Meandering along the Mosel

One of many quaint villages along the Mosel River. (Photograph: Penny Haw.)

“WHAT colour are they now, thy quiet waters? The evening star has brought the evening light, and filled the river with the green hillside; the hilltops waver in the rippling water, trembles the absent vine and swells the grape in thy clear crystal.”

Thus translated Irish poet and playwright, Helen Waddell lines 192-5 of Roman rhymester Decimus Magnus Ausonius’s famous poem, Mosella, which he wrote in about 370 AD. Indeed, so enamoured by the “gently murmuring” 545 km Mosel River – which flows through France, Luxembourg and Germany – was the ancient poet, that he devoted a 484-line Latin epic to the wonderful waterway and its surrounds.

And, although Waddell translated only these few lines of the poem (and regrettably my knowledge of Latin is ad absurdum so I cannot do more), having recently spent a week camping along the 195 km German stretch of the river, I believe I appreciate Ausonius’s watery passion in toto. For sure, as I gaze upon his lengthy Latin lyrics, I am convinced (albeit illiterally) that Ausonius raves rhythmically on about the snaking splendour of the deep, clear Mosel as it twists through the rocky mountains west of the Rhineland, passing enchanting medieval village after village, craggy castles, tumbling vineyards, cool cellars and ample shady green campsites that nestle at the water’s edge. (Ok, perhaps he did not write about the campsites, but surely all else is there in those long lines of Latin?)

The Mosel is a tributary of the Rhine River, flowing into the larger river at Koblenz. The city – one of the larger ones in the area – was founded by the Romans who called it Confluentes (confluence), which was later germanised as Koblenz. The outcrop at the point at which the two rivers meet is called Deutsches Eck (German Corner). A massive 1990s replacement statue of Kaiser Wilhelm I dominates the spot, the US forces having blown up the original in 1945. The Old Town section of Koblenz also required reconstruction after World War II. It is a pleasant town with pretty promenades along both rivers and makes a good starting point for an upstream tour of the Mosel valley in the direction of one of Germany’s oldest town, Trier.

As you leave Koblenz towards Winningen, the dilemma of the Mosel road trip unfolds. For the most part, there are roads on both sides of the meandering Mosel; the dilemma is which side of the river to select to travel. Wherever you are, it’s difficult to shake off the feeling that you might be missing something even more beautiful on the other side of the water. Is that little village with its quaint market square and tidy cobblestone streets prettier than this little village with its tall, half-timbered buildings leaning into the lanes with bright flowers tumbling out of window boxes? Are those perfectly manicured fields more spectacular than these dizzily precipitous vineyards? Is the fishing better on the far side, the grass greener and the wine even tastier over there?

On either side of the river, the Mosel valley is characterised by remarkably neatly terraced vineyard slopes. Chiselled out of slate and sandstone, the vineyards – some of the oldest in Germany – are astoundingly steep. Between the Mosel villages of Bremm and Eller, the Calmont Riesling vineyard claims the title of “steepest vineyard in Europe” with an inclination of more than 65°.

When you scale the terraces, you see that the vineyards are made up of slices of earth, precariously held in position by steep rock walls and jagged ledges. To cultivate the cliffs, farmers have built mountainside balconies that collapse, time and time again, demanding frequent repair. Narrow paths wind up the mountain and rugged stairs provide a way onto terraces. There is no access for tractors or other machinery and it’s clear that tending the vines and harvesting the grapes requires intense, backbreaking work. In fact, some of the vineyards are diminishing each year due to the intensity of the labour and the lack of willing workers.

“We are thankful to have the services of people from Eastern Europe during the harvest and pruning seasons. They, it seems, are not as afraid of hard work as many of our countrymen and women appear to be these days,” said Peter Rochulus, as he demonstrated some more Mosel gemütlichkeit (friendliness) and poured me yet another delicious glass of Cochemer Goldbäumchen Spätlese Riesling. Peter is the cellarmaster at J Koll & Cie, which – founded in 1744 – is said to be the oldest wine cellar in the Mosel village of Cochem.

About 85-million bottles of wine – typically refreshing, low in alcohol whites – are produced in the area annually. But, once you drag yourself out of the many fine tasting cellars that line the river, there are many other delights to explore in the Mosel, which has the additional advantage of not being as heavily touristed as the Rhine River.

Burg Eltz (circa 1472). (Photograph: Penny Haw.)

There are stacks of castles along the valley, the most beautiful of which is Burg Eltz, one of the few old Rhineland castles still in its original state. (All the remains of some of the castles are…stacks.) Tucked away in a thick forest, Burg Eltz is one of the few German castles that, thanks to a couple of smart marriages and decades of unwavering diplomacy, was not damaged by war. It has been in the Eltz family for 820 years and today, looks as it did in 1472, featuring towers from which you expect to see Rapunzel let down her long hair.

In addition to being in good shape, Burg Eltz was a comfortable castle for its day. It has 80 rooms warmed by 40 fireplaces and countless tapestries hanging on the walls. A drain system, fed by rainwater, automatically flushed its 20 toilets.

Although the distance between Koblenz and Trier is only 240 km by road, the many villages along the way demand that you linger long and often. Among them is beautifully bustling Bernkastel-Kues, which – located beneath the imposing Landshut Castle – has buildings clustered together on both sides of the river, connected with a bridge.

The village’s ensemble of medieval half-timbered houses lean perilously into a busy Marktplatz. Most remarkable building is the Spitzhäuschen (Pointed House), which was built in 1416 and is a good example of a Mosel vintner’s house. It now operates as an absurdly small and fragile-looking wine bar that seems to teeter on its tiny socle. Bernkastel-Kues is an ideal place to slosh down some schnitzel, spätzle, sauerkraut and/or bratwurst with some Moselwein, a glass of sparkling Sekt or a tankard or two of German beer. The village is also home to a number of tempting konditionarei (bakeries) that glisten with rows and rows of sinfully tasty pastries and cream cakes.

Then, when you’ve squeezed yourself back into the car, the little village of Neumagen-Dhron, which claims to be the Germany’s oldest wine village, is just down the road. And Trier – said to be Germany’s oldest town and which is home to the great Roman gateway, Porta Nigra – is still numerous villages away. It is no wonder then that Ausonius required almost 500 lines of poetry to sing the praises of the Mosel. Certainly, one might eulogize the river and its surroundings ad infinitum.

(This was first published in the Travel & Food section of The Weekender in April 2008.)

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