Tuesday 10 April 2012

Bicycling with Bacchus: The Roman Wine Route along the Moselle

At a wine show at the InterContinental in Düsseldorf in November I met, for the second time, the vintner Josef Kranz-Junk and his wife, who live and work in the Moselle wine village of Brauneberg. Although I had never been there, I knew that in Thomas Jefferson’s wine journal he had indicated that he had bought bottles of Riesling from what was claimed, at that time, to be the noblest region in Germany, specifically the Juffer hill across the river from the village. I had managed to buy some Brauneberger Juffer at the Vintages store in Ottawa and had found it to be excellent. This was no fluke as a sampling of Herr Kranz-Junk’s dry Riesling showed and he told us about the area. When he said that it would also be good for cycling and that they also had rooms available, we decided to spend a short holiday there.

Leaving Düsseldorf on Thursday evening and passing through the volcanic region of the Eifel Mountains, a drive of just over two hours brought us to the village on the banks of the Moselle, about 10 kms west of the very famous town and tourist magnet of Bernkastel-Kues. Brauneberg appears to consist only of wine producers and hotel and B&Bs, with a few restaurants and some other necessities. Finding the Kranz-Junk house on Brunnenstrasse was easy and we received a very warm welcome and enjoyed a bottle of the Brauneberger Juffer Kabinett dry Riesling while chatting. The room was simple but very comfortable, and with its own washroom and shower. Needless to say, nights in Brauneberg are pretty quiet, although perhaps all the Riesling helped one to relax.

The view onto Brunnenstrasse, Brauneberg
The next morning was cool and grey but there was no rain, so time to lay out the bike gear and then go for breakfast. Frau Kranz-Junk outdid herself as we were faced with a rather massive breakfast: fresh buns and bread; salmon; coldcuts; three or four kinds of cheese; jams and honey; yogurt; muesli; hard-boiled eggs; fresh strawberries; and tea and coffee. There were no other guests over the Easter weekend but I suspect we would not have had to share anyway. For those looking for a quiet weekend in a friendly atmosphere, there is simply no better value than staying in the country in Germany. At around 30 Euros per person nightly (with breakfast!), it is cheaper than staying at home!

The bridge at Piesport, with Basso
The bikes assembled and it was time to roll out on the Good Friday bike ride, once a tradition that my friend Karl and I once tried to keep of longstanding back in Canada. Riding the main road west out of Brauneberg, we soon found a way to join the Moselradweg that runs directly along the river. The bike path (at least on the south bank of the river) is very well sign-posted and we quietly sped along, passing the villages of Wintrich and Geierslay. A group on racing bikes passed us and I thought it might be a good chance to test my early season condition so I accelerated and easily caught up to them. Well, it seemed easy until I noticed how short my breath was.
Along the Moselradweg in Springtime

We rolled on through Piesport, home of the Goltröpfchen Riesling Kabinett from Franz Reh I remember so well from my youth. The little hotels along the edge of the water were just waking up and umbrellas erected for the not-very-evident sun. Many of the buildings were very substantial, indicative of the prosperity of the region. It has almost no industry to speak of except wineries and tourism.

We rolled into Neumagen-Dhron, one of the most interesting places we saw on the trip. The village claims to be the oldest wine village in Germany (a distinction that several other places claim) and it certainly has a good claim to antiquity. German tribesmen wrecked what was then called Noviomagus Treverorum in 275 AD and a century later the Romans built a big fortress on the site with thirteen towers. Neumagen has been the site of some impressive archaeological finds, including the Neumagen Wine Ship, a Roman grave marker that can be seen in replica in the centre of the village. There is a walking route that takes you around where the various Roman structures, such as the town gates and walls, would have been. And of course there is a really good bakery, which proudly proclaims that after 35 years everything is still made from scratch.

The Roman Wine Ship grave marker, 2nd Century AD
 A short ride out of Neumagen the bike path climbs a bit and takes you up into the vineyards. Down below stands a small chapel dedicated to the Martyrs of the Theban Legion, a group of Roman soldiers originally based in Egypt who converted to Christianity en masse and were executed, apparently in what is now Switzerland, for failing to offer a sacrifice to the Emperor Maximian in 286 AD. The story is confusing in the extreme as some accounts say the event happened in Cologne or Trier. Saint Victor, after whom Xanten is named, was supposedly martyred in that town. Anyway, the local Neumagen aristocrats were so taken with the story (their version has the executions in Trier turning the Moselle blood-red all the way to Neumagen) that they had the small chapel near the river built in 1506-1510.

 Our route took us opposite Trittenheim, where two towers still stand on either side of the river. They once housed a guide rope for the ferry crossing the river, a common sight once on the bridge-deficient Moselle. The towers date to 1740 but there has only been a bridge over this part of the river for the last century.

The area we were traversing has been marked as the Roman Wine Route and in addition to informative signs we came upon a Roman milestone next to the bike path and then a water basin, with a nice relief of a satyr playing the pipes beside it.

The satyr is the one on the right
Passing along the quiet river, with only the occasional barge on the water and a few other cyclists along the path, we rode past the steep vineyards, bare at this time of year, until we came to Mehring, where we stopped to admire the Villa Rustica, a Roman manor house that was the focal point of what must have been one of the largest estates in the region. It had 34 rooms and there has been a partial reconstruction so that you can see where the baths were, and the storage areas and so forth. The residents enjoyed a high standard of living as gold and silver artifacts were found there during excavations in the 1980s. The manor house was built in the 2nd Century AD and expanded over the next century, until more German tribesman attacked it in 344 AD. They then lived in the ruins until the 5th Century AD when the site was abandoned and then eventually used as a quarry for local builders.

We rode past a statue of St. Francis that was erected in 1802 by local monks to calm the waters of the Moselle for passing sailors but the river looked pretty safe to us. The bike path is very good and almost all paved, with lots of places to stop and sit on a bench and look at the river, sometimes with a Roman bust nearby to keep you company. These are all reproductions as the originals have ended up in museums, such as the one in Trier, marking the Roman occupation of this part of Germany.

Our next stop was Longuich, which features an impressive castle that goes back to 1360 and is a rare example of late Gothic architecture in the countryside. It was converted in the 1980s into its present configuration as a restaurant/wine-tasting place by the family that has owned it for the last six generations.

A short distance away, however, was the Villa Rustica, our next Roman villa. This was smaller than the place in Mehring but still impressive. The bath area, with its cold/warm/hot pools, was particularly well-preserved. The villa also featured heated floors and, the first time I have noticed this, heated walls. The house, constructed also in the 2nd Century AD like the Villa Urbana, possibly belonged to a retired senior Roman administrator from nearby Trier. It too fell victim to Germanic attacks in the 4th Century.

The baths at the Villa Urbana

Having ridden around 45 kms from Brauneberg, it was time to turn around and head back after finding some lunch. We crossed the river and headed east, stopping for lunch at the cyclist-friendly Hotel Zum Fährturm in Mehring, a town that occupies both banks of the river, where I enjoyed a massive Erdinger non-alcoholic beer with my cheese omelette and excellent fries.

We should have crossed back over on the bridge at Mehring and continued on the bikepath we had come in on but with new sights to see we stayed on the north bank. This turned out to be not such a good idea as the bikepath was not well-marked and soon vanished, leaving us to ride the shoulder of the rather busy Bundesstrasse until we could escape back over the Trittenheim bridge to the quieter side.

We rolled back into Neumagen and had a break at the bakery there and then I went looking for the very impressive reconstructed Roman wine ship. Not a grave marker but the real thing which used the grave marker as a model. A typical Roman galley of the 4th Century AD, the original would have been a multi-purpose vessel which not only brought legionnaires into the territories of the German tribesman between the Roman capital in Trier and the Rhine but also would have been used for shipping wine, which came from various productions sites on the Moselle and was blended in Trier, as well as other goods.

The Stelle Noviomagi (“Star of Neumagen”) cost 400,000 Euros to construct and was launched in 2007. It is 18 m in length and can take 50 passengers, although they don’t need to row as there are two diesel engines on the ship. However, rowing is an option and there are trained crews for this. The ship can be chartered for cruises on the river, which must be fun although probably pretty slow as the Stelle Noviomagi does not appear to be built for speed. It really is quite beautiful to look at.

A final 16 km push and we were back at Familie Kranz-Junk, with 90 kms completed and a surprising 500 m vertical. The route is easy to ride and fun for cyclists of all ages and skill levels.

Saturday did not allow a repeat ride as the weather was cold and nasty, so the bikes were packed away, along with some cases of wine, and after another huge breakfast we took our leave of the Kranz-Junks and drove east towards Bernkastel-Kues, but not before crossing the river to stand next to the Juffer and to look at the Roman wine press facility, one of several in the region, where the juice was pressed out and then shipped to Trier.

Although the weather was poor, Bernkastel was already seeing a lot of tourists. It is probably what most people would think of when they think of a perfect German small town, with beautiful half-timbered buildings, lots of wine merchants and more than a few excellent bakeries.

The Café Hansen is one of these and I have stopped in there before to enjoy some wonderfully sinful cake. Nothing is better than a delicious piece of Torte with a fine coffee on a cold and grey day.

Escaping the t-shirt buying hordes in Bernkastel, our last stop of the day with the new thermal spa in Bad Bertrich. The town has been the site of hot spring bathing since Roman times when it was known as Bertriacum but the new spa is quite modern and airy.

The little town reflects a period when the last Elector of Trier, Clemens Wenzeslaus of Saxony, built a small palace as a summer residence and hunting lodge (although he apparently disliked hunting) in the late 18th Century, shortly before Revolutionary France occupied the town for two decades. Clemens Wenzeslaus lived to be 82 and is said to be the inventor of Kalte Ente, a punch consisting of wine and champagne, lemon juice and sugar with ice cubes, which  became Americanized in 1937 as Cold Duck.

The Elector's little Schloss
The Vulkaneifel Therme
 After enjoying the numerous saunas and the fine indoor and outdoor thermal pool, a two hour drive returned us to Düsseldorf and the end of a fine outing enjoying 20 centuries of German history.

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