In the shadow of Burg Thurant:
The austere twin towered fortress of Burg Thurant stands impressively on a hill top overlooking the winding streets, ancient houses, inns and vineyards of Alken, a medieval wine village situated on the lower Mosel.
This dramatic scene symbolises everything about the Mosel Valley, its complex and turbulent history in stark contrast to the beautiful and varied landscapes of the river valley which loops its way, in a series of majestic meanders, from the Luxemburg border near Trier down to the confluence with the Rhine at Koblenz.
Since its construction in 1198 by Count William Heinrich, Burg Thurant has borne witness to many conflicts and skirmishes. For much of its history, the castle was partitioned down the middle and under the control of the squabbling powerful Archbishops of Cologne and Trier; the two towers functioning as separate keeps. Inside the castle typifies everything one would expect of a medieval fortress complete with dungeons, torture equipment and rickety, old ladders up precarious towers.
Over the last year we’ve had the chance to spend several weekends exploring the Mosel Valley and have, on a couple of occasions, stayed overnight in the village of Löf, directly overlooking Burg Thurant. Illuminated at night by floodlights, the castle has an eerie and brooding presence; appearing, as if somehow, to float in space above the surrounding landscape. Hypnotically, the image draws you in and hints at darker episodes in the castle’s history.
Needless to say, given the choice, I wouldn’t wish to spend a night alone in the Castle’s guest apartments !
Exploring the river
The Mosel (or Moselle in French) begins its journey high in the Vosges Mountains of North Eastern France before winding its way for 515km through France, Luxembourg and Germany to its confluence with the Rhine at Koblenz. In Germany, the river cuts its way through a deep gorge between the uplands of the Eifel (to the North) and the Hunsrück (to the South). At Trier, the Mosel is joined by the river Saar, a major tributary.
The Mosel is famous for its vineyards and quality wines. Much of the landscape is dominated by viticulture with vines growing on even the steepest of slopes, and often, in unfeasible locations. Although relatively far north for wine production, the steep valley slopes help to maximise exposure to the sun; small changes in soils, aspect and slope angle can significantly affect the taste and quality of the wine.
Travelling along the river valley is a delight with considerable variation being encountered along the 195km stretch between Koblenz and Trier. The steepest sections of gorge are found on the middle and lower sections between Bernkastel Kues and Winningen. These sections are characterised by the classic Mosel landscapes which were favoured by romantic painters and writers such as Turner and Byron. The mosaic of vineyards, forest, hilltop castles and ancient villages is quite enchanting with new vistas opening up around every loop of the river.
Higher up the Mosel towards Trier, the valley sides are not quite so steep and vineyards tend to become the dominant element in a more open and undulating landscape. Viewpoints from high above the river reveal extensive and sweeping views across the extensive uplands to the North and the South.
The Mosel valley is served by excellent transport facilities and consequently, there are many possible ways to explore the river. One of the best ways is to take one of the many passenger boats which ply their way up and down the valley. Possible options, range from a fully catered cruise lasting a few days, through to short “hops” between villages lasting only an hour or so. From our perspective we’ve found the best option is to exploring the river in shorter, more manageable chunks and to jump on and off boats at regular intervals to explore interesting riverside towns and villages.
Since 1964, the river has effectively been tamed for shipping through the construction of a series of imposing weirs and locks. During this process, old bridges were removed and sections of the Mosel were deepened and widened to give the river its present course. Although this engineered appearance can detract from the overall integrity of the river, it’s impact has, to some extent, been localised to areas around the locks. Consequently much of the Mosel still maintains a relatively natural feel and can be enjoyed for its high landscape quality.
The taming of the river has greatly reduced its flow rate, however it is still a pleasure to explore by kayak. I’ve already made a couple of kayak excursions down sections of the river and have very much enjoyed these. Hazards to watch out for mainly come in the form of other river traffic. Barges frequently ply the river, however these tend to slow-moving and don’t throw up in the way of major wake. Usually, the barges are easy enough to avoid by keeping over to one side or other.
Power boats and jet skis can be more of a menace. These tend to be concentrated more on the lower reaches of the Mosel (around a few marinas and large campsites) and can be rather noisy, intrusive and at times a downright nuisance. For kayaking, it’s therefore better to seek out the quieter sections of the river (generally further upstream) where powerboats will be less of a problem.
The lower Mosel is also a major transport corridor and noise from vehicles, (particularly motorbikes) can detract considerably from the surroundings. By contrast, the upper reaches of the river are more peaceful and with less direct road access to the river. kayaking in these areas is therefore a more enjoyable and mellow experience (more like I am used to in Scotland). Also, avoiding bank holidays or busy periods can be a good idea for those seeking out less crowded water.
The Mosel “Radweg” or cycleway is also another very popular way of exploring the river valley. Cyclists are very well catered for with excellent off-road sections passing alongside beautiful sections of river and fascination small, riverside towns and villages. In general the route is well surfaced and cyclists can take advantage of local public transport to allow day trips with a return to the start point. Transport is well-integrated and cyclists can take their bikes on local buses (which often have a special bike trailer), trains and boats. Many people also take several days to cycle the complete length of the Radweg (a distance of 311km from Metz in France to Koblenz), taking the opportunity to enjoy staying in the many small hostelries, wine lodges and guest houses encountered en route.
The Koblenz to Trier railway provides another excellent means of accessing the valley and exploring villages and towns. The line was originally completed in 1879 as part of the “Cannons” Railway between Berlin and Metz. The railway follows the main valley between Koblenz and Bullay before then veering off inland towards Wittlich. An interesting and laid back branch line known as the “Mosel Weinbahn” runs between Bullay to Traban-Trabach. Apparently this was once famed for the boisterous nature of its passengers who used the route as part of their introduction and discovery of Mosel vineyards. Wartime plans to extend this line further up the river were never completed.
The majority of visitors coming to the Mosel tend to visit just a few main centres which are listed in the guidebooks and largely ignore the Mosel’s real treasures which are the less frequented, smaller riverside villages. The Three main centres between the Roman City of Trier (and birthplace of Karl Marx) and Koblenz are Bernkastel Kues, Traban-Trabach and Cochem.
Of the three main centres, Bernkastel Kues is my favourite. The highlight of the town is surely the busy Marktplatz with its amazing collection of half-timbered houses surrounding a perfect, neat, little town square with its central fountain. The pretty little town seems very reminiscent of the British children’s TV series “Trumpton” (for those old enough to remember it !).
There are some amazing, wonky old houses in the centre of the town including the famed “Spitzhäuschen”, a topheavy little building leaning jauntily at an unfeasible angle. The Marktplatz, although bustling, is not oppressively busy and is a great venue to chill out with an ice cream and listen to some of the eclectic street entertainment on offer which ranges from Andean panpipes through to Bavarian “Oompah” music. The most famous BernKastel wines include the Bernkastel “Doctor” whose steeply sloping vineyards swoop downhill virtually into the town centre.
Many small restaurants and wine tasting establishments are located away from the main square down smaller back streets and are a pleasure to explore. These are generally better priced and less frequented than in the town centre. In general Bernkastel quietens down in the evenings when day trippers and coach parties have dispersed leaving the town largely free for exploration.
Traban-Trabach by comparison is a more genteel place which became particularly wealthy through the Wine Trade, being at the turn of the 20th Century the second largest wine exporter in Europe after Bordeaux. In 1904 the 2 separate riverside communities were united into one through the construction of a bridge designed by famous Berlin architect Bruno Möhring. This had a huge knock-on effect for the town with many of the wealthy wine merchants then commissioning Möhring to design opulent villas for themselves.
These riverside villas are now the defining feature of the town and remind me somewhat of the work of Glasgow architect Charles Rennie MacIntosh, famous for his Art Nouveau style. In later years Traban Trabach developed into “the place to be” for well-healed wine tourists. The town still has a pleasant, spacious and uncrowded (though somewhat “blue-rinse”) feel about it today with fine riverside views and walks.
The third main centre on the Mosel (and by far the busiest) is Cocham. The town is beautifully situated on a bend of the river, overlooked by the imposing Riechsburg (a dramatic mock-medieval castle constructed in 1877 on the remains of an older fortress). Like the other main centres, Cocham is fascinating to explore with an interesting Marktplatz and streets of half-timbered houses running off in all directions.
Cochem does suffer significantly though from the solid weight of visitor numbers and associated trappings of mass tourism. The town is the major stop off point for many coach tours and boat trips on the Mosel meaning that, for much of the year, the town is swamped by visitors who competitively squeeze into the multitude of boutiques, craft shops and souvenir outlets which characterise the centre. Once again a visit to the back streets or “out of hours” tourism can be more rewarding experience.
We planned to take a train from Cochem railway station back to where we were staying in Löf; the experience proving to be somewhat reminiscent of a Friday night out in Glasgow and the Munich Oktoberfest fused together. Unfortunately, we missed our train and sought sanctuary the station Bistro which overbrimmed with an eclectic mix of drunken German ramblers, lederhosen-clad Bavarian folk singers and one angry,unkempt man who shouted non-stop abuse down his mobile to some long-suffering partner. It seemed about time to leave…
The smaller villages along the Mosel are the real gems of the river valley. My advice is just to pick a few villages at random and then to head off exploring without too much in the way of prior research; you’ll be surprised just how many unique and unusual things there are to be discover around each new winding street corner. To be flippant about it, anything not in a major guidebook will be worthy of a look as you’ll go without preconceptions. Well promoted tourist centres (with associated congested streets, overflowing car parks and inflated prices) on the other hand can sometimes be a bit of a let-down.
The smaller Mosel villages often have a colourful local history with ornately constructed traditional houses, churches and public buildings which are often overlooked by coach parties eager to get to the gift shops of the next major tourist honey pot. The village of Enkirch for example perfectly illustrates unique village traditions and has a history going back some 2500 years to Celtic and Roman times.
Enkirch was first mentioned in 733 AD under the Celtic name of “Anchiriachum”. Archeological discoveries found there include the grave of a Celtic princess. Since Roman times, wine making has been well established in Enkirch and has formed the mainstay of the local economy. The prosperity generated through wine growing allowed the construction of many fine half-timbered houses from the late middle ages onwards. Today the village is considered to be one of the finest examples of traditional half-timbered construction in the Rhineland style.
A unique feature in Enkirch is the ominous “Drilles and Spilles”, an unusual rotating cage which was constructed in the Middle ages to humiliate and punish wrong doers (in the same spirit as the stocks or the Scottish “jougs”) . Those sentenced to spend time there were apparently subject to the ridicule of towns-folk who would rotate the cage at regular intervals much to the aggravation of the interne. Later the cage was used during colourful local festivals for the “auction of maidens” (though apparently this was conducted in “good humour” by all those involved). Looking at the oppressive cage today though, its easy to speculate that it could have been the scene of some of the darker episodes of Enkirch’s long history.
St Aldegund, further down the River is another fascinating settlement with Roman and Celtic origins. Archeological discoveries there include the foundations of a large Roman Villa and a tomb dating from the time of Constantine the Great (306-337AD). Vineyard workers encountered the large stone slab with early Christian symbols in 1953. Underneath the heavy slab, an intact woman’s grave was revealed with rare and valuable offerings which included a deep blue glass bowl in the shape of a ship.
The old church is also worth a look and was built as a sanctuary by local farmers for the Apostle Bartholomew, the cattle saint. The church, located on a hillside overlooking the village, is a masterpiece of 12th century Romanesque style and has a simple rustic charm not found in later buildings.
A visit there is made more interesting by the fact that you have to go and seek out a key from a local householder to gain access. My son, Kai, found the whole experience very exciting and since then (and somewhat unusually for a 2-year-old) has become a dedicated fan of old church interiors. The vineyards above the path to the church are on an unfeasibly steep slope and can only be accessed by an ingenious hydraulic lift system.
The attractions of the smaller Mosel villages are too numerous to mention here and really need to be discovered in your own time and through your own unique experiences. Other interesting features which you might encounter include village wells and fountains, town walls, wine presses and wood carvings. One thing is for sure, like the wines, the Mosel is not a place to be rushed; only by sauntering along the Valley at a leisurely pace will you get the chance to capture anything of its spirit.
Quality German wines are one of the country’s best kept secrets and some of the best of these are found in the Mosel region. When I was younger, cheap bottles of German “plonk” were the standard stuff of low-budget student parties. In Britain, average knowledge of German wines typically extended as far as “Liebfraumilch” and “Blue Nun” which were widely deemed to be representative of German wine as a whole. These sweet wines were typically made from the Müller-Thurgau grapes and were designed for the mass market. Anyone who has lived in Germany for a while, however, will know that Germany also offers great quality wines and at prices that won’t have the bank manager pounding on the door.
The wines of the Middle Mosel are particularly well-regarded with the greatest concentration of vineyards occurring between Schweich and Pünderich. The best known wine villages in this area include Trittenheim, Piesport, Brauneberg, Bernkastel, Wehlen and Zeltingen. Best known among the Mosel wines is the Riesling with its characteristic light, aromatic, fruit flavours and high acidity content. Mosel Rieslings are refreshing, zesty and demand further attention; one glass will never be enough !
The quality of the best vineyards is determined by a range of local climatic factors and soil conditions. Vineyards therefore alternate between the left and right banks of the river depending on slope aspect and consequent exposure to sunlight. The river itself helps to reflect sunlight onto the vineyards, thus facilitating the ripening process of the grapes. Soils are also crucial and typically in the Mosel these consist of well-drained, Devonian slates which retain heat and minimise moisture retention.
Wine growing was first established by the Romans in the Mosel region and has become an integral part of the area’s cultural traditions and heritage. In every village and town you will find beautifully decorated small wine outlets (often with magnificent floral displays) offering you the chance to sample the local wares; the greatest problem being knowing where to start since the choice is so great. My advice is to pick a few at random and see how you get on.
Many Mosel villages host annual wine festivals which are colourful and relaxed affairs where visitors can let their hair down and enjoy local food and wines in convivial surroundings. During these fests, village streets are closed to traffic and a whole series of impromptu stalls are set up. These offer diverse opportunities to sample wines, local speciality foods and craft products; often with entertainment laid on by musicians and street entertainers. We went to one such “fest” in Pünderich which we greatly enjoyed. The important thing is not to be in a hurry, but just to take things as you find them (you might also need to think in advance about how to get home as the temptation to stay on a bit longer will be great !).
Despite being seemingly relaxed affairs, the wine festivals should not be regarded as frivolous and are a matter of great pride for the local communities involved. Each community elects their own wine Princess (“Königin”) who acts in the role of wine “ambassador” for that particular village throughout the coming year. Having a wine princess in the family is seen as being a great accolade for the families involved. Inevitably there will be a plaque on the wall commemorating the event in future years.
Monreal – a real life Hobbit town
Moving away from the river onto the adjoining plateaux, different landscapes are encountered which are no less endearing in their own right. Hidden away in a dell amidst the rolling hills of the Vulcan Eifel massif is the enchanting historic village of Monreal; a real medieval gem which is well worth exploring.
This picture-postcard location is remarkably uncrowded and would provide the perfect setting for Mr Bilbo Baggins and his fellow hobbits with its random assortment of quirky black (or red) and white houses clustered around the banks of the gently flowing River Eltz. This is a perfect place to spend a lazy summer afternoon simply watching the world go by, playing poohsticks from one of the ancient bridges or through exploring the many narrow, ambling village lanes.
The Village prospered through the development of a flourishing weaving industry, the proceeds of which, allowed many fine buildings to be constructed including the impressive Gothic church and the ornate bridge over the River Eltz with its stone, lion gargoyles. The houses of the weavers, though small by todays standards, were well constructed with large windows to let in plenty of light. Many of these old houses are now used as holiday homes with many local families now living in newer houses further down the valley.
The twin castles of Loewenburg and Pilippsburg are perched dramatically on adjacent hillsides overlooking the town. A walk up to the top is well worth while and its even possible to climb right to the top of the Loewenburg Castle to enjoy the very best views. From the top you can fully appreciate Monreal’s beautiful, sheltered and location within the green, wooded valley of the Eltz.
Down the Eltz – a fairy tale castle
It’s possible to follow a path some 20km or so down the peaceful valley of the river to Burg Eltz, one of the Mosel Region’s greatest historic treasures. The route to Burg Eltz also passes by Burg Pyrmont, another spectacular fortress dating from the 12th Century.
Burg Eltz itself could be straight out of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale and surpasses everything one might imagine of a medieval castle. The castle is located deep within the densely wooded valley on a rocky knoll and is cut off on three sides by the meandering River Eltz. As such, it’s quite hard to get to since there is no direct road access. This means that visitors either have to walk down a steep hillside or otherwise take advantage of a minibus shuttle service. This somewhat limits the number of visitors in a place which could otherwise easily be overrun by tourists.
The castle was built between the 13th and 16th centuries and provided accommodation for three separate lines of the same family; it was in effect three castles in one. The families didn’t always see eye to eye and the Great Hall offered the only communal meeting point where issues of mutual concern could be discussed. Inside, Burg Eltz has a real lived-in feel with twisting spiral stair cases, secret chambers and some amazing painted walls and ceilings. Remarkably, Burg Eltz was never destroyed and survived a two-year siege in the 14th Century and the French invasion of the area in 1689.
Downstream towards the Rhine
South of Burg Eltz, the River Eltz joins the Mosel at the village of Moselkern. From there it’s only a few kilometres downstream to the City of Koblenz where the Mosel joins the much larger River Rhine.
Near the wine village of Winnigen (shortly before Koblenz), the River flows under the huge road bridge which carries the busy A61 Autobahn high over the Valley. This spectacular bridge, one of the highest in Europe, towers impressively above the river, dwarfing the vineyards, farms and villages of the valley below.
Plans to construct a second road bridge higher up the valley near Bernkastel Kues have recently been the source of considerable controversy and have left local communities strongly divided. The proposed “Hochmosel” bridge (already under construction) will be nearly 2km long and will soar over the Mosel villages of Ürzig and Zeltingen-Rachtig. It will form part of the new A50 autobahn route which will provide a strategic connection between Belgium, Holland and Frankfurt (as well as providing connections to Frankfurt Hahn Airport). Plans for this project were first muted during the Cold War (for strategic military reasons) before being put into a state of limbo for nearly 30 years until recently re-emerging again.
As well as questioning the overall need for the route (Germany already has one of the world’s densest highway networks), critics say that the project will cause considerable ecological damage. They argue that the Bridge will impact significantly on some of the area’s best regarded vineyards as well as on the tranquility and environmental quality of the Middle Mosel region as a whole through additional visual intrusion, traffic noise and pollution.
From my personal perspective I think it is important that the Mosel region is not overdeveloped. I believe this runs the risk of destroying the very elements which make the Region unique and fascinating to explore; these being beautiful unspoilt landscapes, tranquil scenery, fine wines and fascinating historic villages. In short the Mosel Region (like its wine) is something to be savoured and explored at a slow pace; not something to be rushed through at 130km en route to Hahn Airport. As I see it, “slow” tourism, local produce and cultural heritage promotion have got to be the way forward for the Mosel; ignore these elements at your peril !
Journey’s end – The Deutsches Eck
The Mosel finally joins the Rhine in the genteel and pleasant city of Koblenz at a point known as the Deutsches Eck, in the shadow of the huge statue of Kaiser Wilhelm I mounted proudly on horseback and blessed by Angels. The statue was severely damaged during WWII but now has been restored to full pride of place.
Despite the busier river traffic of the Rhine, the Eck is a good place to chill out, watch the world go by and reflect upon the journey down the Mosel. One thing is for sure; there remain many more hidden treasures still awaiting discovery. We will be back to explore more Mosel castles, vineyards and riverside villages (and of course to sample more of the wines !).