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Bridging discord in the Mosel Valley

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A computer rendering of the controversial bridge. Photo: Gkordel via Wikipedia
15:06 CEST+02:00
The Mosel Valley is known for its scenic views and Riesling vineyards, but plans to build a massive new bridge have brought discord to this idyllic part of Germany. David Wroe reports.

In an unflattering parable about folks from the Mosel Valley, a man is given one wish. Naturally his first thought is to ask for a pile of gold. But there's a caveat: his neighbour will get double whatever he gets.

Without hesitation, the Mosel man wishes for his arm to be cut off.

“It's true!” said winemaker Ernst Loosen, slapping his thigh in hilarity when he heard the story during a recent interview The Local conducted with opponents of a planned autobahn bridge over the Moselle Valley. “It's so true!”

Mosel Valley residents, in other words, lack solidarity and far-sightedness – which Loosen says helps explain why resistance to the planned 160 metre-tall bridge on the B50 motorway has been piecemeal. The so-called Hochmoselbrücke would link the Benelux countries to Germany's Rhine-Main region, but some fear it will damage the wine-making and tourism industries on which the Mosel Valley survives.

Lately the €280 million project has made international headlines and appalled wine-lovers around the world. Loosen, whose family has been growing grapes in the region for 200 years, and musician Sarah Washington, a English-born Mosel resident have, along with other opponents including famous British wine critics and former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, helped drive a slick anti-bridge campaign.

The story was as easy to swallow as a mouthful of the region's superb Rieslings: the massive bridge threatened several unique Mosel vineyards, whose steep incline and slate-rich soil produced grapes that could not be grown anywhere else in the world to the same standard.

An eyesore or economically vital?

But a trip through the winding Mosel Valley reveals a more complicated picture marked by sharp divisions – typified by the arm-chopping parable – about what's best for the region and the people who live there.

The first thing that becomes clear when talking to locals is that many, indeed probably a majority, support the bridge construction.

“I am absolutely for it,” said wine-maker Werner Schmitz, who lives in Ürzig, a town that will be in the shadow of the new bridge. “We need this bridge to bring in more tourists. I'd say 90 percent of people here are in favour of it and only a handful are against it – the environmentalists and the left.”

Matthias Grommes, owner of the Moselleblüchen Hotel in Bernkastel, was similarly enthusiastic, saying the bridge will ease traffic congestion along the main road that runs through his town.

“It's only the greenies that oppose it. For the winemakers it's no problem – maybe for a hectare or two of vineyards. But this is a good thing for us – we need the bridge to improve the infrastructure here.”

Nor do those opposing the bridge necessarily cite the vineyards or the aesthetic damage as their main concerns. Oliver Probst, owner of the Ringhotel Weinhaus Moselleschild in Ürzig, said his principal worry was the disruption to the area while construction was going on.

“We've been told nothing at all about how long it will take and what the disruptions will be. I'm going to have to warn my guests when they book that there could be traffic delays and noise from the building. I might have people booked for lunch and dinner calling and cancelling because they can't get here.”

Click here for a photo gallery of the Mosel Valley.

Campaigners Loosen and Washington, along with Washington's partner Knut Aufermann, say supporters of the bridge project – many of whom have lived their whole lives in the valley – don't understand the premium that 21st-century tourists put on unspoilt scenery.

“The view here is completely different from the view from outside,” Aufermann said. “I hear people in the valley saying, ‘But it's modern; we'll be part of modernity, as if they're still living in the 1960s.'

“We fear for the valley. It is going to be dead in 10 years' time.”

Amid low wine prices and the global financial crisis' effect on tourism, valley residents are sufficiently desperate to believe the bridge is a lifeline for the area, according to Washington.

“There's some typical Mosel thinking in all this,” said another bridge opponent, Michael Willkomm, who runs the massive Peter Mertes Winery and whose family have been winemakers in the region for 160 years. “People think, “If the bridge ruins tourism for the towns directly around the bridge, the tourists will come to my town further along the valley instead, so I'll be better off.”

No one in their right mind could argue the B50 bridge is a masterpiece of infrastructure planning. It is no Millau Viaduct, the beautiful French bridge designed by British architect Norman Foster. Rather, it's a 40-year-old, Cold War-era plan that was partly driven by NATO logistical needs but whose usefulness today has been questioned by a wide range of commentators, not just the active bridge opponents.

Tapping stimulus money

Story continues below…

According to Heiner Monheim, a professor of planning and development at the University of Trier who opposes the B50 project, the whole thing is “development for the sake of development.”

The Rhineland-Palatinate state government saw a chance in 2008, when economic stimulus money was being thrown about, to revive the B50 plan that had all but stalled, he said. The federal government is paying the vast majority of the bridge's €280 million cost.

Under Germany's complex planning bureaucracy, coming up with a new design would mean years, maybe decades of studies, reviews and consultations.

Yet the economic boost of the construction is unlikely to help the valley much, because most of the construction work will be done by big firms from other states or other countries, Monheim adds.

The anti-bridge group, meanwhile, claims the state government has published misleading figures to show the bridge will boost tourism. (The state's transport ministry did not respond to a request for comment.)

Both sides of the debate have their data and their projections. But in the end, Ernst Loosen insists, it's a matter of common sense.

“My common sense tells me that I'm not going to stay in a hotel where I have to look out of the window at a huge, ugly bridge,” Loosen said. “Why would I want to look at that?”

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