EXPLORING THE MOSEL
BERNKASTEL TO COCHEM
A visually pleasant and enjoyable way to view the vineyards and old
Roman towns along the Mosel is a leisurely drive from Bernkastel to
Cochem. Leaving Bernkastel, with its very own castle overlooking
the town, the road winds through the Mosel River valley with the
steep vine covered banks on both sides of the river. Driving out of
Bernkastel, heading toward the Rhine,  you first pass the town of
Grach.  The Gracher Himmelrich vineyard stretches above town,
long a producer of world class rieslings as are so many others you
will pass.  

A short time later, you come to Zeltingen, an attractive riverside town
filled with small hotels, guest houses and wine makers.  Stretching
above town is Zeltingen Sonnenuhr, the famous vineyard noted for
its wonderful sundial.  It was built In 1620 by an Abbot of the Kloister
Himmerods, north of the Mosel toward Wittlich.  The sundial, the
best preserved on the Mosel, gave the world-famous wine producing
area its name.  
BURG LANDSHUT, BERNKASTEL
The winding drive will take the explorer down the Mosel,
which seems rather disorienting as the river flows in a
northeasterly direction, which seems to defy most laws of
river flow.  Actually, the Mosel can be found to flow in any
imaginable direction at some time or another as it snakes it
way toward Korbenz and the Rhine.
Small villages dot both sides of the river and often the drive
will take you across the river as the road ends at one village
or some impassable barrier forces a crossing.
At some points, there are small ferries that will take cars
across to the other side to visit a neighboring village.  
Villages vary from the picturesque Bernkastel, almost like a
Disney theme park to working towns always about the days
business but still retaining a look of bygone times.  
All along the way, the slate covered hills on both sides are
covered in grape vines, which in the early spring are nothing
more than small shoots with a leaf or two carefully tied into a
heart shaped configuration.  In late fall and these same vines
will be laden with Riesling and other varieties of grapes ready
for handpicking and pressing for wine production.

Between the first and forth centuries, the Romans did
extensive terracing of the Mosel valley take advantage of the
unique soils and the special climate moderated by the effect
of the river.    Each terraced area is a flat surface is only
about three meters wide with the next supporting wall of rocks
behind it  to form the next level.  
The terraces will cover all areas of the hill that have the soil
to support the root system of the vine.  These small areas of
soil are sometimes like islands on the rocky hillsides.  In
some locations, the vineyards are at such a steep incline that
the individually terraced layers are connected by ladders or
little metal tracks on which the vintners can ride up and down
the steep slopes, on little carts, to tend the vines and harvest
the grapes.  The slopes on which the vines are grown and
carefully tended are so steep that the perfect vine tender
might have been a goat.
The earliest descriptions of the area are from the Roman
writer, Ausonius who described the beauty of the Mosel
valley in one of his best known poems.  Though only vestiges
of the Roman era remain, little else seems to have changed
since that time.
Post Roman vintners, the earliest being monks from the
many monasteries that line the Mosel, have maintained the
carefully terracing.  Though many of the poorer producing
areas have returned to forest, the finest vineyards are still
maintained with vigilance.
The sides of the vine-covered hills that usually produce the
best grapes are the ones that receive direct sun on a
southern exposure.  The natural bedrock of the area is dark
gray slate and often litters the ground under the vines and
serves as an extender of the warmth of the sun.  The slate
holds heat of the day well after sundown and thus produces
some extra growing energy and in the late fall extends the
growing season, allowing the grapes to produce more sugar.
The longer the grapes have to bask in the sun, the sweeter
will be the grape.  The slate also lends minerals to the soil
and is absorbed by the roots, which in turn allows the grape
to take on the subtle flavor, terroir, of the soil in which its
roots are anchored.   
Some villages are more “Romanesque” than others.  
There may be a telltale Roman watchtower and if one
walks the streets that wind away from the river, into the
rear of the villages that extend to the bottom of the hill,
there will be very narrow, slightly winding streets that do
not allow car traffic.  In the Roman occupied days, some
of the narrow roads would have allowed cart travel and
have at their widest been just the width of two horses
traveling side by side.  Many other very narrow twisting
village roads were undoubtedly only for pedestrian
travel.  Today, many of the Mosel villages have streets
on which no cars are allowed and the walker can stroll
about, casually looking in windows filled with wine
bottles, artistically arranged with the fermented juices of
the region, without fear of being moved to the side by a
passing automobile.
On the steepest hillsides, Roman arches are placed
strategically along the stone terracing which allowed for
stability of the terracing walls.  That the Roman arches and
carefully arranged stones still remain intact after so many
centuries shows the quality of their engineering.  Situated
among the terraced walls the traveler can discover caves,
which extend into the hillsides. These were used by the
Romans to store their tools and to provide shelter for the
lucky slave overseers during the hot summer months.
Along the way, the explorer will go past such towns as
Urzig, Alf, and Traben-Trarbach.  Following the river, one
can see the large ruins of a Roman villa.  Hidden in the
shrubs at the side of the road, it has gone unnoticed for
centuries and still goes unnoticed today.  As you follow a
large turn in the river  you can view what may have been a
basilica, which was probably placed over the ruins of a
Roman temple and later a church.  If you look with a
careful eye in many of the villages, you can see where city
walls were located and have since been turned into the
sides of buildings now used for homes and shops. For
instance,  as you leave Cochem, to take the winding road
that will take you to the autobahn, you pass through
arches, which were part of the ancient Roman city wall.
The quaint village of Zell is where the Zeller Schwarze Katz
wines are produced.  On the hill, behind the lovely former
Roman city, are the white letters, in very large words, that
identify the grape growing region.  The shop windows in town
are filled with the local product as well as souvenir cat
reminders of the name of the wine.  Along the first road up from
the river is a wonderful statue of a black, of course, cat with its
arched back and opened mouth displaying its perfectly huge
teeth.  Maybe he is trying to protect his town from invaders.  
This large figure dominates a fountain and aptly represents the
area.  Zell has public restrooms by the river and gets excellent
marks as open public restrooms in Europe are a rare find.  For
those who prefer quasi-Turkish cuisine to that of the German
interpretation of pizzerias there are two donner kabobs on the
mainly pedestrian street just up from the road that runs by the
village.  Zell welcomes the tourist without being too “touristy.”
The traffic on the river is in itself entertaining to
watch.  Long barges, sometimes two that are
connected, carrying coal, and always at least one car,
steam up or down the river.  There are also the
advertised “romantic” tourist boats that connect
various points along the river and offer a fine view of
villages, vineyards, and occasional castle that
commands the highest point near a few of the
villages.  Short boat rides can be arranged in many of
the larger villages and there are usually signs with
hours of tours and costs posted at the ticket booth,
which will be found beside the river.  These tours offer
an opportunity for the driver of the car to also enjoy
the sights as many of the interesting views are up
high on the slopes and difficult for the driver to view
safely.  Large Trumpeter swans hug the banks and
keep watch over their territories.  The area along
either side of the river is lined with wonderful bike
trails for those who prefer a more leisurely pace.  All
villages have camping parks in which individual sites
seemed to be claimed for much of the season as they
are not only trailers, but also have tented areas
adjacent to them and perhaps a bit of yard which gets
mowed.  
When one sees a ruined castle at the highest vantage
point on the river, he or she can imagine that the
castle was once a Roman villa, which has been
claimed, been built on top of, and renovated many
times over the past centuries, as have others in all
formerly Roman occupied areas of Europe.  The
Romans always built with a keen eye for the
advantage over invaders.  The difference in
appearance from other areas of this nature in Europe
is simply due to what stone or building material was
available locally.  The indigenous slate lends toward a
very beautiful and often quaint look.  Many of the
building have been “improved” with plastering and
cementing over the original slate walls, which makes
the originals even more wonderful to view.  
Leaving the Mosel at the large village of Cochem
will take the traveler first through forests and as
you climb upwards away from the river valley,
eventually to areas, which are, much flatter and
fit for grazing.  You leave the forest behind and
drive through meadows and fields that are
cultivated with hay, wheat, and other grains.  On
the right side of this winding road you will see,
and if you have your car windows down, will hear
a gushing stream, or perhaps natural aqueduct
that carries rushing water down to the river.  In
the springtime water falls vigorously from the
steep cliffs to join this water source.  You feel as
though you have left Germany and are on a trek
through West Virginia.  This road will take you
back to the A road on which you can travel in the
direction of Koblenz or south to Trier, which after
the fall of Rome became the center of Roman
rule.  The Mosel River can be explored in small
segments or larger ones according to the needs
of the explorers.  The Mosel drive offers a
pleasant respite with the constant opportunity to
view something that still remains of the ancient
Romans, and illustrates what effective architects
they were.    
Copyright
Carol Ware Duff
April, 2005