The country that invented the internal combustion engine is still very much in love with it.
Leaving our hotel window open to allow the ingress of cool air to make the night more comfortable also brings into the room the sounds of engines. Car after car, motorcycle after motorcycle, we hear those everywhere. But here, in this family hotel on the banks of the delightful Mosel river, there is more.
Tractors, for example, ripping past at no less velocity than the myriad Mercedes saloons. Or plying up and down the grassy riverbank, four-stroke powered cutting blades in constant action.
Then there is the great river itself, several hundred feet wide. Huge double barges, laden with coal and carrying a stylish living cabin at the rear together with two or three cars for the pilot and his family, power serenely by with a low thrum that can be heard long before the craft itself arrives. Regularly punctuating the peace is a speedboat or two, the driver indulging the German love of speed.
Not to mention the buses, lorries, pleasure boats, and assorted other petrol-powered paraphernalia that are part of the seeming conspiracy to break the natural silence of the mighty Mosel.
But there is peace to be found. Walking along the riverside towards the nearest town, Bernkastel-Kues, the path leaves the road far enough behind for the traffic noise to abate and the sounds of the trees, the birds and the movement of the water to once again return to prominence.
Until we reach the town itself, of course, and especially on this weekend in early September. It’s the time of the Weinfest of the Middle Mosel, an annual event that attracts thousands of visitors, all intent on enjoying the festivities.
The steep banks of the Mosel river, with their consequent good drainage and long exposure to the sun, make the production of the Riesling grape the dominant feature of the river, with a history going back to Roman times. The local area is dotted with small villages, each with its own vineyards and wine makers, many of them family concerns. Each year many villages have their own wine festival celebrating this year’s crop and presenting it for sale to the world, but they all come together in Bernkastel-Kues in early September for this major festival of the grape. The historic and colourful streets of the town throng with people who come to sample these wines, eat the local specialities and enjoy the party atmosphere among the many stalls, shops and restaurants. And whether you speak the local lingo or not, that atmosphere is infectious. It’s hard not to have a great time.
The highlight of the weekend is the annual parade through the narrow streets and over the Mosel bridge, for which the traffic is halted and foot and wind power take over. Wind, that is, in the form of the many brass bands that are a mainstay of the procession. We stood for an hour and a half watching village after village, vineyard after vineyard and grower after grower make their way past. Many had their own highly decorated float, adorned by images of the grape, characters in period costume and, commonly, the local Wine Princess and her attendants looking down from on high. And all of them, or so it seemed, had its own band. Most were of the traditional brass variety, but both the instruments and the repertoire of tunes spanned the ages from Mozart to Michael Jackson, all seemingly accompanied by the beat of a very large drum.
Helping things along were the free samples. Each float was stocked with its own mini-cellar for offering to the crowd, and as the next wave approached arms were outstretched, replete with empty wine glasses, hoping for a top up. Success or failure in attracting the attentions of the ministering vintner were made loudly, all in good spirit and with great amusement. As you might imagine, the spirit and amusement increased as the afternoon – and the wine intake – wore on.
It wasn’t hard to imagine this same scene having been repeated countless times over centuries, and clearly there are traditions here that go back to the middle ages. A successful harvest and the first wines of the season would have been a major economic and social event for the region. They still are.
If you want to experience the best in German hospitality and to enjoy a great time in a delightful and picturesque area at an event that has spent hundreds of years refining how to have fun, come to the Weinfest. But book your hotel early or you probably won’t get in. And after a day sampling the wares of the good burghers of Bernkastel, you won’t want to be in charge of your own internal combustion engine as you wend your way home.