On a cafe patio framed by rosebushes, I am savoring a lunch of smoked trout, mixed greens and goat cheese en croute. Between bites I sip a dry Riesling squeezed from grapes grown in the vineyard a few steps away. The owner, whose historic home doubles as a small inn, refills my glass. Four friends and I are rewarding ourselves for a morning spent on bikes. Groups of hikers crowd the other tables.
The bells of a nearby 15th-century church remind us that we aren’t in Healdsburg or Calistoga, but in the German village of Ediger-Eller, one stop during a week on bikes and boats along the Mosel and Rhine rivers. Germany was never on my travel bucket list, partly because I’d never shaken my doubts about Germans. First, there’s their reputation for aloofness—and weren’t they the bad guys in two world wars? Second, how could a non-pork-eater from Marin survive in the Land of Ham and Sausages? The second question was answered the moment I opened the café menu. I needed a few more days to answer the first one.
Our plan was to follow a hook-shaped route on the Rhine and Mosel, which slither south toward France through the heart of Germany’s western wine country. We bused from Frankfurt to Boppard, a typical Rhine village with its Roman fortress walls, medieval church and hilltop castle. Exhilarating, indeed. But even more astonishing—and rewarding—was what Boppard doesn’t have. As with other Rhine and Mosel villages I would visit, cars are verboten in the center of town. Instead of revving engines on the cobblestone lanes extending out from the village square, our Riesling samplings at the outdoor tables of local weinstubes (wine bars) were accompanied only by church bells. And unlike on the wine country highways in Sonoma and Napa, traffic is light even on the main roads here, because the villages are small and most tourists follow the rivers by other means. We traveled by riverboat, bike and bus; others hike, take trains or paddle canoes or kayaks.
We began our trek at Koblenz, a city of gardens and bridges where the Rhine and Mosel converge, for a boat ride down the Mosel. Our boat, like so many others on the water, had a long, narrow deck, table service and bar. We also saw “hotel boats” with staterooms and stationary bikes. But why pedal nowhere over the river when you can pedal somewhere along the banks? That was our next mode of transport.
Rising on slopes on both sides of the river are countless vineyards crowned by evergreen forests; the steepest hilltops are speckled decoratively with castles, monasteries or villas. Those elevated edifices indicated approaching villages, which appeared every few miles along the 125-mile stretch of water we followed.
Villages were also signaled by the sight of swans on the riverbank. Each town had its own flock, it seemed, and they added to the fairy-tale atmosphere of the countryside. That otherworldly spell was deepened by our tour of Eltz Castle. The 1157 citadel is 10 enchanting stories of towers, gables, oriels and, on the inside, rooms chock-full of Renaissance art and assorted armored knight-wear.
The next day on our bike ride we asked Stefan, one of a group of middle-aged cyclists from Berlin who exchanged gut morgens with us along the path, whether they were just as spellbound.
“We look forward to this trip every year,” he said, his English perfect. “We go slow, 50 kilometers [31 miles] a day, and if we get tired or want to spend the afternoon wine tasting we take a boat to the next inn.”
They were staying at “Bett & Bike” inns, which provide cyclists with discounts and bike storage, and their casual approach to moseying down the Mosel sounded ideal. What’s the rush? The bike path mostly hugs the river, occasionally crossing a bridge. When a thunderstorm briefly interrupted our ride, we laughed it off under a tractor, the closest shelter, with the tang of fresh rain filling our nostrils and the bike path puddling with shiny mirrors.
We stopped near Bremm (population 849) to hike above the steepest vineyards in Europe, which cling to the slope at a 68-degree pitch. The vineyards and trails attract 1,000 hikers on summer weekends and are maintained by the Bremm mayor, Heinz Berg, and three buddies. Berg shared his wine with us and a few fellow hikers at a small amphitheater carved into the hillside after we’d taken a ride in the “monorack”—little more than an oversize wheelbarrow that chugs up the hillside on a single rail. “This is my gym,” he quipped, gesturing to the vineyards.
Berg is typical of the older men who keep centuries-old family wineries alive along the Mosel. I saw them all week, inspecting grapes on the terraced slopes, their bulging calf muscles roped with veins and usually a zigarette perched between parched lips. Their labor has made the Mosel, with its 5,000 wineries, the biggest Riesling-producing region in the world. The Middle Rhine is their close rival, akin to the Napa-Sonoma rivalry. The mild climate and slate soils of the two river gorges give the well-regarded Rieslings here a uniquely mineral-rich taste.
Our Mosel mosey ended in Trier, Germany’s oldest city, with its teeming pedestrian plaza providing a perfect starting place for walks to four Roman-era UNESCO World Heritage Sites. We took in the view atop Porta Nigra, the Roman city gate, and marveled at the grandeur of Constantine Basilica, older than St. Peter’s. We peered inside an 18,000-seat Roman amphitheater built in 100 A.D. that’s now used for rock concerts. We tasted wines in fourth-century monastery caves that Napoleon converted to a wine cellar. We listened to the squeals of schoolchildren carom off the tunnel walls of the Imperial Baths.
With the trip nearly over, I mentally rewound the highlights: a ride on a 40-passenger replica of a Roman wine ship, the luscious pastries of Bernkastel-Kues, the Karl Marx museum in Trier and the lovingly crafted half-timber houses in every village. Then I drafted a mental checklist of places we’d skipped (saved for next time): museums, spas, chairlift-accessible hiking trails, and innumerable castle ruins and wineries. Then it was time to reflect not on the places, but the people.
The trip answered my question about the Germans. These former “bad guys” are good guys now, with a love of bicycles, wine and progressive ideas that remind me of home. Like the thunderstorm that pinned us under a tractor, Germany’s dark past is indeed long gone, reduced to puddles on the path of history.
CAPTIONS: (middle) A family in the town of Cochem enjoys the serenity of a riverside park, one of many along the Mosel. (right) So many riverboats prowl the Mosel that sometimes it looks like they’re racing.
If You Go
Late April to late October is the best time to visit the Mosel and Rhine; wine festivals and fireworks over the rivers occur throughout those months.
Travel in Germany: cometogermany.com
Mosel and Rhine River Travel: romantic-germany.info
Mosel River Travel: mosellandtouristik.de
Bike-Friendly Accommodations: bettundbike.de
City of Trier: trier.de
Town of Boppard: boppard-tourismus.de