The Mosel: A green day in a very pleasant land
The no-frills route to Frankfurt is also a gateway to the Mosel river, says Andrew Eames. But this 'dreamier version of the Rhine' is under threat, so enjoy this treasure while you still can
Wednesday 08 June 2011
Frankfurt Hahn airport – which despite its name lies 75 miles west of Frankfurt, and is served from the UK by Ryanair – is not the most glamorous face of airline travel. This former US air force base feels more like a set for a made-for-TV Pimp My Hangar than a modern air terminus, and it doesn't encourage much lingering. But while most people queued for the bus to do the 90-minute slog across to Frankfurt, I hailed a cab for the 20-minute meander down into the Mosel valley, which wanders past Hahn's back door. And as I arrived in the Art Nouveau wine village of Traben-Trarbach, it felt as if I was entering a completely different world.
The Mosel is a cosier, dreamier version of the Rhine. Like the Rhine it is endowed with hill-top fortresses and webbed in steep, sun-worshipping vineyards, but it has fewer barges, more villages, and is altogether on a more intimate scale. Wonky half-timbered houses teeter along the riverbanks like old ladies who still insist on wearing their stilettos, while their washing lines run up and down the adjacent hills supporting a pattern of ancient vineyards, tartaned with blossom early in the year, and then curtained in green as the summer progresses.
I imagine most of Ryanair's British pilgrims to Frankfurt are unaware that such a delightful valley runs past Hahn's back door. And I'd only really noticed it thanks to the news of a threat to the valley's gorgeousness, and one which was being stoutly resisted by an eminent Brit.
I'd heard that they were about to build an autobahn bridge across the river by the small wine-producing village of Urzig, halfway between Traben-Trarbach and the tourist town of Bernkastel. The idea of this Hochmoselbrücke (High Mosel Bridge), planned to be 480ft high and a mile long, was to connect the Rhine and Mosel basins with Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. Its design was of no particular distinction, unlike the Millau Viaduct in France, the creation of British architect Norman Foster, which has become something of a tourist attraction in itself.
In fact on this occasion the British had been wheeled out to criticise the bridge, in the shape of venerable wine writer Hugh Johnson, who criticised the "highway on stilts" as a "great shadow of uselessness" which will "banalise" what is essentially a 17th-century landscape. He was just one voice in an extensive anti-bridge campaign, a campaign which was deeply rooted in the local community and which manifested itself in everything from shop window posters to banners on the fences of the local schools. I hoped to have a look at that landscape before the valley was fully banalised. But first I headed down into Traben-Trarbach.
A riverside terrace in spring is always a splendid place to be, and I was lucky in choosing a café – the Bistro Moselschlösschen – which served Flammkuchen. This is the local equivalent of pizza, a thin crust covered in sour cream and bacon bits. It turned out to be both delicious, and free, because the waiter who served it pointed out a small hole in the crust and said he wouldn't charge me as a result.
An hour later things were even better. My hotel, the Bellevue, was just along the riverside prom. It is one of the finest-looking of all the Art Nouveau buildings in the village, complete with stained glass, wood carvings and a tower in the shape of a champagne bottle. And that authentic antiquity at the front end was backed up by a new part which did everything a fancy hotel should: spa, pool, business centre, roof garden. My room had a river view and a balcony, and I could gaze out at the other grand mansions, which mostly dated back to the late 19th and early 20th century, when this was Europe's second-largest wine trading centre after Bordeaux.
The Romans planted the first vines here. The sun and soil conditions are perfect for Riesling. But the steepness of the slopes has meant that big industrial viniculture has never caught on, so most of the vineyards are still small and family-owned, which makes the landscape look hand-made.
That's ideal for tourism, too, for every village is thick with winemakers – many of them offering tastings, cafés and guesthouses. Thanks to a bicycle I rented from the hotel, and the beautifully maintained Mosel cycle path, I meandered along the river, overtaking barge captains making lazy loops around the Mosel's U-bends, and admiring the dedication with which every scrap of south-facing land had been planted with vines. Vineyard workers were out on the hills, trailing tendrils in the directions they wanted them to grow, and whistling at each other across the valley.
Display cases of bottles lined the cycle path, encouraging passers-by to stop and buy. In the village of Kröv I was brought up short by one particular label design which showed a cellarman smacking a boy's bottom: an unusual way of selling a wine. Kröver Nacktarsch ("naked arse") wine, it was called. The winemaker himself explained the legend: how a cellarman had caught boys siphoning off his wine, and had punished them in a manner appropriate to the times. And how that story had made its way onto the label, and how only a select few vineyards are allowed to use the brand. So the nation that gave us Blue Nun, also offers Bare Bum, if you know where to find it. And I can vouch for the fact that Nacktarsch has a pungent, fruity taste.
As I neared Urzig itself, I passed a big painted awning showing the "dinosaur bridge" and the predicted effect it would have on the valley. But when I finally rounded the corner there was no sign of any bridge, nor even any road works. So I stopped to speak to a wine-maker whose vineyard came right down to the path. The bridge-making had just been halted, he said, thanks to local elections. The Greens had ridden into power on the back of anti-nuclear feeling resulting from Fukushima. "To be honest," the wine-maker admitted, "We never used to like the Greens – but now we love them!"
Perhaps no longer. For the valley was only reprieved temporarily. Last month the Green party, in coalition with the Social Democrats announced that the scheme was back on, with the building work expected to be complete by 2016.
For the moment, therefore, I can report that the Mosel valley remains wonderfully unsullied, extremely pretty, and very convenient for anyone flying into Frankfurt Hahn. I suggest you get there before everything changes.
Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) has flights to Frankfurt Hahn from Edinburgh and Stansted. A taxi for the 20-minute journey from Hahn to Traben-Trarbach is around €35.
Staying & seeing there
Hotel Bellevue (00 49 6541 7030; www.bellevue-hotel.de) at 11 An der Mosel, Traben-Trarbachhas has double rooms from €135 including breakfast. The Bistro Moselschlösschen (00 49 65 41 8320; moselschloesschen.de) serves a three-course menu for €32.
German National Tourist Board ( www.germany.travel)
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