Paul's Travel Pics

Monday, April 14, 2014

Picturesque Small Towns on the Mosel - Berkastel-Kues and Traben-Trarbach

Basing ourselves at a winery/guesthouse in Cochem, we took a couple of day-trips to explore other small towns along the lovely Mosel Valley. On this day we visited two of the most picturesque towns south of Cochem, the wine-producing communities of Bernkastel-Kues and Traben-Trarbach.

Yet another charming medieval town along the Mosel Valley, Bernkastel is an enclave of half-timber houses, cobblestone alleys and medieval market squares. Most visitors to Germany probably have never heard of this place, and it would have much more popular except for its inconvenience in public transport.

Getting here without a car wasn't straightforward. Bernkastel-Kues has no train station, and the ferry from Bernkastel only goes as far north as Traben-Trarbach. From Cochem we had to take a train to the local transport hub of Wittlich, then transfer to Bus #300 to arrive at Kues, just a short walk across the bridge from Bernkastel's medieval quarters.

Heading straight to the Market Square we immediately spotted Bernkastel's famous landmark, and certainly one of the most photographed sights in the entire Mosel Valley. This impossibly slanted house has already survived 6 centuries of warfare and fires, and today still guards the narrow path to its left leading up to the town's castle.

While most tourists access the castle by the hourly shuttle bus, we chose the old fashioned approach of a steep hiking trail through these timeless vineyards that were once owned by the castle. And here is the reward -- a gorgeous view of Bernkastel's medieval skyline, as well as that of its sister town across the Mosel.

As we hiked further we came face to face with these incredibly steep vineyards. One can imagine the perils of harvesting the triangular plot at the picture's top left corner -- this is the famous cultural landscape of the Mosel at its best.

After a brisk 20 minutes we reached the 1000-year-old ruins of Burg Landshut. The short but strenuous hike was well worth it -- just look at this stunning panorama of the curving Mosel, and its endless rows of vineyards as far as the eye could see.

We hiked back to Bernkastel with some time left for an ice-cream and a stroll amongst the town's numerous Weinstuben. Personally I'd rank this little gem among my three favorite towns in the Mosel Valley, probably in a tie with Beilstein and only behind the spectacular and more much conveniently located Cochem.

Our next destination of Traben-Trarbach was a 40 minute ride away on Bus #333, one of the local bus lines crisscrossing the winding shorelines of the Mosel. Our journey from Cochem to Bernkastel-Kues to Traben-Trarbach and back to Cochem would have been much more expensive without the convenient Rheinland-Pfalz-Ticket, which capped our cost at a reasonable 26 Euros for two.

Before our eyes was yet another pair of pleasant small towns surrounded by miles of lush vineyards on either side of the river, and linked together only in the past hundred years by the modern roadbridge.

While Traben wasn't quite as medieval-looking on a whole compared to Bernkastel or Cochem, there were still quite a few unique and photogenic buildings from the past couple of centuries including this old post-office. This century-old building was actually on sale during our visit, though it was sadly above our affordability at only four million Euros!

The town's most recognizable symbol was the unmissable Brückentor on the Trarbach side, dating from 1899 when one of the first bridges across this stretch of the Mosel was constructed. We took a brief walk in Trarbach, then headed back to Traben in search for a traditional place for dinner.

Here we made our favorite restaurant discovery in the Mosel Valley. Our original choice of Alte Zunftscheune was fully booked for the evening, and we were lucky to stumble upon Restaurant Moselstübchen just a couple blocks away on a little alley off Bahnstraße. What attracted us wasn't the promise of local wine on its store sign, but a little blackboard advertising "Frische Pfifferlinge," the seasonal local favorite of freshly harvested Chanterelle mushrooms.

This little eatery was as authentically local as could be -- exposed timberframes at least a couple centuries old, no English menus or English-speaking staff, and a clientele of reserved but polite neighbors naturally curious about these two foreigners with unspeakably bad German pronunciation. It was surprisingly busy even on a Tuesday evening, and we had the amusing experience of sharing a table with an older German couple.

The food didn't disappoint. My rumpsteak was already quite decent in itself, but it was the generous heap of wild Chanterelle that propelled this dish to a whole new level. I think I even felt a quiet nod of approval from the German couple as they saw my appreciation for their local food.

Just as enjoyable was my wife's zander fillet. We had somehow never seen zander before, and the flesh was so perfectly seasoned and the skin so crispily fried that I honestly thought it was a salt water fish. There was absolutely no hint of the repulsive "muddy flavor" typically found in most freshwater fish, and that's probably a testimony to the freshness of ingredients and expert preparation by the chef.

The local Federweisser wine was good, though service was a little slow as everyone was served by the one owner/server. We hurried off to the Traben train station after saying auf Wiedersehen to the German couple and paying for the meal at the cashier ... I think the owner perfectly understood as I pointed to my watch saying "Bahnhof" with a smile. We would ride the Mosel Wine train line to Bullay, then transfer to the next local train back to Cochem. This was a good day-trip.

Bill for Two Persons
Pfifferlingen mit Rumpsteak18.5 Euros
Zanderfilet12.5 Euros
Glass Federweisser x 25.2 Euros
Bottled Water3.2 Euros
TOTAL before tips39.4 Euros (CAD$55.2)

Sunday, March 30, 2014

3-Night Winery Stay in Spectacular Cochem

This is one of my favorite towns in the Mosel, or elsewhere in Germany for that matter.

Just look at this view of a fairytale castle shrouded in the morning mist, perched above a medieval town surrounded by lush vineyards. You too would be enticed to spend a few nights in this magical place.

Located on a sharp turn of the Mosel is the 1000-year-old town of Cochem, one of many along a serpentine river widely recognized as Germany's most prestigious wine region. Every hill along the valley is covered with rows upon rows of Rieslings, and it was for this reason that we decided to base ourselves in a local winery for the next 3 nights.

This may be the most complete medieval town we've ever stayed in, with clusters of cute timber-frame houses, cobblestone townsquares, terraced vineyards that have sustained its townsfolk since time immemorial, and a gothic castle on the hilltop from which the nobles ruled. The whole infrastructure for fiefs and peasants is still mostly intact to this date.

Ever since the Romans brought their grapes 2000 years ago, the terrain of the Mosel has been adapted specifically for one crop. Every inch of cultivable land seems to be covered with grapevines, creating a dramatic cultural landscape of frighteningly steep vineyards staring down a narrow valley.

That's the backdrop for this enchanted little town, merely a 2-hour train ride from Cologne or Frankfurt but feels like a world away. Boats at the pier would ferry travelers up the Mosel to the ancient Roman city of Trier or downstream to join the Rhine at Koblenz.

We arrived by train after a day-trip to Luxembourg and Trier, into a historic train station that seems stuck in the late 1800's. Where the train tracks ended, the vineyards began. Wine is the lifeblood of this age-old community of vintners.

Our base for 3 nights was Weingut Rademacher, a family-owned winery conveniently located just a 3 minute walk from the train station. Located on the hillside above the house is the family estate, a small and precipitous looking plot of land that produces some surprisingly flowery semi-dry and dry Rieslings.

The family operates a small Weinstube that serves up cheese-and-Schinken platters to accompany their wine, in addition to renting out Gästzimmers to supplement income outside of wine production. Our double room was clean and very spacious, albeit a little noisy in the morning as it faced the park-and-ride lot for the train station. On a positive note though they do offer a free glass of wine for each guest upon arrival.

The included breakfast was one of the best we've had anywhere in Germany, a generous buffet of dry-cured ham, bread and juice, plus a whole plethora of mouth-watering cheeses. And if you're still thirsty, they do wine tastings at a nominal charge and offer their wines at very reasonable prices. I would have carried some back to Canada if we weren't traveling further.

After breakfast we entered the town's medieval walls and headed straight for its busy Market Square of 17th Century half-timber houses flanking a Baroque townhall. The surprising number of shops offered some decent shopping, but the best deals were at the informal open-air market (Tues/Wed only?) just outside of the town walls next to the main bridge.

A shuttle bus drove us up some impossibly narrow and steep cobblestone streets to the Reichsburg, Cochem's Imperial castle. This was arguably the most popular sight in the entire Mosel Valley, and we arrived among hundreds of other tourists, mostly Germans but many English and French speaking ones as well.

These 1000-year-old Romanesque arches actually led to a much more recent neo-gothic castle, destroyed by Louis XIV and last rebuilt in the 19th Century. Even on a Tuesday morning the courtyard was completely packed, and we had to wait almost 30 minutes for an English tour.

Even our guided tour session, delivered bilingually in German and English, was entirely packed with visitors as curious as ourselves. Our guide was a humorous lady who spoke English with barely any accent.

The 45 minute tour took us through some extravagant 19th Century halls and living quarters, decorated with neo-baroque and even renaissance style furnishings and sculptures. Particularly interesting was the collection of hunting trophies, including a polar bear from Alaska.

The most memorable room was a secret passage disguised as a regular wall panel. Our guide asked everyone to guess where the secret lever was ... and nobody noticed an inconspicuous metal button on the carpet. This was one of the more enjoyable castle tours we've taken.

But my favorite part of the Reichsburg was its panoramic view of Cochem amidst its endless vineyards and the lively boat traffic along its stretch of the Mosel. We probably spent nearby two hours at the castle, before taking the steep path back into town for lunch.

For our first meal in Cochem we went to the historic Ratskeller, which by definition was the cellar of the 18th Century Rathaus. I had no idea why the outdoor patio was entirely full while this romantic wine cellar from the 1700's was near empty. To me the ambiance of the vaulted cellar was exactly our main reason for lunching here.

Soup of the day turned out to be a rich and creamy soup of champignon mushrooms. Everyday I was hoping to see some Boletus or Chanterelle mushrooms on restaurant menus in this autumn season, but the good stuff still turned out rather uncommon. This bowl though was a fairly good substitute.

My wife surprised me with a sudden craving for some hearty bratwursts. These came in two varieties, both crispily grilled and meaty, though I still liked my vegetarian dish better ...

I must have been missing our wonderful time in the Black Forest ... and missing my usual intake of veggies since arriving in Germany ... that I thoroughly enjoyed this vegetable Flammkuche. And it was very well prepared with a rich sour cream, crunchy edges and some simple and fresh vegetables. To me this type of peasant dishes is German food at its best -- nothing fancy, just simple and rustic flavors.

Bill for Two Persons
Soup of the Day3.5 Euros
Vegetable Flammkuche8.5 Euros
Bratwurst Plate11.5 Euros
Glass Riesling x 25.0 Euros
TOTAL before tips28.5 Euros (CAD$39.9)

Another great lunch spot we came across was also housed in a historic building, the 17th Century timber-frame house of Zom Stueffje, just a little uphill from the Market Square.

The interior of exposed wooden frames and an eccentric collection of curios probably hadn't changed much over the past century or so. The clientelle all seemed to be Germans couples in their 60's or older, but it hardly mattered to us. We knew we're in for some nice traditional dishes.

And the food was great ... in fact my wife's smoked trout fillets were among the best fish we had in Germany. The flesh was flavorfully smoked, buttery and not at all salty. While the portion wasn't huge, at less than 10 Euros this was still an excellent deal.

My fillet of salmon was a much bigger dish that came with a green salad and potatoes on the side. The meat was a little dry and the sauce was too salty, but then I wasn't expecting French elaborateness in a rustic German Landrestaurant. Though, I would have loved to order a second plate of smoked trout.

Bill for Two Persons
Soup of the Day3.2 Euros
Smoked Trout9.9 Euros
Salmon Filet15.8 Euros
Federweisser3.0 Euros
Glass Riesling3.4 Euros
TOTAL before tips35.3 Euros (CAD$49.4)

After working up a huge appetite with a day-hike to Burg Eltz, we head for our most anticipated restaurant in Cochem, one highly recommended by the locals. Located a 15 minute walk away from the Old Town on Endertstraße is the little Mosellandhotel im Enderttal and its restaurant Zum Onkel Willi.

We knew we're in the right place when we saw on the menu ... fresh Chanterelle mushrooms! I would have loved to start with a cream of Chanterelle, but this schnitzel with a rich sauce was enough to satisfy my taste for these seasonal wild fungi. I probably scooped up every drop of the sauce with the potato cakes.

My wife ordered this Barbary duck breast in a sauce of orange and peppercorns. Ignoring the curious sides of broccoli and steamed rice -- I guess the locals somehow associate exotic meats with the orient -- the duck breast actually tasted quite decent with the peppercorns. But it's still no match for the Chanterelle ... that sauce alone was enough to keep me happy for the day.

Bill for Two Persons
Tomato Soup4.5 Euros
Barbary Duck Breast17.8 Euros
Schnitzel with Chanterelle15.5 Euros
Glass Federweisser x 25.6 Euros
Glass Riesling3.0 Euros
TOTAL before tips46.4 Euros (CAD$64.7)

In my view Cochem is an excellent base for exploring the rest of the picturesque Mosel Valley. It's well-connected by trains to Trier or Traben-Trarbach, ferries to Beilstein or Bernkastel-Kues, and of course the hiking trail to majestic Burg Eltz is just a couple stations north at Moselkern. Three nights was just enough, and I could have easily found enough things to do for a week's stay.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Two Cities in One Day-Trip - Luxembourg City and Trier

This was one of the longest days of our 24-day journey, starting in the early morning from Strasbourg in the Alsace and ending the day 300km away at Cochem on the Mosel. We made the middle part into a day-trip of two beautiful city cores designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites: Luxembourg City and Trier.

Getting from Strasbourg to Luxembourg would have been an easy 2 hour journey ... except SNCF recently cancelled its sole morning train between the two cities! So we woke up an hour early to catch a 06:47 regional train from Strasbourg to Metz, then transferred to a TGV to arrive at Luxembourg three hours later. There we started our 4 hour stopover in Luxembourg City, after picking up a Mille Feuille in the locally celebrated pâtisserie of Oberweis.

Luxembourg has always intrigued me as one of Europe's greatest fortresses, and it is this military heritage that earned its World Heritage distinction. While its massive ramparts had been mostly dismantled in the late 1800's, its vast underground network of tunnels remains with the natural defense of a 30 metre cliff from the valley floor. This would be the focus of our self-guided tour, starting from the top of the promontory and winding our way to its very bottom.

A quick ride on Bus #14 took us from the train station to the top of the promontory known locally as the Bock. Even in today's peacetime it offers great panoramic shots of the lower town and the valley to the east. It's easy to imagine the fearsome artillery launching from this massive rock of honeycombed bunkers during wars.

For over a millennium this has been the city's cradle and shield, a natural fortification augmented with ingenious military design to form a near impenetrable line of defense. Beneath the surface lurks an 18th Century system of underground galleries of cannons and barracks, with some 20 km of tunnels dug through sheer rocks.

Our mission on this day was to simply find a path to the lower town ... and even that turned into a bit of exploration. At the end we followed the advice of the ticket sales lady at the casemate's entrance, followed the steep vehicular road (Montee de Clausen) down the hill, turned left and left again through a convoluted path to the bottom of the casemates. There we emerged between the rocks and stone bridges into the valley floor.

We reached the Grund, a lower town of charming narrow streets snaking down its steep slopes to the bottom of the valley, surrounded by the stalwart casemates and the gabled roofs of the Old Town above. Clear signage directed us along a suggested route through the remnants of the city wall and past the elegant St Jean du Grund with its pointed spire.

This picturesque neighborhood of 18th Century houses beneath a cliff-top town reminded me fondly of Quebec City -- both sharing similar aesthetic qualities of a romantic old town divided by sheer cliffs into an upper quarter and a lower quarter. Quebec City is a little cuter and more intimate in my view while Luxembourg City is undoubtedly much grander, both in terms of its scale and its historical context.

Fortunately we didn't have to hike all the way back up ... there's a bus stop at the bottom with a half-hourly bus (#23) whisking visitors back to the train station. 2 Euros is relatively reasonable for the bus fare ... this is one of the world's most affluent nations after all.

We took a local train in the early afternoon to our next destination of Trier, just 40km away from Luxembourg on the German side of the border. At this time the Luxembourgish national rail (CFL) offered unbelievably cheap round-trip tickets to Trier, known as the Tagesrückfahrkarte, for prices even cheaper than the single fare. To this date we still have our unused ticket stubs for that return trip.

In my opinion Trier is just one of those tremendously underrated destinations among foreign tourists. As a former capital of the Western Roman Empire it's got beautiful Roman ruins, an amphitheatre that used to seat 20,000, the world's largest surviving Roman building in the Constantine Basilica, the oldest and one of the most prestigious cathedrals in Germany, and it's the capital of the Mosel wine region. What's not to like?

Just a 10 minute walk from the train station is the rugged Porta Nigra, the largest Roman city gate north of the Alps. A climb up the tower offers a glimpse into the robustness of 1800-year-old Roman engineering, as well as the light and shadows of ancient columns for some elegant portraits.

My best reason for climbing the Porta Nigra was the panoramic views practically in all directions. The picture above was taken in the southern direction looking down Simeonstraße towards the St. Gangolf church on Hauptmarkt and the Romanesque-cross-Gothic spires of the Cathedral.

But the Porta Nigra was only one of hundreds of city gates across the Roman Empire. There's another building here that was peerless in importance across the Empire -- Emperor Constantine's ginormous throne hall, the largest single room in the world to survive from the age of antiquity. The Romans installed their splendid marble niches and heated double floors to impress the visiting Germanic tribes, only to have it later converted for various functions by the people they were supposed to subjugate. It's used even today, currently by a protestant congregation in town.

The premier ecclesiastical venue in town though is the Trier Cathedral, itself an expansion of yet another Roman structure from the 4th Century. Partially destroyed and rebuilt again and again during the Dark and Middle Ages, it remains the oldest cathedral in Germany.

The current state is a curious mishmash of Romanesque baptistery and naves with a Gothic roof, along with an 18th Century Baroque chapel designed for one purpose only ...

... to house one of Germany's most famous Catholic relics, the purported seamless robe of Jesus ... or one of many in the world making the same claim. Whether one believes in Trier's claim or not, there's no denying the artistry of the extravagant marble sculptures.

Next to the Cathedral there's the smaller Church of Our Lady, the oldest Gothic church in Germany and another one of the many buildings protected under the World Heritage umbrella. Other heritage buildings include a Roman amphitheatre, ruins of the imperial baths and a Roman bridge across the Mosel, though we didn't have enough time on a half-day trip.

With some time left we decided to visit an authentic Weinstube for a light dinner and sample some of the region's famous white wine. We followed local advice and sat down among the old wine presses at Kesselstatt, an informal wine bar conveniently located right next to the Cathedral.

The format was self-serve and prices were cheaper than reasonable for such a prime location -- cheese platters from 6.9 Euros, Schinken and Wurst platters from 7.5 Euros, local Rieslings and Spätburgunders from 4 Euros per 0.2L or 12 Euros a bottle. If I'm not mistaken they also serve hot dishes in the evening hours, though we arrived a little early for that.

To start we ordered the classic German split pea soup with sliced sausages, followed by this platter of Wild Boar Schinken. It's a little leaner and deeper in flavor compared to the typical German dry-cured ham, though it was so salty that I had to wash it down with some Riesling.

The best dish of the day turned out to be this simple plate of smoked salmon -- moist, fresh and served with a green salad. On this trip I'm finding that the German appetite is continually moving further away from the typical repertoire of preserved vegetables and shifting towards fresh ones, which certainly fits my own preference.

Bill for Two Persons
Pea Soup with Sausages5.2 Euros
Smoked Salmon Salad9.8 Euros
Wild Boar Schinken9.9 Euros
Riesling 0.4 L8.4 Euros
TOTAL before tips33.3 Euros (CAD$46.6)

Trier was such a pleasant small city that I wouldn't have minded staying for the night, but we had to keep with our schedule and begin the next segment of our journey. By sunset we're already en route to one of our most anticipated destinations of our trip, the incredibly charming town of Cochem where we'll be staying in a winery for the next 3 nights.