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Rhine or Mosel? Whether that question regards wine or travel, the answer is the same: It's a matter of taste

By Jim Johnson

Mosel River
Slow and Steady

For travelers, there are certainly differences. The Mosel is much narrower and curvier than the Rhine, meandering nearly 200 kilometers (125 miles) to cover the 100-kilometer (62-mile) direct-line distance between Trier and Koblenz. It's slower and calmer than the Rhine and its microclimate is almost Mediterranean with cold-weather days often 8-10 degrees warmer than in towns off the river. There's a softer look to it, as if viewing the landscape through thin gauze. It's probably no coincidence that the German language uses the masculine der for the Rhine and the feminine die for the Mosel.

The river is not as accessible as the Rhine. Trains cut through hills rather than follow the winding river and many towns are not served by rail. So except for the handful of popular ones, most villages are usually uncrowded, especially with the recent closure of nearby military bases.

Between Trier and Koblenz, wine making is by far the leading industry and the fact that tourism isn't the region's economic engine, means a more authentic experience than in more visitor-dependent areas.

Here, villages feel like villages, where everyone knows everyone. In tiny Longuich, Mayor Josef Schmitt recently officiated at a street festival and later was seen in a green apron taking lunch orders at an outdoor café.

"We don't think of ourselves as a tourist attraction," said a vintner in Bremm, a charming village midway between Trier and Koblenz. "We just do what we do, in some ways no differently today than 200 years ago. People don't sightsee here; they visit."

Most of what they do relates to wine making, and indeed vineyards stretch as far as the eye can see or at least until the next curve in the river. Many visitors come to the same vintner year after year, to restock their Rieslings and swap family stories. And many vintners run cozy guesthouses to augment their incomes (and hedge against bad years).

This isn't to say the Mosel lacks a tourism infrastructure; there are charming inns and elegant hotels, and chefs take full advantage of local produce and abundant wine. But across the board, travelers will find lodging and food prices here generally lower than along the Rhine and more touristed areas.

Nor does the Mosel lack attractions beyond the vineyards. There is much to see, including Roman ruins, stunning castles and half-timber towns.

In Longuich and across the river in Mehring, are two Roman villas, rebuilt in part but with much of their ancient foundations intact. Neumagen-Dhron, displays a replica of a giant stone carving of a Roman wine ship (the original, discovered in the village, is in Triers Municipal Museum).

At the other end of the architectural spectrum, Traben-Trarbachsprimary architectural style is Jugendstil (art nouveau). Much of the town was rebuilt after a series of fires in the late 19th century and at the time Jugendstil was all the rage.

Bernkastel-Kues remains the postcard-perfect Mosel town, with castle ruins, half-timber houses, a medieval marketplace and architectural styles spanning nearly two millennia. There's another compelling reason to visit this delightful town: the Vinothek, where € 9 opens the door to an unlimited sampling of 130 wines from the region. Weinkulturelles Zentrum, Cusannusstrasse 2, D-54470 Bernkastel-Kues, tel. +49/6531/4141, fax: 4155.

Something that hasn't changed is how vines are tended and grapes are picked. It's as manual today as ever. Travelers who want a first-hand experience should visit the Weingut Schauf, a popular winery in the village of Ediger-Eller.

Its vineyards are on the Bremmer Calmont, at 65 degrees (90 is vertical) the steepest vineyard in Europe. Hiking up is an option, but Karl Schauf offers an easier way: a two-person funicular wagon, powered by a lawnmower engine that climbs about two-thirds of the way up the 376-meter (1,233-foot) slope. The passenger faces to the rear and gains a stunning perspective: straight across to the ruins of 12th-century Cloister Stuben, soft light drenching its ancient walls and streaming through its Romanesque arches.

Perhaps to distract his passenger from fear, on the ascent Herr Schauf explains the challenges these vineyards present, like maintaining centuries-old drywalls and how 23 times each year he must cut and tie each vine to a wooden stake.

At the end of the line, a trail splits left to a series of ladders farther up the slope or, thankfully, right to a storm shelter that doubles as a picnic area when Herr Schauf gives tours. His son has brought up wine, bread, sausage and cheese. Life is good.

Back below on terra firma, Herr Schauf drives his guest a few minutes to the village. As in many towns, nearly every house belongs to a vintner or someone involved in the wine trade, and visitors are likely to be invited into ancient wine cellars sometimes hidden below modern houses to view room after room of prized bottles. Perhaps a tasting will follow, and maybe a multi-bottle purchase will follow that, although there's no pressure. (Weingut Schauf, St. Jackob Strasse 18, D-56814 Eller/Mosel, tel +49/2675/288)

Castle-lovers will not leave the Mosel region disappointed. Among the most popular are the Landshut ruins in Bernkastel-Kues, the Imperial Castle in Cochem and the Ehrenburg in Brodenbach. Some, like Treis Castle, are little more than tumbled walls and a sturdy keep. Others are visited for their views, like the Grevenburg ruins in Traben-Trarbach, which looks west across the river to perfect sunsets behind the ruins of Mont Royal fortress.

The Mosel also claims one of Germany's most beautiful, romantic, and best-preserved castles, Burg Eltz, about an hours brisk walk from the river, or a scenic 15 minutes by car. Though in its ninth century of ownership by the von Eltz family, it is open to the public with guided tours.

With Cochem, Burg Eltz is one of the Mosel's most popular attractions. But all towns fill up during their wine and harvest festivals. And visitors should also be aware of Rhine in Flames weekend celebrations, since Mosel towns, especially those close to Koblenz, often get overflow from booked-solid hotels along the Rhine. The opening of Frankfurt/Hahn Airport, although far closer to Trier than to Frankfurt, has had minimal impact on tourism.