Germany’s rolling rivers: the marvelous Mosel

Germany’s rolling rivers: the marvelous Mosel

by Karen Bradbury
Stripes Europe

Alongside Germany’s greatest rivers, one can reliably find a host of medieval castles, charming villages, steep vineyards and stunning natural beauty. When it comes to delivering all of the above, there’s one river that never leaves one high and dry. The French call it the Moselle, the Germans know it as the Mosel, in Luxembourgish it’s the Musel; the Roman name for it was Mosella and the Celts referred to it as Mosela. Choose from any of the above, or just call it what it is: absolutely gorgeous.

Portrait of a river: The Mosel rises on the western slopes of the Vosges mountain range in northeastern France and twists and turns for a total of 338 miles before entering the waters of the mighty Rhine by the German city of Koblenz. France’s share of the river may be greater than that of Germany’s (195 miles vs. 129 miles), but across that shorter distance, beauty unfolds with every twist and turn. The major German towns through which one passes while driving or cycling along the Mosel include Konz, Trier, Schweich, Bernkastel-Kues, Traben-Trarbach, Zell, Cochem and Koblenz.

Start at the source: At a height of some 2,300 feet above sea level, the river rises near the village of Bussang in France and passes through the towns of Épinal, Toul, Pont-à-Mousson, Metz and Thionville before exiting the country and forming a 24-mile long border between Luxembourg and the German states of Saarland and the Rhineland-Palatinate. The Mosel Valley in Luxembourg is the country’s source of its prized white wines, particularly riesling, auxerrois and pinot gris. The towns of Schengen, Remich, Grevenmacher and Wasserbillig offer the aura of eras past and make the most of their waterside locations.

Roman history in Trier: Our first stop in Germany is the mighty city of Trier. Founded by the Celts in the fourth century B.C. and conquered by the Romans in 16 B.C., Trier is regarded as the oldest city in all Germany. Littered with Roman era-treasures including the Porta Nigra gate and home to an impressive cathedral, it’s easy to while away the better part of a day here. To see the Mosel in Trier, cross over the Römerbrücke, a nine-pillared stone bridge dating back to 144 A.D. that is still in use today.

Half-timbered heaven in Bernkastel-Kues: This town has much to recommend it, including a market square, wineries galore and the ruins of the Landshut castle. The Spitzhäuschen, a narrow, half-timbered house with a foundation smaller than its overhanging second-story, is home to a winery. The set of iron chains and cuffs found next to the Town Hall are part of an old pillory. The interactive Mosel Wine Museum tells the tale of the region’s vineyards and offers tastings. Would you rather have a beer? Kloster Machern, a former Cisterian monastery, is nowadays a brewery. Just downriver from Bernkastel-Kues is found the village of Wehlen, known for its sundial overlooking a vineyard and the only suspension bridge spanning the Mosel.

Traben-Trarbach: Another hyphenated town made up of villages on both sides of the river, at one point, Traben-Trarbach was the second-largest wine trading city in all Europe, second only to Bordeaux. The stately Art Nouveau houses bear witness to the town’s heyday at the turn of the past century; the gate built across the bridge connecting both halves is also representative of this style. Subterranean tours reveal the extent and beauty of the wine cellars built beneath the town. Above ground, two of Traben-Trarbach’s major landmarks, the Grevenburg Castle and the Montreal Fortress, are both mere ruins, haven fallen victim to French troops. Museum lovers are spoiled for choice here, with options including the Buddha Museum, House of Icons, Time Travel Museum and Middle Mosel Museum.

Zell: This picturesque village is worth a detour to check out the Schwarze Katz (Black Cat) fountain. The fierce feline carved of black basalt recalls a popular tale based on a trio of traveling wine merchants seeking to purchase wine back in 1863. After excessive sampling without coming to any decision, a black cat snuck into the cellar, jumped atop one of the barrels and spat and hissed at all who approached him. The merchants took this as a sure sign that this was the wine they should buy. Each year at the end of April, a wine fest celebrating Black Cat wines is held high up in the vineyards. A second black cat, this one holding a wine glass as he stands atop a wine barrel, greets visitors as they drive through the traffic circle on the way in to town.

Bremm: It’s time for a stretch of the legs, and here, the hiking possibilities abound. The “Moselschliefe” scenic viewpoint offers a panoramic vista of a sweeping bend in the river. If that’s not enough of a walk, carry on for another mile, to the “Gipfelkreuz” cross. For a challenge you won’t soon forget, take on the Calmont Klettersteig, a via ferrata, or iron way affixed with steel cables, ladders, hoops and pins to help ensure the hiker’s safe ascent and descent. The route traverses the Calmont, which is one of the steepest vineyards in Europe with its 65-degree slope.

Beilstein: This tiny gem of a village wears the nickname “Sleeping Beauty of the Moselle” for its atmosphere, reminiscent of centuries long past. The remains of a wall that once encircled Beilstein and the market square date back to the 14th century. Of particular note here is an old Jewish cemetery, a testament to the presence of a thriving Jewish community, which made up more than a quarter of the population in the mid-19th century.

Cochem: With the majestic Reichsburg Castle dominating the skyline, it’s hard to miss Cochem, nor would you want to: it’s one of the Mosel’s touristic hotspots. In the high season, expect to be elbow-to-elbow with day-trippers and overnight guests. When souvenir shopping, be on the lookout for peach liqueur, a sweet treat made from the small red peaches that grow in the nearby vineyards. To rise above the fray, a double-seated chairlift whisks one high above the town to the Pinner-Kreuz peak, where a terrace café offers tempting cakes and regional cooking. The lift operates from April to November. River cruises to Traben-Trarbach or Cochem present the Mosel from another perspective entirely.

Klotten: Smaller kids in tow? They’ll no doubt appreciate the change of pace that comes with a visit to Wild- & Freizeitpark Klotten. Part zoo, part theme park, this non-high tech, family-friendly destination sits on a plateau above the Mosel. Alpacas, brown bear, elk and birds of prey are amongst the biggest animal attractions. Amongst the rather limited choice of rides is a single roller coaster, water slides and a water bob that comes in with a splash landing. The park is open from late March through early October.

Burg Eltz: If you’re to limit your castle exploration to just one, make sure it’s spectacular. Travel guru Rick Steves rates Eltz Castle as his favorite castle in all Europe, and it’s easy to see why. The remote, forested location that spared it from destruction is a major part of its charm. The castle has been passed down through generations of the same family for 850 years. Guided tours lead through rooms stuffed with antique furniture, paintings, suits of armor and weaponry, clothing, porcelain jewelry and other treasures. The castle welcomes visitors from April through October.

Koblenz: After all the quaintness, Koblenz feels more like a full-fledged city, albeit one with a stunning location. Gazing northward from the Deutsches Eck, the point where the two rivers meet, one is flanked by the Rhine to the east and overlooked by the massive Ehrenbreitstein Fortress, reachable by cable car. The impressive monument overlooking the confluence of the two great rivers is crowned with a statue of German Emperor William I and commemorates the role he played in the unification of Germany.

Having conquered the Mosel, it’s time to turn home. From Koblenz, it’s an hour-and-a-quarter’s drive to Wiesbaden and just a hair under two hours to Kaiserslautern, Baumholder, Bitburg or Geilenkirchen. Recall memories of your outing over a crisp cool glass of riesling, the ultimate Mosel souvenir.  

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