A River Through Time

Germany’s Mosel River Valley enchants with a mix of Roman and Medieval influences
history, travel
Written By Adam Van Brimmer
Photography By Matthew Stephan

Narrow riverboats and barges still ply the Mosel’s waters.

From the valley’s rim, the Mosel shimmers in its stillness. The river bends painfully below, at an angle only a contortionist could love. The waterway sweeps gradually toward the vantage point before hairpinning away again. The surface is a mirror until disturbed by the wake from a lengthy barge captained by a man supremely confident in his navigational abilities.

The Mosel patiently traces its dizzying path for 339 miles through Germany’s western reaches, through Luxembourg and to its source, the Vosges Mountains on France’s flanks. The river may be quiet but is far from a secret—the valley shows two millennia’s worth of evidence of mankind’s influence. Here, recorded history begins with the arrival of Julius Caesar’s legions. The Romans, Franks, Prussians and Germans have been drawn to this place in the 20 centuries since, marking it with grand bathhouses and amphitheaters; tiny villages of half-timbered houses and stone squares; and mammoth castles and gravity-defying vineyards.

Yesterday’s fortifications are today’s ruins. Castles built to extort tolls along trading routes collect different forms of tribute. And the vines originally planted to sate Caesar’s garrisons bear fruit transformed into the world’s finest white wines. The Mosel spills into the Rhine a short distance to the northeast. But where that UNESCO World Heritage Site attracts visitors by the cruise ship full, the Mosel flows slowly on, content in its relative anonymity.

“The Mosel keeps,” says one prominent local citizen, “what the Rhine promises.”

Storming Castles

Reichsburg Cochem’s architecture dates to the 14th century.

Reichsburg Cochem squats over its namesake village like an expectant mother goose over her eggs. Dark and hulking, the castle attracts the eye always, whether one is cycling along the Mosel, enjoying a glass of riesling in a sidewalk cafe or navigating the maze of narrow cobblestone passageways set within the 14th-century village’s walls.

The Reichsburg is but one of nearly two dozen castles that still stand sentry above the Mosel or along the passes into the valley. Some are but piles of stone. Others have adapted with the times, now home to museums, cafés, event spaces, even hotels. Still more are private residences where authenticity is as important to the current owners as it was to their ancestors.

Reichsburg Cochem is best observed from afar. Journey the Mosel to the east and climb out of the valley along one of its tributaries, the Eltzbach, to discover Burg Eltz. The same family calls this skyscraping castle home as built it at the precipice of a 23-stories-high rock starting in the 1100s. Three branches of the Eltz family—the Kempenichs, Rübenachs and Rodendorfs—once lived within the burg, each with their own separate residence within the walls. From their ranks came two prince-electors of the Holy Roman Empire, local leaders from various parts of the German realm that made up a medieval electoral college that chose the emperor.

Burg Eltz dates to the 1100s and is the only German castle west of the Rhine untouched by conflict through the centuries.

Today, Burg Eltz is owned by one man, Count Karl Graf von und zu Eltz-Kempenich, a descendant of the Kempenich clan. Over the centuries, one of the other two lines lost its claim to the castle due to a lack of male heirs. The other sold its birthright to the Kempenichs. Since the early 1800s, the Eltz-Kempenichs have shared their castle with the world, and in 1945 they opened two of the three houses—decorated with heirlooms and furnishings dating to the Middle Ages—for tours. Only the oldest tower, built more than 850 years ago and home to Count Eltz’s private library and living quarters, is off limits.

“The beauty of the place—the site, the valley, the architecture, the heirlooms—just speaks to you,” Graf says. “The castle, for me, is a living member of the family, like a grandmother who is very close to your heart. My family’s heritage, going back eight centuries, is all right here and is a part of our body, and you have to treat it in the most subtle and delicate way.”

The castle, for me, is a living member of the family, like a grandmother who is very close to your heart.

Beilstein is a quaint village of half-timbered buildings draped in lilac and grapevines.

The proliferation of castles along the Mosel, as well as the Rhine, coincided with Charlemagne’s rise to power around the turn of the 9th century. He united most of Europe, at least politically, and trade and commerce flourished in the centuries that followed. Large landowners, or lords, built the heavy fortifications.

Most of the burgs along the Mosel were constructed at narrow points or bends in the river. Chains were stretched from shore to shore to prevent toll skippers. High perimeter walls and the castellans’ possession of the high ground discouraged resistance from the traders and protected the village from would-be aggressors.

To climb from the Mosel’s riverbank through the village of Beilstein to the ruins of Burg Metternich is to travel through time. The valley precipice is low here, and the village sits on a gentle slope that rises to the castle. Beilstein is a mix of guesthouses, cafes and shops, the stone buildings draped with lilac and grapevines and fronted by tables and merchandise displays.

Burg Arras is a medieval castle that today operates as an inn.

The quick walk over the cobblestones and up the burg approach engages all the senses: the eyes take in the scenery, the ears the soft murmur of town commerce, the nose the scent of fresh-baked bread and fragrant flowers, the fingers the rough-hewn stone of the castle walls. Standing on what’s left of the castle ramparts, its command of the Mosel is absolute. None shall pass without paying tribute.

Farther upriver, the village of Alf sits at the toe of a side valley that grants access to the Mosel. The castle here is not an imposing stronghold like Burg Eltz but more a manor house with a keep and a turret. Burg Arras is one of the charming castles in the Mosel that today operates as an inn, with large airy suites, a simple garden and a rampart complete with working cannons.

“We like to remind the villagers we are here for them from time to time,” says Roman Keuthen, who operates the bed and breakfast—and commands the long guns—alongside his wife Maria.

But then the castles of the Mosel are hard to forget.

When in Trier

Nature has longed rubbed at and darkened the sandstone of the Porta Nigra. Still, this fortified gatehouse stands strong, guarding the northern entrance to Trier’s city center just as it did when this Mosel metropolis was the capital of the Western Roman Empire.

The “Black Gate” makes the burgs and ruins located elsewhere along the river seem modern. Built during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, the Porta Nigra is pockmarked with the touches of man and weather and shaded the color of charcoal. The fortification was a ruin long before the feudal lords began collecting their tolls upriver.

A strong catapult’s throw from inside the Porta Nigra lays another testament to Roman ingenuity: the Imperial Baths. The Caesars took rest and relaxation as seriously as they did security, and when Constantius I moved his residence to Trier at the 3rd century’s end, the spa complex became a high-priority project. Built in phases over the following two decades, the Kaiserthermen, as it’s known locally, was never completed. Work was abandoned once Constantius’ son, Constantine the Great, left Trier around 314 for what would become known as Constantinople and later Istanbul.

The scale of the Imperial Baths dazzles to this day. An underground labyrinth of passageways spreads like the tunnels of an ant colony from beneath the ruins of the boiler rooms and hot water bathhouse.

The Romans’ most lasting influences along the Mosel flank the river wherever its course turns to the southwest. The valley’s first vineyards were established on Trier’s outskirts soon after the city’s founding and its leaders determined the impracticality of importing wine from existing regions to the south or west.

The growers soon realized the Mosel possesses a unique combination of soil and climate conditions. The grapes yield a sweet, light-bodied white wine, considered even at that time superior to that of other regions. Over the centuries, as empires rose and fell, castles reared and crumbled, and river traffic ebbed and flowed, winegrowers stitched more and more vineyards into the valley walls.

Today, vines cling to even the sheerest hillsides, many of them unworkable using modern cultivating techniques and equipment. But the riesling produced is so fine the challenges are considered little more than a nuisance.

“Wine from grapes picked by hand,” says Norbert Breit, a lifelong Mosel Valley resident and chief winemaker for Weingüter Wegeler, “tastes better anyway.”

The Secrets to Fine Wine

Growers tie vines into ‘Mosel hearts’ to simplify picking.

The black stone is warm to the touch in the midafternoon, almost hot. Granules of this brittle slate, calved and carved by the Mosel into this valley all those millennia ago, is the key ingredient to superior riesling, Breit says. The slate absorbs sunshine during the daylight hours and holds that heat well beyond sunset, allowing for consistent growing temperatures.

Yet the subtly sweet finish of Mosel riesling is due to more than the soil alone. The grade of the valley walls and their position relative to the sun—angle and elevation—influence the product as well. The differences in geography, geology and topography within the gorge means some growing spots are better than others.

Table wine from the Mosel is labeled simply as Mosel riesling. Good-quality riesling from the Mosel is named after the grower’s estate, usually a village or geographic location, like Bernkastel or Graach. The premium bottles are labeled with the name of a specific growing site.

The Doctor is a 12-acre section of a vast and steep vine-covered hillside stretching from the edge of the village of Bernkastel to a road cut about 500 feet up the slope. The site faces just the right direction at just the right angle and just the right elevation—above the road, the same hillside faces the same direction, but wine made from the grapes of those vines is not considered Doctor wine.

“The angle is slightly different and the elevation is higher; the microclimate isn’t the same,” Breit says with a smile and a raised eyebrow. “The grapes aren’t quite as good.”

Breit’s employer, Wegeler, is the largest of five landowners on the Doctor site. The estate’s founder, Julius Wegeler, bought a two-plus acre section of the Doctor in 1900 for 100 Reichmarks per vine, the equivalent of more than US$11 million in today’s money. Wegeler had married into a prominent sparkling winemaking family and paid top dollar—the purchase is said to be the most expensive per vine in history—to expand the business and establish his own family name in the wine industry.

More than a century later, the Doctor site is hallowed ground. One of the other landowners on the site, a charitable organization bequeathed its acreage by a generous benefactor, leases its vines to third-party growers for $9 per vine per year. With each vine producing approximately a half-bottle of wine in a good year, the capital cost is staggering.

Wine from grapes picked by hand tastes better anyway.

Image By Cephas Picture Library Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo

The vineyards’ steep slopes complicate harvesting.

“And if the current lessee doesn’t want to pay that price next year, there are many others willing to take their place,” Breit says.

The notion of working the Doctor is as intimidating as the cost of entry. Balancing on the site’s stiff upper lip, a rappelling rope would seem necessary to work the rows. Breit turns his body sideways to the steep slope, digs the side of his boot into the slate soil and takes a confident yet small step down—this from a man who has worked the Mosel hillsides for a half-century.

He notes the specific way the vines are shaped to the stakes or wire runners. The branch loops away from its anchor on each side in a rough heart pattern. Known as the Mosel heart, this simplifies the cultivating and harvesting process, placing the grapes away from the stake. With the rows planted close together, a picker can collect the fruit from the vines on each side of him without having to contort his body on the steep slope.

Efficiency is invaluable. Wegeler’s Doctor vineyard requires three to four weeks to harvest, with a dozen experienced pickers working six days a week. The fall weather is finicky on the Mosel and rain makes footing on the hillsides impossible, and drastic temperature changes can impact the pace of ripening. Even the smallest timesaving trick can reap benefits.

The fruit of the labor is immensely satisfying. The Mosel riesling is so tasty that the Catholic Church once deemed it illegal to grow red grapes in the valley. Breit recounts how, during the 1800s, the Archbishop of Trier sampled both white and red wines produced along the Mosel. The white was so superior to the red his eminence ordered all the red grape vines cut and not replanted.

“The government lifted the decree in the late-1980s,” Breit says. “Wegeler makes red wine today, but we still don’t grow it here in the Mosel.”

Red is too racy for the valley anyway. Tractors, farm trucks and bicycles own the river roads, forcing the Bugattis and Ducatis, driven by Germans from Frankfurt and Bonn on holiday, and other automobiles to match the easy pace so familiar here.

Motorists seem not to mind, for stillness is a constant here. The river, the grapes, time itself—nothing hurries. Not along the Mosel.

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