A visually pleasant and enjoyable way to view the vineyards and old Roman towns along the Mosel River (Moselle in France), which is the left tributary of the Rhine River where it joins at Koblenz, Germany, is a leisurely drive on two lane roads from Bernkastel to Cochem.
The drive will take the explorer up the Mosel, which seems rather disorienting as the river flows in a northwesterly direction, which appear to defy laws of river flow.
Small villages dot both sides of the river and often the drive will take you to the other side of the river as the road ends at one village and causes a cross over on very passable bridges. At some points, there are small ferries that will take cars across to the other side to visit a neighboring village.
All along the way, the slate covered hills on both sides are covered in grape vines, which in the early spring will be nothing more than carefully tied, small shoots that sprout from the thicker grape vine. All the vines have been encouraged to grow along wires, which connect the wooden posts, thus necessitating hand picking.
In ancient years, the Romans did extensive terracing of the area in order to produce some non-errodable, flat areas on which to plant their vines. In many areas, the flat surface will be only three meters wide with a supporting wall of rocks to form another terrace.
The terraces will cover all areas of the hill that has the soil to support the root system of the vine. In some locations, the vineyards are at such a steep incline that the individually terraced layers are connected by ladders or little metal tracks on which the vintners can ride up and down the steep slopes, on little carts, to tend the vines and harvest the grapes.
The slopes on which the vines are grown and carefully tended are so steep that the perfect vine tender might have been a goat.
In the past Roman vintners have maintained the carefully terraced land. The water of the river keeps the temperatures more temperate and encourages vine growth and grape production.
The sides of the vine-covered hills that usually produce the best grapes are the ones that receive the afternoon sun and are never in the shade of the slope on the other side of the river.
The natural bedrock of the area is dark gray slate and often litters the ground under the vines and serves as an extender of the warmth of the sun. The slate holds heat of the day well after sundown and thus produces some extra growing energy and in the late fall extends the growing season, allowing the grapes to produce more sugar.
The longer the grapes have to bask in the sun, the sweeter will be the grape. The slate also lends minerals to the soil and is absorbed by the roots, which in turn allows the grape to take on the subtle flavor of the soil in which its roots are anchored.
Some villages are more “Romanesque” than others. There may be a telltale Roman watchtower and if one walks the streets that wind away from the river, into the rear of the villages that extend to the bottom of the hill, there will be very narrow, slightly winding streets that do not allow car traffic.
In the Roman occupied days, some of the narrow roads would have allowed cart travel and have been just the width of two horses traveling side by side. Many other twisting village roads were undoubtedly only for pedestrian travel.
Today, many of the Mosel villages have streets on which no cars are allowed and the walker can stroll about, casually looking in windows filled with wine bottles, artistically arranged with the fermented juices of the region, without fear of being moved to the side by a passing automobile.
Near these Roman settled areas, there will be the typical Roman arch placed strategically along the stone terracing which allowed for stability of the terracing walls.
The effectiveness of the Roman building arches and careful arrangement of the stones still remain intact after so many centuries. Dotted in the terraced walls the traveler can discover cool cave areas, which extend into the slopes and were used by the Romans to store their vintages and most probably tools that they would need for viticulture.
As you leave Cochem, to take the winding road that will take you to the autobahn, you pass through arches, which were part of the ancient city wall.
The quaint village of Zell is where the Zeller Swarzkatz (black cat) wines are produced. On the hill, behind the lovely former Roman city, is the white letters, in very large words, that identify the grape growing region.
The shop windows in town are filled with the local product as well as souvenir cat reminders of the name of the wine. Along the first road up from the river is a wonderful statue of a black, of course, cat with its arched back and opened mouth displaying its perfectly huge teeth.
Maybe he is trying to protect his town from invaders. This large figure dominates a fountain and aptly represents the area. Zell has public restrooms by the river and gets excellent marks as open public restrooms in Europe are a rare find.
For those who prefer quasi-Turkish cuisine to that of the German interpretation of pizzerias there are two donner kabobs on the mainly pedestrian street just up from the road that runs by the village. Zell welcomes the tourist without being too “touristy.”
The traffic on the river is in itself entertaining to watch. Long barges, sometimes two that are connected, carrying coal, and always at least one car, steam up or down the river.
There are also the advertised “romantic” tourist boats that connect various points along the river and offer a fine view of villages, vineyards, and occasional castle that stands on the highest point near a few of the villages.
Short boat rides can be arranged in many of the larger villages and there are usually signs with hours of tours and costs posted at the ticket booth, which will be found beside the river. These tours offer an opportunity for the driver of the car to also enjoy the sights as many of the interesting views are up high on the slopes and difficult for the driver to view safely.
Large Trumpeter swans hug the banks and keep watch over their territories. The area along either side of the river is lined with wonderful bike trails for those who prefer a more leisurely pace.
All villages have camping parks in which individual sites seemed to be claimed for much of the season as they are not only trailers, but also have tented areas adjacent to them and perhaps a bit of yard which gets mowed.
When one sees a ruined castle at the highest vantage point on the river, he or she can imagine that the castle was once a Roman villa, which has been claimed, been built on top of, and renovated many times over the past centuries, as have others in all formerly Roman occupied areas of Europe.
The Romans always built with a keen eye for the advantage over invaders. The difference in appearance from other areas of this nature in Europe is simply due to what stone or building material was available locally.
The indigenous slate lends toward a very beautiful and often quaint look. Many of the building have been “improved” with plastering and cementing over the original slate walls, which makes the originals even more wonderful to view.
Leaving the Mosel at the large village of Cochem will take the traveler first through forests and as you climb upwards away from the river valley, eventually to areas, which are, much flatter and fit for grazing.
You leave the forest behind and drive through meadows and fields that are cultivated with hay, wheat, and other grains. On the right side of this winding road you will see, and if you have your car windows down, will hear a gushing stream, or perhaps natural aqueduct that carries rushing water down to the river.
In the springtime water falls gushing from the steep cliffs join this water source. You feel as though you have left Germany and are on a trek through West Virginia. This road will take you back to the A road on which you can travel in the direction of Koblenz or south to Trier, which after the fall of Rome became the center of Roman rule.