“It’ll be like being on holiday in a one of those million-piece jigsaws!” And with that we were off, to the Mosel valley, on the hunt for wine, castles and beautiful rural colours.
Sandy, sunny beach-focussed holidays are all well and good, but if you live long enough in Germany there is something special about the satisfaction of dinner and wine after a long walk through rain-dripping forest.
This can either be done among the yellows and reds of autumn, or the fresh greens and cheeky flowers of spring. Summer in the region has its own appeal, but the castles are emptier and the Gasthaus rooms are cheaper at either end of the season.
The Mosel wriggles from Trier to the Rhine at Koblenz, easily reached from Frankfurt, where I arrived by train to meet my friend who flew in from Spain. We picked up a hire car in Frankfurt and were away.
The road along the Mosel is singularly gorgeous; tightly packed between the river and the rising hills, it has no choice but to slavishly follow the route of the water. Villages are stretched alongside, backing up into the hills a little but quickly giving way to vineyards.
Although there was gossiping to be done, the views soon took over and sparked a childish competition to be the first to spot the next castle. There is pretty much one on top of each hill, making the game surprisingly tense.
Every visit to the Mosel has to include at least one crazy castle visit. We chose Burg Eltz and were not disappointed – it really does look like the subject of a jigsaw photograph. A decent walk through aforementioned rain-dripping forest got us ready for some medieval mood music, which the castle then served up in spades.
Divided into three parts for the three sections of the family who lived there, and built in a seemingly random selection of architectural styles, the castle walls tells wonderful stories and customs, such as the little chapel which pokes out the side so that no room would be built on top of that dedicated to worship.
Our favourite was the big dining-meeting room which had inside gargoyles symbolizing the fact that the otherwise strict hierarchy could be forgotten and minds spoken freely – but what was said in the room stayed there, under pain of death.
The tiny village of Hatzenport supplied us with a geranium-dripping Gasthaus just metres from the water, and a restaurant which served fabulous dinner – fish from the river in front of us and wine from the vineyards at our backs.
The food was generally fantastic, German cuisine at its light, fresh and simple best, accompanied by wines which successfully argued for a second bottle, all at prices which did nothing to support sensible arguments for restraint or sobriety.
After a few days in the villages along the river, arriving in Trier is a bit of a shock – a real town, with traffic and pedestrian bustle. Tourists abound, but fighting through them is worth it for a wander around the fascinating ancient streets.
Karl Marx was born here, which we found initially exciting, and the house where he was first saw the light of day has been duly transformed into an extensive museum. Yet despite the modern outfitting and multilingual electronic guides, we found it surprisingly dry and even uninspiring.
The town’s great Roman gate, the Porta Nigra, is more impressive, and the basilica is magnificent – one of those churches so beautiful it can even move those of a Marxist persuasion.
Our surprise discovery of the trip was more rural, and off the Mosel. A hook taken northwards up to Gerolstein – where the popular mineral water comes from – is well worth the detour. The landscape is stunning as the road winds up from the river valley and to the volcanic plains where the oddest, perfectly round lakes – called Maars – can be found.
The best tip – stay at the Historische Wassermühle in Birgel. It was originally a watermill complex which ground not only flour but also mustard seeds, and boasted a bakery and spirits distillery.
All these original features have been retained, while some of the half-timbered houses on the site have been wonderfully converted into little self-contained apartments. They seem to stage a number of alarming dress-up events, but with out-of-season planning and a bit of luck, these can be avoided and the history of the place enjoyed in peace.
The chance to make mustard should be grasped with both hands, even if the lesson is reminiscent of school trips abroad, prompting giggles and silly comments at the back.
A decidedly non rock-and-roll holiday, the Mosel left us with pots of self-made mustard, a couple of crates of great wine and stories to tell – far more satisfying that jetlag and a tan.
Doing the trip by car is perhaps the most obvious way, and offers more flexibility, but most of the route is covered by what friends say is a reliable and do-able train ride. It runs on the opposite side of the river from the road so will offer a different menu of villages. But there are also river cruises.