In The Saddle Through Wine Country: Cycling the Mosel
This is a tale of a wonderful 3 days peacefully cycling the Mosel bike path (or Moselradweg in German) from the French city of Metz, all the way to its confluence with the Rhine at the Deutsches Eck in the beautifully located, graceful Rheinland city of Koblenz.
Although the Mosel’s source is high in the Vosges mountains to the west of Alsace, following the course of the river by bike only really makes sense from Metz. Up until this surprisingly pretty city which has undergone something of a renaissance over the past 10 years, there is no easy-to-follow route which closely tracks the river. And let’s be honest, the river and its almost ever-present wineries, at least on the German stretch, is what makes this particular route so beautiful, relaxing and fun. And so it was, that on a very early July morning, I started on my journey.
I set out on a regional train from my home city of Wiesbaden to Metz. Bikes are much easier to transport on regional trains in Germany. You don’t need a reservation and I didn’t want to commit weeks in advance in case the weather didn’t play ball. Ah yes, the weather, always there to serve a timely reminder that this is northern Europe. It was Wednesday morning when I set off, and right up until Monday afternoon I wasn’t completely sure whether I would make the trip. The fantastic weather which had brought a relatively uncommon but very welcome 2-week spell of beautiful sunshine and near 30°C temperatures had broken on the Sunday, and I was thus nervously checking my weather app every couple of hours in hope that I would be able to make the trip without the likelihood of a wash-out.
Having grown up in the UK, I have to admit that I am a bit of a fair-weather cyclist. I derive zero pleasure from being on a day-long bike ride in the pouring rain. I can deal with the cold, the wind, the grey but not when it is wetter than an otter’s pocket. I made the final decision to do the tour just 2 days before I was due to depart. The weather on the first day looked iffy but after that it seemed that it would be mostly dry. I can live with a shower. It’s almost like teasing mother nature and trying to time your breaks so as you don’t get wet. In fact, the only time when wet weather and fun can share the same sentence is when you’re trying your level best to outsmart it.
The best laid plans…
Leaving it so late meant that I was at the mercy of how easy it would be to find available accommodation. After much consideration, I had decided to do the cycling the Mosel tour in 3 days. I had cycled over 100km in one day on a few occasions but never 3 days in a row, so I was a little apprehensive around how my fitness, endurance and muscle-ache would hold up after day 1. What’s life without some difficult goals and challenges though, eh? I had scheduled my arrival in Metz at 11:00 in the morning on day 1, which meant 2 overnight stops but still benefiting from almost a full first day of cycling upon arrival.
I was doing the tour in high season: It was school holidays in most of Germany, including the state of Rheinland-Palatinate, where the cycling the Mosel tour passes through. This left me with 2 choices: Either to pre-book accommodation, and run the risk of being either too tired or getting caught out by unpredictable weather before I reached my planned stop. Or to wing it and hope, with the help of a smartphone app (hats off to Mosel Tourism), that I could secure some accommodation through the tourist offices in each town. In the end I decided to pre-book and, either by luck or by perfect judgement (I prefer to think it was the latter!), I pretty much nailed it perfectly. I decided to cycle in roughly equal stages, with a slightly longer route on day 2, that being my only full morning-until-evening day in the saddle.
It didn’t bode well when, after boarding my final train connection in the French border town of Forbach, it was rolling, low grey clouds and heavy rain. I had packed a light raincoat but nothing to withstand a full day of cycling in heavy rain. The decision had been made to travel light, driven primarily by my complete lack of kit having not undertaken a long-distance cycle tour before. I often am guilty of making fun of the “all the gear but no idea” cyclists who go out on their bikes three times a year. Earn your stripes first, then buy all of the expensive kit. I also hate wearing a heavy backpack when cycling. They are just so damn uncomfortable and make you sweat buckets, and in any case, the weather forecast was reasonably good, so I had just strapped a lightweight but very practical small, specialist carry-bag to the baggage clip of my trusty trekking bike (see pic), along with a small, day rucksack.
That mobile phone weather apps are often not particularly accurate, I am well and truly aware. Luckily for me, that particular day it was precision perfect. It was forecast to be dry from mid-morning onwards, and about 20 minutes before the train pulled into the Gare du Metz, the rain stopped. Now it was just a case of getting out of the station, navigating my way on a trekking bike through a large city I had never been to before, then crossing the river and figuring out how to get onto the route proper and start cycling the Mosel. Leaving Metz railway station, I made my way through the narrow streets of the old town. The beautiful cathedral was a pleasant surprise, as were the streets immediately below it, with lots of bars and restaurants inviting me to stay and sample the local cuisine. Metz is a bit off the beaten track but is definitely on my list of places to go back and visit properly.
I had a Mosel cycle route guidebook which was a few years old. A Christmas present from an ex-girlfriend which, with the best intention, I had never got round to using until now. The guide basically said that a purpose-built path on the French side didn’t exist up until Thionville, about 30km from Metz. Thus it looked like it would be pretty tricky, involving a fair bit of riding on French départmental roads relatively heavily exposed to traffic. The second piece of luck which transpired that day was that in the 5 years between my version of the Moselradweg guide being published and me actually doing the tour, the French had obviously got their finger out and done a grand job of creating a smooth, easy-to-follow cycle path alongside the Mosel for most of the route between Metz and Thionville.
The route out of central Metz took me over a busy dual-carriageway which crossed the Mosel and brought me onto the left bank, where I would stay almost all the way to the German border. Onwards through an ugly industrial zone where I took a couple of wrong turns, before finding myself on the marked cycle path following the river towards Thionville. Equidistant between Metz and the German border, Thionville is the only sizeable town on the French portion of the route. Conscious of the fact that I had another 75 kilometres until my first overnight stop in Konz, I didn’t want to spend too much time hanging around while I was still quite fresh.
The French portion of the tour doesn’t become really pretty until it enters the more typical Mosel landscape of steeper slopes and vineyards around the village of Contz-les-Bains, approx. 10km before the German border. After a quick lunch stop at a snack bar in the next village of Sierck-les-Bains, I pushed on towards the border. Just across the river here, in the Dreiländereck on the Luxembourg side of the border, lies the village of Schengen. Infamous for giving its name to the passport-free travel zone of 26 countries, Schengen was in fact the location of a 1985 agreement signed between West Germany, France, Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands to abolish border controls between their countries, a full 10 years before the Schengen-Zone as we know it today came into force. I decided to continue my route on the German side rather than crossing into Luxembourg. For this part of the Mosel cycle route, the border is demarcated by the river. The border straddles the French village of Apach and the small German town of Perl, both rather uninspiring and typical of border crossings. You can immediately tell from town planning and architecture that you have crossed the border. The French portion of the tour had taken up the first 70km of day 1 but I still had another 35km to complete and it was already 15:30. No time to stop and explore.
From hereon in, the cycle route directly follows the river, with Germany on the right bank and Luxembourg on the left. For pure novelty value, I crossed the river onto the Luxembourg side in the town of Wormeldange for the sole reason that in 10 years of living in Germany I had never found my way to Luxembourg. The landscape along this stretch of the Mosel is that of gentle hills and majestic vineyards, punctuated by the odd castle and pretty village on either side of the river. The first town of any size was the destination of my first overnight stop – Konz. This is where the Mosel’s largest tributary – the Saar – also reaches its confluence with the Mosel. There is not as much tourism here as further along the river and the landscape, although pretty, is not as breathtakingly beautiful as the middle and lower stretches of the Mosel which I still had to look forward to.
I stayed at Mühlenthaler’s Park Hotel, a friendly and pleasant hotel with secure, covered bike storage and a great breakfast to set me on my way for Day 2. 108km down, 217 still to go! The weather for my longest stretch was forecast to be dry but mixed, with more than the risk of a shower. From Konz I would cover some of the most stunning stretches of this beautiful river, before finishing up after another day in the saddle and an aching back-side in the chocolate-box town of Traben-Trarbach. Very much on the Mosel’s main tourist trail, it is nonetheless a must-see town jam-packed full of traditional wine taverns. Day 2 began with an easy 20km stretch from Konz to the largest settlement along the German Mosel, the Roman city of Trier. Famous for the Porta Nigra and Römerbrücke or Roman bridge, Trier is a popular tourist city and well worth a day trip in its own right if you're not cycling the Mosel. With 120km to cover on this day, I didn’t have time on this occasion to venture into the city centre. I've been to Trier before though and it is well worth a day exploring.
On the outskirts of Trier, the Mosel cycle route passes through some industrial sprawl which is the ugliest stretch of the whole tour. It leaves the banks of the river for a while to go around a large cement plant. As the route picks up the course of the Mosel once again, the hills either side of the river become steeper and, upon leaving a busy Autobahn intersection behind, the picture-postcard scenery cannot fail to impress. Vineyards on either side and countless cute villages along the way, all of them spotlessly clean and dotted with wineries and inviting places to stop for drinks and food. I continued along, passing through the gorgeous small town of Neumagen-Drohn, definitely worth a day out in its own right, before finally stopping for lunch about 65km into the day’s total distance in one of the Mosel’s most famous wine towns – Piesport. And where else could be the choice for lunch but a winery of course, together with a glass of the wonderful Piesporter Goldtröpfchen Riesling.
With a full belly and an increasingly aching back-side, the route then meandered along to the equally beautiful Bernkastel-Kues. Another impressive wine town, Bernkastel has some of the steepest vineyards in Europe, including the famous Dr. Loosen winery. Stopping briefly for an ice cream and a drink before continuing, the black clouds had started to gather and it was increasingly looking like rain. I was familiar with this part of the river as it is the easiest stretch to drive to from the Rhein-Main area and I has thus visited most of the towns along this stretch before.
By now my muscles were aching and the tour was starting to take its toll after almost 2 days in the saddle. From km 80 until Traben-Trarbach was hard slog, made harder by the fact that I was determined to make it without getting soaked. Staying on the right bank of the Mosel, my destination was only about 6km as the crow flies, but this section of the Mosel meanders and twists and turns with the contours and following the river actually takes about 25km to cycle from Bernkastel to Traben-Trarbach. The cutest towns on this stretch are actually on the other bank, and staying on the right bank actually gives you the best view across the river.
Progress and the march of civilisation is a very visible scar on this stretch: There is a new Autobahn being built to link up two major arteries in the region’s infrastructure which is currently a missing link, and ultimately this will divert a lot of through traffic away from the riverside Bundesstrassen. Sometimes through, progress is ugly. The Mosel sits deep in a breathtaking valley, surrounded by steep vineyards. There are concerns about its environmental impact on what is one of, if not the, most noble white wine region of the world. Wine country doesn’t get much more dreamy and strikingly beautiful than the Middle Mosel, and a large new Autobahn viaduct will no doubt scar this magical landscape of castles, steep vineyards and chocolate-box villages. How the positives will net off the negatives remains to be seen.
From the new bridge construction to my second overnight destination of Traben-Trarbach it is only a 10km hop, skip and jump but about 5km before my arrival it started to rain quite heavily. Having just about escaped getting a soaking, I checked in to my Pension, grabbed a quick shower before having a wonderful Schnitzel in a wine cellar, with a glass of the local Riesling.
I woke up on the final day to some morning fog in the river valley to begin my tour. It was quite a chilly morning but didn’t take long for the sun to break through. I also considered the final day to take in the most stunning scenery of a gorgeous region. The first few km were tough to break back in to the saddle with the bum muscles very achy after two full days prior of cycling. Luckily, the small town of Enkirch, nestled among steep vineyards with lots of half-timbered houses directly along the cycle path, eased the aching and got me back into the mood for a day of pedal power. From Enkirch onwards, the route hugged the river all the way into Zell, another popular tourist wine town (the famous vineyard is Zeller Schwartze Katze, and a black cat statue in the old town pays homage to this). Zell sits at the end of a huge “S” shaped kink in the river which makes a stunning backdrop when viewed from atop one of the hills. That’s one for a hiking tour – highly recommended!
Leaving Zell, the next settlements are the small towns of Alf and Bullay, both facing each other across the river and offering a path for the Mosel cycle route on either side. From this point on, the railway is a frequent companion and more or less follows the same route as the cycle path for large stretches of the remainder of the tour. My aim was to get to Cochem, the largest town between Trier and Koblenz, for my lunch break. At around 60km into the route, it seemed reasonable. However, I was beginning to tire, the weather was hotter than on the previous two days and the 200-odd kilometres I already had under my belt were starting to take their toll. There were opportunities before Cochem to stop for lunch but I didn’t want to expend all of my energy in the morning and have nothing in reserve for the final stretch. I pushed on and made it to Cochem very hungry and in need of a real calorie-boosting feed.
As it was such a nice day, the temperature up in the mid-20s, and Cochem had a very pretty riverside park, I decided to stop off at a supermarket to buy some provisions. I made my own lunch and ate it sat next to the river gazing up at the beautiful castle perched upon a hillside overlooking the town. A well-needed 20 minute power nap and plenty of calorie-rich snacks to go with my sandwich and fruit had set me up in good spirits to complete the final 55 kilometres of the tour that afternoon.
From hereon in, the banks remained steep and the railway and road were more or less at the side of the Mosel cycle path. The river also meanders a lot less from Cochem right up until its confluence with the Rhine. The route took me through the villages Klotten, Treis-Karden, Müden and Burgen before I wound up in Hatzenport for a short break and stop before tackling the final stretches of the route. The lunch break in Cochem had done me the world of good and I had gone from being exhausted before lunch to having a second wind, ready to power into Koblenz on the final stretch. Amazing what some chocolate and peanuts can do for giving tired muscles some reserve energy! Between Hatzenport and Kobern-Gondorf are some of the prettiest castles along the route. Not far from the Mosel is also the world-famous and Disneyesque Burg Eltz, quite possibly the second most famous castle in Germany after Schloss Neuschwanstein in Bavaria. If you’re not cycling the Mosel and find yourself in the region as a tourist, go there, especially if you have kids. They will love it.
After leaving the town of Kobern-Gondorf and heading under the spectacular customs house which bridges the main B-49 national highway, the route passes under the Autobahn high above the river valley on stilts, before the Mosel cycle route heads towards the suburbs of my final destination, Koblenz. Upon entering Koblenz, I found a delightful Biergarten next to the river a couple of kilometres before destination’s end and thought why not, I’ve earned it. Completely unexpected, I actually felt very fresh and relaxed on the final stretch. Journey’s end was Deutsches Eck, where the Mosel cycle route ends as the river which had been my companion for 3 days flows into the mighty Rhine, Western Europe’s main shipping artery, steeped in legend and history.
And there it was before me, the statue of Kaiser Wilhelm stood proudly at the confluence of the Mosel and Rhine, both of these majestic rivers glistening in the warm July sunshine. The perfect end to 325km in the saddle through what is one of Europe’s most beautiful wine regions. And the best thing about it has to be that the Mosel valley and its castles, wineries and hills are relatively undiscovered to everyone outside of Germany and Benelux. Go there now, before the secret is out.
I cycled the Mosel at the end of July 2015, with the guidebook Bikeline Moselradweg (in German) but with no special GPS other than the standard Apple maps app on the iPhone.
English guidebooks to the region are non-existent except for coverage in Germany-wide guides, although the tourist offices throughout the region all provide plenty of literature in English covering their local area. If you are after hiking and cycling specific guidebooks, you’d better muddle through the German or plan your own route using a good map. Plenty of 1:25000 and 1:50000 maps are available from tourist offices and amazon.de
Hotels and Pensions are plentiful and chances are you will be able to find somewhere to stay at relatively short notice. In the shoulder season (any Spring / Summer month except July & August) you should be able to rock up in a town without anything pre-booked and find somewhere to stay, especially if you are not too picky about the type or standard of accommodation. Even the cheapest Pensions / B&Bs are clean and most will have en-suite bathrooms, even if the decor and furniture is dated. The Bett und Bike network of pensions and hotels is particularly welcoming and equipped to cater to those cycling the Mosel.
There are towns and villages frequently enough for you not to require any more than a standard litre bike bottle to carry your water. Likewise for food, no need to pack lunches unless you are on a tight budget. Because there are no large gaps between each village, it is easy to do the tour in the number of days which you feel best represents your level of fitness, or indeed take more time to explore the region if you so wish.
Carry plenty of cash: Most German restaurants and bars do not take credit cards. Anywhere from large village upwards in size will have a bank with a cash machine / ATM.
The Mosel cycle route on the German stretch is called the Moselradweg and signposts are everywhere at each major intersection or village, depicting in green the distances to the next major points. It is difficult to get lost if you have a reasonably good sense of direction…it certainly ain’t mountaineering in the Alps. The couple of times I took a wrong turn, I quickly realised and backtracked.
Most of the route is asphalt but there are some cobbles and gravel stretches. A trekking or trekking-cross bike is the most sensible option. The majority of the tour is on purpose built cycle tracks, directly next to the river and away from main roads. Some small stretches of the tour follow a cycle track on the pavement next to busy roads but not directly exposed to traffic. Approximately 30km of the entire route is directly on roads with moderate to heavy traffic.
And last but not least, you are in wine country. Enjoy sampling the fantastic local Rieslings along the way, insofar as it doesn’t make you a wobbly cyclist! You won’t regret it and they are fantastic value for money if you've got room in your bike bags. Zum Wohl!