How a bridge divided the Mosel valley

Plans to drive a motorway through Germany's premier riesling vineyards came a step closer this week. But while wine buffs are outraged, many locals are delighted, finds Tony Paterson in Urzig
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Bulldozers are ripping open the gorse and grass covered hills above the 900-year-old village of Urzig in the heart of Germany's river Mosel wine region. The kilometre long furrows of deep red earth left in their wake are clearly visible from the 17th century timbered wine tasting inns on the village waterfront.

The scars on the idyllic landscape of steep flinty slopes renowned for their fine Rieslings are the first visible evidence of a controversial project that is enraging some of the world's leading wine buffs and causing a furious political row between conservationists and planners almost half a century after it was first conceived.

The earth is being been gouged out of the ground above Urzig to make way for a series of four-lane Autobahn access roads. The motorway sections are designed to funnel traffic on to a mammoth four lane flyover called the Hochmoselbruecke that was first drawn up back in the 1960s.

If the planners in Germany's premier wine growing region get their way, the €280m (£234m) bridge will be spanning the Mosel river 480 feet above the valley floor on its 10 concrete support pillars by the end of the decade. The vast construction will dwarf the old oak beamed villages and their churches and vineyards below.

Several of the access roads for the bridge have already been completed and now the regional government of Germany's Rhineland Palatinate state – which is home to 5,000 vineyards – has put the flyover out to tender with a view to finishing the project by 2016.

The state government insists that the bridge is needed to improve traffic flow on a major transcontinental route that links Rotterdam with southern Europe. From its standpoint the flyover is already a fait accompli. But for people like Patrick Schenk, an Urzig inhabitant and vintner's son who was not only born in the town but makes his living selling wine, the project is nothing short of a disaster: "It is the most idiotic scheme imaginable, because like everywhere else Germany has to save billions right now," he told The Independent as he stood inside his Roman era Urzig wine cellar. "It is a classic case of politicians giving in to a powerful construction lobby and it will drive away tourists and wreck the landscape. When I see the mess left by the bulldozers I feel like crying."

Mr Schenk and the opponents of the bridge say that the flyover will save lorry drivers a mere five minutes of driving time, and that vehicle-polluted rainwater draining off its access roads could pose a serious threat to the soil in surrounding vineyards. "It is ecologically devastating, economically nonsensical and to top it all it is ugly," argues Ulrike Hoefgen, a Green Party MP from the region.

But it is not only concerned politicians and businessmen like Mr Schenk who are appalled by the project. The bridge has also suddenly gained the attention of prominent British wine critics such as Hugh Johnson, Stuart Piggot and others.

"The politicians don't give a shit and are proving themselves to be cultural arseholes," is how Mr Piggot phrased his objections. "Why can't [they] back away from insane projects [like this]," he asked in one of his recent columns in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper.

His view is shared by many of Urzig's vintners, the local Green party and Germany's former Green foreign minister Joschka Fischer who recently joined a protest demonstration opposing the bridge. Many of the tourists who visit the region to enjoy the wine and the tranquillity of the Mosel with its slow-moving barges are also shocked. "I read about the bridge project in a German newspaper when I was on holiday in Spain and I was appalled," said 65-year-old Jutta Winkler, who was visiting Urzig with her husband in their camper van. "If that thing goes up it will mess up the view. So I don't think we will come back if it does," she said.

But despite the increasingly vociferous objections being raised against the flyover, the project is not opposed by an overwhelming majority of locals. The region is at best divided about it and a petition opposing the project has only gained some 10,000 signatures. For several veteran wine growers the protests amount to an arrogant intervention by townies who ought to mind their own business.

One such person is Clara Derkum, a vintner's daughter in her seventies who was born in Urzig and has spent her life running the family vineyard and Urzig's 17th-century Weingut Derkum wine-tasting inn. "Like everybody else you came here on the autobahn?" she said when asked about the bridge last week in her oak-lined parlour. "The autobahn brings people here, we want more tourists and that's why the bridge is good," she insisted. "These protesters are making a fuss about nothing and people like Stuart Piggot should concentrate on England, not what's happening here."

Similar, although perhaps not quite so robust views are held by other Urzig vintners like Robert Eymael, whose family has been making wine in the village's 12th-century winery since 1804. "I see it as a chance," he said, citing the fact that the wine-growing villages were emptying because of mechanisation. "Now young people will be able to drive more easily into the outlying regions to work," he said.

Between the bridge's critics and its advocates are resident's like Markus Schaaf, the manager of Urzig's Zehnthof hotel. "I am basically opposed to the bridge , but its too late to stop it now, the government has already approved it. The best we can hope for is some form of compensation such as barriers to stop the river flooding."

The Rhineland Palatinate's government, which decades ago began commissioning construction firms to start on the project dismisses the protests as exaggerated. "They are behaving as if we were going to bridge over the entire Mosel valley," exclaimed Kurt Beck, the state's Social Democrat prime minister recently. He pointed out that all objections to the project had been rejected by the courts in legal disputes going back thirty years. Even Arno Simon, Urzig's 55-year-old mayor tried to stop the project 10 years ago but his objections were overruled by the courts.

Hendrik Hering, who is a vintner's son but also the state's transport minister, insists that the bridge is the "missing link" that is needed to fill an important gap in the transcontinental road network that has sprung up since the fall of the Iron Curtain. But locals like Patrick Schenk counter that project is a hair-brained scheme dreamt up during the Cold War to link two important US air bases at nearby Hahn and Spangdahlem.

With the regional state government now insisting that the bridge is inevitable, the protesters are making a last-ditch attempt to stop the project dead in its tracks at national level. Last week they lodged a formal complaint with the government in Berlin arguing that during the present financial crisis the bridge amounted to an "irresponsible waste of taxpayers' money". The government has said it is taking their complaint seriously.