Rhine and Moselle

Monday 18th June 2007, Cochem on the Mosel
We have added one more country to our tally – the Free State of Bottleneck. This morning when we bought a couple of bottles of wine from the campsite/vineyard owner he explained that we'd actually been staying in an independent state which for several years in the 1920s had led a separate existence from the rest of Germany! After WW1 it appears that, in order that the allied powers had a bridgehead east of the Rhine, three semicircles with a radius of 30 Km were drawn on the map centred on Cologne (British sector), Koblenz (American sector) and Mainz (French sector). What was not considered was that the arcs of the last two semicircles met but did not intersect, leaving a bottleneck shaped area centred on Lorch to the east of the Rhine which was completely cut off from the rest of Germany. An independent free state Freistaat Flaschenhals, was established with its own currency which managed to exist by selling its wines, by smuggling and on one occasion, stealing a train loaded with coal from the Ruhr Valley intended for France from a railway siding at Rüdesheim, bringing welcome winter warmth to the inhabitants of Flaschenhals. At night the French trained lights across the Rhine in an attempt to stop smuggling. The young men of "Bottleneck" on the opposite bank would line up along the riverside with their trousers around their knees making moonies at the searchlights as a sign of defiance.

Wine label of the revived Freistaat Flaschenhals, Lorch

The government buildings of the Freistaat Flaschenhals, Lorch

After a breakfast of fresh rolls specially ordered for us we reluctantly left this wonderful campsite and made our way down through the steeply sloping vineyards to the riverbank. We intended to travel downstream on the far bank as we would be passing the Lorelei cliff, which can only be seen from across the river. There were no bridges until Koblenz but several ferries take cars across at different points. As we reached the ferry at Lorch we saw it pulling away from the bank. The pilot also saw us so turned the ferry around and came back for us! It turned out we were the only passengers but he runs to a timetable so crosses with or without passengers! Modestine stood small and alone on the deck as once again the ferry swung dizzily around, swept by the fast flowing current, and slowly struggled across the Rhine, passing behind an island to deposit us fifteen minutes later on the further bank.

Modestine crosses the Rhine, Lorch

The vineyards round our campsite seen from the ferry, Lorch

Our day has been very happy and relaxed. Although it is such an important thoroughfare, with many barges plying the river, and major roads and railways along each bank, the roads were almost deserted and we could take our time to admire the towns, castles and other sights along the Rhine. At Kaub there is a remarkable structure in the middle of the river, the Pfalzgrafenstein, erected in 1326 to exact tolls from shipping. At the Lorelei, the narrowest point on this section of the Rhine, the river flows fast and turbulent around the steep, projecting cliff where a beautiful maiden or siren was said to lure people to their death. We parked in the little town of St. Goar and walked back to watch the river as it flowed around the rock. With the recent rains the river level was high and the water muddy and brown. Enormous long barges struggled upstream against the flow, heavily laden and so low in the water we wondered how they stayed afloat. There were usually only a couple of people on board, fore and aft. We assume they communicated by mobile phone! They used the width of the river to navigate their way through the powerful currents around the rock. There were also many passenger ships taking visitors through and we remembered how many years ago we travelled this route by boat downstream from Mainz to Koblenz.

Pfalzgrafenstein, Kaub

Lorelei, St Goarshausen

Barge struggling up the Rhine

Burg Katz, a typical Rhine Valley castle

We made our way along the riverbank down to Koblenz where the Mosel and the Rhine meet. We never discovered the campsite on the outskirts of the city before we found ourselves heading down the Mosel. We continued along this very beautiful, more tranquil river, the hillsides to either side covered in the bright green vines that create the famed white wines of the region. Our progress has been slow as we have stopped to explore several little towns and also to climb up the steep valley sides to the plateau above where a wide, gently undulating landscape of ripening cereals stretches to the horizon, a complete contrast to the deep, green gorge we had just left. The area between the Rhine and the Mosel is known as the Hunsrück. It was the setting for the epic German television production Heimat or Homeland. We watched much of this when it was shown on British television some years ago and the landscape was very much as we remembered it.

Eventually we reached our destination, Burg Eltz, reputed to be one of the most beautiful castles in Germany, a country with a surfeit of stunning buildings. We parked in the woods above and walked steeply down to emerge on a track above the castle which rose vertically from a rock in the middle of a meander of the small river Eltzbach, surrounded by high hills. It would have been an excellent site for defence back in 1157 when it was first recorded. It was also spectacularly beautiful with turrets, towers and pinnacles.

Burg Eltz, Moselkern

The toilet block, Burg Eltz, Moselkern

Courtyard, Burg Eltz, Moselkern

Driving back down from the plateau to rejoin the Mosel valley was a slow, steep and winding descent but we could take our time as there was little traffic about. We'd expected the area to be packed with tourists but most travel by coach or river it seems.

This evening we reached the little town of Cochem where we are staying on a campsite beside the river. Last night has spoilt us however and this seems mediocre by comparison. However, we have a couple of bottles of Riesling from the free state of Bottleneck in the fridge so the evening is unlikely to drag.

We have just phoned our French friends Stéphane and Cathérine who live on the border between France, Germany and Luxembourg. Stéphane is the elder son of our friends Joël and Danielle from Guissény in Brittany and is in the French army, stationed in the eastern part of France. We had hoped to see the family before they set off on their holiday but we are not going to be able to make it in time.

Tuesday 19th June 2007, Saarburg
Our day has turned out differently than anticipated, due almost entirely to an unexpected road diversion that forced us up from the gentle level route running through the vineyards and little towns that lie along the banks of the Mosel, to the rolling fields, dark forests and views stretching to infinity that form the landscape of the Hünsruck. We are staying on a really lovely campsite with shaded pitches to protect us from the wicked sunshine which is again well into the 30s. Saarburg lies near the borders with both Luxembourg and France and we like it so much we are considering spending several days here.

We left last night's campsite with few regrets. We'd been disappointed to discover that the price quoted for staying, which seemed reasonable, failed to mention extras such as an obligatory charge for rubbish disposal, even if you left no rubbish, an additional charge for electricity and a further charge for unlocking the electricity cupboard when you left so you could have your lead back. There was also a charge for using the showers and hot water was not provided at most of the wash basins. All told there was 6.50 euros of additional charges not included in the quoted price which Jill at least thought was dishonest.

Cochem proved to be a pleasant little town bustling with tourists and crammed with souvenir shops and restaurants. The closely packed streets did offer welcome shade and apart from boat trips on the Mosel, there is also a chair lift to the cliff top to entertain the visitors. For us though, the most curious thing was a painting in the entrance to the town hall showing goats being squashed in a wine press, their blood flowing out and being used to make red wine! It was all rather macabre and we failed to discover its significance.

The coat of arms of Cochem

Market place, gate tower and town hall, Cochem

The landscape along the Mosel really is very beautiful with nothing anywhere to jar. The little towns are placed exactly where they should be to add beauty to a fold in the hills or a curve of the river. Such perfection is almost too much. We have been driving for much of the day and the landscape has been exactly the same – steep rugged cliffs covered in bright green vines planted at such a steep angle we cannot see how they can be harvested. Below runs the smooth silver snake of the river. Nothing seems to move. It is too hot for people to work on their vines and unlike the Rhine, the river is not used for moving commercial freight. Even the tourist boats seem quite rare on much of the river. The main sign of life is the doughty Dutch tourist on his bicycle. Holland really must be empty as there are hundreds of them slowly peddling their bikes along the river bank in the hot sun. Generally if you sat on a bench beside the water and took in the perfection of the view, there would be no real need to travel further as you would have seen everything the Mosel has to offer. For interest the Rhine must win but for beauty the Mosel almost certainly has the edge.

Picnic by the Mosel near Cochem

Vineyards along the Mosel valley

Germany is a European leader in devising the Umleitung or road diversion. They pop up everywhere, sending you off into the wilds of the countryside, sometimes for many miles. They are rarely properly signposted and it's easy to get totally lost. Being charitable it is possible we missed a warning sign, but somehow we found our way blocked at Bernkastel and were diverted through a steep tunnel which came out onto a very steep, twisting road with no possibility of turning round and with Modestine's temperature gauge rising rapidly. By the time we reached the top there was no way we were turning round to burn out our brakes going back down. In any case we had seen enough of the Mosel landscape for a while. So we readjusted our plans and continued across the Hünsruck countryside where from time to time we even saw cattle in the fields though mostly the landscape was given over to cereals and woodland.

There was a campsite marked on our map but when we arrived it was expensive and isolated from anywhere, so we continued to this one at Saarburg. We've just been talking to one of the Dutch campers staying here who tells us we ought to visit Holland next as it will be really peaceful on the campsites as every Dutch camper is off seeing Europe using special concessions provided by the Dutch camping association.

Wednesday 20th June 2007, Saarburg
We are still at the same campsite. It is so pleasant and within easy cycling distance of the town centre and railway station so we have decided to give ourselves a little holiday from all the hard work we are doing! Last night there was a frighteningly violent thunderstorm. We were woken by Thunder and Lightening hammering at the door to see if Rain could come out to play at 5am.

By breakfast time the trio had worn themselves out and disappeared to sleep off their hangover. At 8am the baker came up from the town with a van piled high with croissants, fresh rolls, sticky buns and a large pile of today's Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf. We joined the end of a queue of campers, all wearing clogs, patiently waiting to be served. We discovered we knew more Dutch in those few minutes than we'd ever realised. It really is a toy language being a mixture of German and English. We later picked up a Dutch romantic novel in the kitchen and were wiping our eyes with laughter at just how English it seemed to be. (They no doubt do the same with English books thinking how like Dutch they are!) Almost everyone on this site is Dutch and they are all lovely. Many of them chat in English, a few use German but often they simply talk in Dutch and we discover we are actually having meaningful conversations! This evening we risked everything and joined a Dutch couple to watch a football match on their portable TV. It was England versus Holland. After 15 minutes of extra time Holland won 13-12. It was fortunate for us as we are the only English here and we risked being drummed off the site if England had won! As it is they are all being very magnanimous about it.

We spent the morning chilling out with a leisurely breakfast, sorting out a backlog of photos, answering emails and preparing another blog for the web. In between we drank lots of coffee and ate croissants. In the afternoon we unleashed Hinge and Bracket and cycled through the fields down into the little town of Saarburg. The town is the capital of the Saar winegrowing district and the neatly kept vineyards slope steeply down at the very edge of the town. There is more to see than we imagined with a castle overlooking the river Saar where pleasure boats carry passengers from town to town. The castle was built by Siegfried of Luxembourg in the tenth century and later passed into the ownership of the Archbishops of Trier. The top of the tower, reached by a spiral staircase, gives lovely views of the town and the surrounding hillsides covered in vines. Back down in the town again we discovered a 20 metre high waterfall right in the centre. In the 13th century the little river Leuk had been diverted to work mills and machinery in the town. Today it offers a picturesque location for street cafés where Dutch visitors park their bikes and enjoy ice creams or Kaffee und Kuchen. We also discovered a chair lift taking people up to the woods on the nearby hilltop. We however, had a huge pile of work to do so headed for the local internet shop where we spent nearly two hours on the computers. Although we are retired and are swanning about Europe, going with the flow and seeing where life takes us, recording all this takes a great deal of time. We said today that we felt we had both worked harder than if we had been at work! There is far more pleasure though when doing it for oneself. The blog will be a wonderful memory for us and the messages to and from friends are what makes it all worth while for us. They bring us so much pleasure.

Vineyards sweep right down to the town, Saarburg

Bell foundery and pleasure boat on the Saar, Saarburg

Castle keep at Saarburg

Waterfall and mill leat in the centre of the town of Saarburg

Peaceful riverside cafés just above the waterfall, Saarburg

Finally we cycled across town to the railway station to find out train times for a trip to Trier tomorrow. We intended visiting it today as we passed along the Mosel but after being diverted yesterday we will have to make a special trip there tomorrow instead. We have been emailed by our friend Ralph ordering us not to miss it, and orders is orders. Apart from it being the birthplace of Karl Marx it is reputed to have Roman remains and there are currently three exhibitions on Constantine Ian hopes to visit.

Back at the campsite this evening we decided to use the little on-site restaurant for the dish of the day. It was Schnitzel with asparagus wrapped in ham and topped with a cheese sauce, served with chips and salad. It would have been nice except that it arrived ready sprinkled with salt which quite spoilt it. Incidentally, there is an asparagus crisis in Germany at the moment. They are mad about it here and generally use migrant workers to cut it in the fields. Recent employment laws have made it prohibitively expensive to use imported labour so the asparagus is rotting in the fields while demand is being met by importing it from Poland.

One of the things we like about this site is the animals. There is a little pond with large fish and very small, pretty ducks as well as a few large terrapins. There is also an aviary of parrots, budgies, canaries and quails, while several Dutch lop-eared rabbits (you can tell by their clogs) with an identity crisis, lollop around the floor wondering why they can't sing, fly or climb on branches.

All friends together, campsite, Saarburg

Thursday 21tst June 2007, Saarburg
Well, today saw us at the railway station in good time for the train. We double padlocked Hinge and Bracket to the railings and left them with slight misgivings. They have been eyed with so much envy here and someone told us folding bikes are very expensive in Germany. Our anxiety turned out to be well founded for when we returned we found someone trying the padlocks on all the bikes. Ian got riled and accosted him with a tirade in German and the man turned and slouched off. Our bikes were quite safe, he was just trying his luck, but the bike he was tampering with wasn't locked properly. The owner got off the same train just behind us and but for Ian would have lost his bike.

We've had a mixed day. Although we set off in bright sunshine in tee shirts, shorts and sandals we were soon wet and shivering with heavy showers all day. The train ride along beside the river Saar between Saarburg and Trier is very pretty, passing along a steep-sided valley entirely dedicated to viticulture. Trier is a city of 100,000 and claims to be the oldest city in Germany, founded by Augustus in 16BC with Roman remains dating from the second to the fourth centuries. The Emperor Diocletian made Trier an important centre of the Roman world and when Constantine became emperor he ruled from Trier from 306 to 316. There are currently three exhibitions about Constantine in the city to mark Luxembourg and its environs currently holding the title of European Capital of Culture. Between the showers we visited the main Roman sites including two different sets of baths, the huge, blackened city gate, the massive brick-built Aula Palatina constructed as a palace for Constantine and a bridge across the Mosel, still in active use today.

Imperial Baths, Trier

Porta Nigra dating from the second century, Trier

Interior of the Aula Palatina, now a church, Trier

Roman bridge seen through the rain, Trier

Of course on the way we also took in the beautiful town square with its market cross, fountain and restored buildings dating from the 15th to the 20th centuries. In the old town baroque buildings were juxtaposed with those of the Art Nouveau period. It is a pleasant city, full of interesting architecture, but the weather did not really allow us to do it justice. Ian was delighted with the Roman aspect of the town and visited the main Constantine exhibition with 1,500 exhibits from a range of museums across Europe. Over the past few weeks however, Jill's interest in things Roman and ecclesiastical has waned rather. After paddling through the wet streets today, following Ian as he strode along, map in hand, searching for the remains of Roman bath houses, she decided she'd had enough. So while Ian went off to the special exhibition, Jill spent a couple of hours simply looking around the town at her own pace, pottering through shops for the first time in over two months, and enjoying not having to struggle with understanding German texts about topics in which she is far less knowledgeable or enthusiastic than Ian. At a practical level, it's possible to learn just as much vocabulary in a department store as in a museum and being able to ask where one can try on a garment is possibly of more practical use than understanding long academic texts about the archaeological and historical records of the Roman remains to be found in the town.

Market Square with Pythonesque foot of Constantine, Trier

Fountain in the Market Square, Trier

Art nouveau façade, Trier

Electoral Palace, Trier

Trier also boasts an impressive but rather unwelcoming cathedral with a strange mixture of architectural styles covering some 1500 years. Here we dutifully filed past a glass case set back in a flamboyant, heavy setting in which was supposedly the Holy Robe, made without any seams. It is supposed to have been worn by Christ but how or why, or even if, it was made in one piece, we don't know. Constantine's mother is supposed to have brought back various items of religious significance from her travels, including part of the true cross, so presumably she was responsible for it being there. The gothic cloisters were more traditional and very pleasing with a pretty garden at the centre where recent bishops and clergy are buried.

Romanesque façade of the Cathedral, Trier

In the Cathedral cloisters, Trier

Closing time in the library, monument in the Cathedral, Trier

Of course we went in search of the birthplace of Karl Marx. The house is now a museum and is one of the prettiest houses in the town. It is very bourgeois and not quite the sort of home one expects for the father of Socialism. The town is almost as proud of him as it is of Constantine, and Karl Marx Wurst were selling in special vacuum-packed bags for easy transport across the world as souvenirs and gifts! The day seems to have passed very quickly despite the rain, and it was 6pm by the time we made our way back to the station each with our different impressions of the town.

Birthplace of Karl Marx, Trier