Rhine or Mosel? Whether that question regards wine or travel, the answer is the same: It's a matter of taste
By Jim Johnson
|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.
Mosel River Valley Hotels
Ernst and Gabi Schanz make pleasant accommodations an even greater delight in their winery hotel. Service is enthusiastic and sincere, and guests are treated like family. Rooms are spacious with upbeat decor and interesting prints. Some have balconies, although there's a small terrace for all guests to enjoy. For late risers, breakfast is served until noon in a cheery room brightened by a large bay window. The room is also used for wine tastings and, on request, dinner for guests.
While a small group recently enjoyed a wine-tasting in the dining area, a newsletter writer savored a dinner platter with two imposing slivers of forearm-wide sausage so fresh the other pigs were probably still in mourning. Add to that Westphalian ham, local cheese, Schmaltz and some dense, moist bread all complemented by a glass of half-dry Riesling from the family vineyard and life doesn't get much better.
The hotel offers good-quality rental bikes and will transport guests and bikes up to 25 miles away, with route suggestions and map, for a pleasant ride home along the river.
Daily Rates: Single €50, double €76-82. Parking is €5
Rating: Quality 14/20, Value 15/20
Contact: Hotel Winzerhof, Bahnhofstrasse 8, D-54498 Piesport/Mosel, tel +49/6507/92520, fax 925252. Proprietors: Ernst and Gabi Schanz
Daily rates: Single €85-130, double v120-150, suite €200-350. Free parking.
Rating: Quality 17/20 Value 18/20
Daily rates: Single €74-106, double €112-170
Rating: Quality 14/20 Value 13/20 Daily Rates: Single €28, double €55, discounts for multiple nights and off-season. Free parking.
Rating: Quality 13/20 Value 16/20
Daily Rates: Single €74-106, double €112-170. Free parking. Bike rental €6. Frankfurt-Hahn Airport shuttle is €10
Rating: Quality 16/20 Value 16/20
Directly on the river nestled in the vineyards north of Neumagen-Dhron, this our favorite Mosel hotel. There are 18 guest rooms, lovely grounds, a tennis court, and a uniquely-styled indoor pool. The intimate little restaurant is considered one of the best in the region and in fine weather one can dine on a terrace overlooking the river. Ten minutes walk from the hotel is a small pier where day-trip riverboats stop for passengers. This is a fine small hotel, with style and charm, and a tremendous value. Daily Rates: Singles €66, doubles €85 to 99
Rating: Quality 15/20, Value 18/20
It's mostly locals who frequent this cozy pub, so there's lots of laughter and friendly greetings. Newcomers, too, are warmly welcomed; by the proprietor, the wait-staff and other guests. Rating: Quality 14/20 Value 15/20Set in an old granary, the Alte Zunftscheune offers a variety of settings: a sunny patio, a garden courtyard shaded with trees and vines, an ancient stone cellar with working well, and the half-timber-construction main dining area, split between the ground floor and an open mezzanine.
Not surprisingly, wine is a dominant theme in the decor, from old wine making equipment to framed photographs of wine princesses. Wine also plays a role in many recipes, even in desserts, where it's often substituted for milk. Almost all produce, meats and vegetables, like the recipes, come from local farms.
Regional specialties include potato soup, pork with bacon and Gräwes (seasoned mashed potatoes with cabbage), beef filet with horseradish sauce, liverwurst, blood sausage, and such Mosel fish as perch, pike and eel. Dessert might be a tart and sweet rhubarb compote. Main courses are in the €9-12 range and should, of course, be accompanied by local wine.
Contact: Goldene Traube Am Markt 8, D-56841 Traben-Trarbach, tel +49/6541/6011, fax 6013. Proprietors: Richard und Marlies Allmacher
Through the centuries, this region was generally poor, a fact reflected in its cuisine, which favors smoked meats and fish, sausages, cheese, bread, wild boar, turkey and potatoes. But modern tastes demand creativity, and the regions restaurants, for the most part, deliver. Wine, of course, plays a major role in many dishes.
Some of the best places to eat along the Mosel are Strausswirtschaften (literally bouquet establishments), small, temporary, vintner-run eateries set up in courtyards, backyards, driveways and cellars. Two regulations regarding these places persist from medieval times: they may open no more than four months a year and cannot post permanent signs. To get around the latter rule, the owners hang a straw broom or a bouquet of twigs (hence the name) wrapped in ribbon. Almost all sell simple but tasty fare, usually straight from the vintners kitchen. Often the proprietor will not only take orders and serve, but also prepare the meals. It's good food and a great way to mix with the locals. Quality varies, but any shopkeeper can direct visitors to his or her favorite.
The primary restaurant at the Hotel Richtershof is elegant, romantic and tranquil. Entering guests pass an open kitchen where aromas and sizzling pans put the taste buds on alert. Arched windows in the 1809 structure allow ample light and fabric-backed chairs seem to absorb much of the sound. Service is formal, but not stiff. The menu is ambitious and successful: consommé of lemongrass and mussels, lobster ravioli on wild asparagus, brook char in lemon-thyme sauce, kangaroo with peanut sauce, and iced strawberry soup with champagne sorbet.
Most entrées are between €20-24. With a glass of wine, an appetizer and dessert, the bill could easily come to €80 per person. Perhaps the best value is the daily, four-course prix fixe menu at €33. A five-course menu, with corresponding wines is €82.
The Doctor-Weinstube, a longtime favorite of Europeans, is increasingly popular with Americans visiting the charming wine village of Bernkastel-Kues. Set among the towns cobblestone streets and half-timber houses, the hotel was built in 1668 as a tithe house and still maintains much of its Renaissance atmosphere. Guestrooms are average in size, basic and bright with a rustic feel. Through dormer windows they face either the narrow street or the courtyard terrace.
If you arrive at the four-star Weinromantikhotel Richtershof in a horse-drawn coach, you won't feel out of place. A gravel driveway, shaded by a spreading chestnut tree, leads to the 300-year-old winery/estate converted to a hotel in 2001. It's a charming collection of half-timber, Baroque and Jugendstil buildings connected by modern structures to create an ensemble feeling. Public spaces, the restaurant and guest rooms have an understated elegance. Understated too, are the room rates, which would not shock at twice the price.
The idyllic setting, next to a wooded park with pond and waterfall, is enhanced by the presence of an active winery. Guests can tour its 17th-century colonnaded, barrel-filled cellars or hike through vineyards with a guide to explain the wine making process.
The 44 guestrooms are spacious and individually decorated, many with antique furnishings. Napoleon once slept in Number 402, which has a four-poster bed and the original stove from 1809. Number 401, decorated in a peaceful floral theme, has a terrace overlooking the garden. A corner double, Number 406 overlooks the medieval portion of the estate, as well as the garden and vineyards. A new wing is charming but lacks the character of the older buildings.
The family-run Hotel Hutter is, quite simply, a steal. For the price of a mid-range dinner in most German cities, you get overnight lodging and breakfast. Add another €10 ($11) for dinner.
The 42 rooms, mostly doubles, are plain but functional, clean and large enough for two. Ask for a river-view room on the first floor (our second) that opens to a patio panorama encompassing the 180-degree bend in the river, the steep vineyards of the Bremmer Calmont rising behind it, and the ruins of the Kloster Stuben monastery. Be sure to request a private bath or shower, since a few rooms have shared facilities.
Each has its own atmosphere, but all share the same varied menu, with an emphasis on regional dishes prepared with creative flair call it Mosel Fusion. Sure, potatoes are a Mosel staple, but one Zunftscheune version presents them sliced thin, filled with spinach and poached salmon, topped with hollandaise sauce and cheese, and baked. The salmon, of course, is poached in Riesling, which is another dominant theme: Riesling soup, Riesling cheese sauce and the decadent Vintners Dream vanilla ice cream served with a warm Riesling cream sauce and marinated grapes.
Several entrées are served in the skillet, like the Butcher Platter with fresh blood sausage and liverwurst fried with onions and potatoes, or cheese Spätzle sautéed with onions. Less adventurous diners can choose from a great variety of meat and fish entrées, including a half-dozen types of Schnitzel. Despite the spread-out dining areas, service is consistent and good. Entrées range from €7-18 but average around €14.
Rating: Quality 13/20 Value 15/20
Moselromantik-Hotel Kessler Meyer
About 15-minutes walk upstream from Cochem, the four-star Hotel Kessler Meyer provides stunning views not just of the Mosel, but of cliffs, the town and the imposing Reichsburg (Imperial Castle). The hotel has been around and much expanded since 1978. While it may not have the character of older hotels, it has both elegance and charm. Service is top-notch. Guestrooms are spacious and filled with light, many have balconies made private by a floral hedge. Numbers 48 and 49 in the newest part of the hotel offer the best views. In the twilight, it is bewitching to sit on the balcony and watch the lights of the town come on.
Contact: Moselromantik-Hotel Kessler Meyer Am Reilsbach 12. D-56812 Cochem, tel +49/267/197880, fax 3858. Prop: Kessler-Meyer family
Gutshotel Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt
Contact: Gutshotel Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt, Balduinstr. 1, Obere Mühlbrücke 9, Neumagen Dhron, D-96049, tel. +49/06507/2035, fax 5644.