and I failed to get their photographs because they were in perpetual, good-humored motion. Uber-efficient, Julie placed us on another coach and off we went into the tiny village of Engelhartszell, for what was billed as a “home visit”.
Being the independent sort, we were a bit squeamish about the idea of barging into someone’s home, and we actually considered skipping the excursion. Good thing we didn’t, because we would have missed the incredible hospitality of Brigitte, our hostess. She welcomed us into her home and garden, where she lives with her husband, two daughters and an orange cat who is the very doppelgänger of our Dodger.
If we felt awkward, it was only for a moment. Brigitte was one of a half dozen residents of the village who entertained a small group from our tour that morning, giving us a peek into her idyllic life in Upper Austria. We marveled at her garden walk and free-form pool, and her home’s charming setting adjacent to the village church.
She then invited us into her kitchen to make flesserl, a traditional upper Austrian braided bread. We took turns shaping the dough she had prepared and then sat down and waited for it to bake while Brigitte answered all of our questions about life an der Donau.
We joyfully feasted on flesserl and (at 10:30 a.m.!) Brigitte’s homemade fruit liqueurs. I chose the quince flavor, since its origin was the tree right outside her house.
Too soon, our guide re-appeared at the door and we bade Brigitte farewell, taking with us the memory of her charming home and the kind welcome she extended us.
Then it was on to the Engelszell Abbey. Our dirndl-skirted guide had lived all her life in Engelhartszell and proudly showed us the aforementioned medlar tree, as well as the monk’s vegetable garden, which, she pointed out wryly, included a tiny plot of “medicinal” marijuana. She also led us through the curious aquarium that is on the grounds of the Abbey and which houses a beloved Beluga sturgeon named, if I remember correctly, Harry.
Inside the Abbey, our guide’s good cheer turned poignant, as she recalled her childhood memory of her father returning home from WWII, broken in spirit both from forced participation in the German army’s military defeat and the subsequent difficulties in providing for his family.
We departed our tour with a free sample of the monk’s famed herbal liqueur (I wonder if there might be a touch of marijuana in it?)
and then we walked back to our boat for the “All Aboard!” departure. It was a beautiful day on the Danube and we left Engelhartszell with the feeling that we had traveled very well indeed that day. Left to our own devices we probably never would have seen this little village at all, but our Tauck excursion gave us a special glimpse of life and history in Oberösterreich.