I’ll admit that I’d been mentally preparing myself to be underwhelmed by Burg Eltz thanks to its Instagram ubiquity. If you follow multiple German Instagram accounts, as I do, you see it rather constantly. There it is, in the fog. There it is from afar, in the fog. There it is, with a woman in a flowing dress standing on the bridge, in the fog.
With that in the back of my mind, I set off hiking from Moselkern, picking up a grassy trail I found on Komoot that eventually led to trail shared between the Traumpfade and the 365-kilometer Moselsteig. It was the first of November with the weather to match; crisp fall air circulating above the orange, brown, red, and yellow leaves covering the trail. And yes, fog. Fortunately, the quick ascent in elevation provided all the warmth I needed.
Signage indicated I was close, but Burg Eltz managed to sneak up on me nonetheless, turning an uphill corner of the path to see the back of it peeking through the mix of trees both bare and holding onto their leaves for another day. Such a sight with those nebulous clouds swarming the scene makes it easy to understand why so many gory fairytales were inspired by these Germanic woods. Indeed, trekking up the stone steps alongside the castle to the Instagram (in)famous bridge and turning back to see those narrow spires, the entirety of the castle pulled straight from a children’s pop-up book, the view of Burg Eltz peering through the mist brings to mind a canon of fluffy words I’ve all but banned from my travel writing vocabulary. Suffice it to say, few recent memories are as vivid as seeing Burg Eltz early on a fall morning towering over the Mosel.
In retrospect, it’s a tease of what’s to come from the Mosel region as a whole. Okay, there’s nothing quite as foreboding, as dramatic as Burg Eltz itself. Unless you’re the one person with a strong aversion to castles, it really is the highlight of the region — especially if you’re a fellow wanderer.
But it does open up your mind to the, in a word, impressiveness that’s to come when continuing along the Mosel. In my case, it was stops in Beilstein, Ediger-Eller, and Trier. Even those stops, as different as they are, barely scratch the surface of a river culture that stretches across the German border to Luxembourg and France.
It’s a river that’s open to all sorts of travel possibilities. You can hike from town-to-town along the Moselsteig and its many offshoot, local trails. You can trace the winding river by bike along smooth, flat pavement. You can ride the train, staring out the window as the landscape blurs by. You can even hop on a boat and get an entirely different view, allowing the Mosel towns and its dramatic, leafy scenery to envelope you.
I arranged my tour of the Mosel to take place by foot and boat, mainly because I was playing makeshift tour guide to my visiting aunt who had never been to Germany. If you’re coming to Germany for the first time by way of the States, you’re going to want to see some castles — I don’t care how above it you think you are.
After Burg Eltz, we high-tailed it back to the Moselkern train station for a short ride to Cochem. Although our plan was to immediately board a boat, there was enough time to stand by the docks and admire the dense collection of timbered German buildings sitting underneath its own castle, traditional enough looking to satisfy any traveler coming from outside of Europe.
The boat is our lift to Beilstein, a place too small to even be called a town. The Internet tells me that the population still sits under 200, which is fine. I’m not much of a fan of people these days anyhow. Plus, Rick Steves sold me on it in one of his podcasts with German guides. And I don’t know if you know this, but Rick Steves not only knows Europe through the back door but somehow got that title past standards and practices. Methinks he knows what he’s doing.
As promised, Beilstein is a striking sight. Truly, it looks like the towns of this region were constructed by some omnipresent being plugging in square, half-timbered buildings on the banks of the Mosel with quaint cobblestone streets in between. Beilstein is a hyper-dense version of this. You can cover the entire town in a meandering, 30-minute jaunt, but an overnight is worthwhile. No need to hurry here. Grab a Kaffee und Kuchen (coffee and cake) from the chapel turned restaurant Klosterrestaurant & Café and catch the warm rays of the sunset striking down against the ruins of Burg Metternich above town.
If you’re thru-hiking on the Moselsteig, you can get to Beilstein easily by foot. Cochem to Beilstein is the preceding stage followed by Beilstein to Ediger-Eller — both towns with easy rail access. I hiked the 16 kilometers from Beilstein to Cochem myself, a trail that instantly catapulted itself onto the top of my personal favorites. You’ve got the steep ascent from town to overlooks of the region, a strong reminder of the Rheinsteig, followed by wide, winding crushed gravel trails. But then the trail surprises, slicing through vineyards spilling over the hillside and thick forests where the only thing you can hear is the sound of a trickling stream. In the end, the trail dumps you out onto a narrow dirt trail that you might second-guess is the right way until you see Cochem Castle in the distance.
But my aunt isn’t a hiker, so I took a bus from Cochem back over to Beilstein. Easy peasy. To continue onward toward Ediger-Eller, we had to cross the river. This affords us the opportunity to add yet another mode of transportation to our itinerary — motorized raft. That’s the best way I can describe it. There’s a flatbed floating across the river, guided by lines that are tied down on both sides. How do you pick it up?
“Just wave at them and they’ll come,” staff at Hotel Gute Quelle explained.
You can get wine anywhere along the Mosel. A quick search will pull up vineyards throughout the region with family-run Weinstubes in the respective towns proudly selling their wares. That said, I picked a stop in Ediger-Eller to serve as our official wine hub because it’s home to the (or one of the) steepest vineyards in Europe. Offers to do a Klettersteig, basically a hike guided by ropes you have to hang on to, are advertised at the hotels in town. But this is where Melanie and Moses meet up with me. Seeing as a Kletterseig isn’t particularly Hund-friendly, we opt to stick with the Moselsteig, marching through the now-familiar forested trail.
The highlight on this stretch between Ediger-Eller and Neef is the Gipfelkreuz where you have a panoramic view of an almost 360-degree bend in the Mosel River. Much like Burg Eltz, if you dabble in German Instagram, you’ve probably seen it before. It really is a sight to behold — if you can see it. But as the trek to Burg Eltz hinted, the river valley is foggy during these fall mornings. So although it was clear, blue skies above, it was impossible to see through the thick cloud over the cliff. It was my childhood conception of Heaven. Great for quelling a fear of death, not so great for seeing the Mosel bend.
Despite the best efforts of impatient travelers to literally blow the clouds away, it was clear they’d be there for a while. So, we marched onward, reaching the valley just in time for the clouds to fade.
Trier is typically the last stop along the German Mosel before turning into the Luxembourg border and flowing into France. After Koblenz, where the river splits from the Rhine, Trier is the largest city on the Mosel in Germany but with history dating back to the Roman conquest of the region. Trier still promotes itself as a Roman city with the black and beige refurbished ruins of Porta Niga (the black gate) serving as the entrance to pedestrianized Trier. An aerial view of the city makes it easy to see where the walls once fortified the city with additional Roman ruins tucked inside, like the public baths at the former cattle market and the emperor sauna (Kaiserthermen).
But what’s been more recently on Trier’s mind is more contemporary history — the 200th anniversary of Karl Marx’s birth. The grizzly-beared philosopher, author of Das Kapital, and leading communist mind comes from Trier, his home still standing (and now serving as a museum) in the center of town. Though the year celebrating his bicentennial birth is quickly coming to an end, it’s a safe bet that Marx’s footprint will continue to loom large in Trier with museums and travel guides eager to share his story.
Me, I’m not particularly drawn in by the history, as pleasant as it was to walk up the old, winding staircase of Porta Nigra and to wander aimlessly in the excavated floorplan of the Kaiserthermen. I’m drawn to just how pleasant, liveable Trier appears to be. My only lament was having to hop on the train back to Düsseldorf so quickly, missing out on the surrounding Moselsteig and Eifelsteig trails that criss-cross through the ancient city. Fortunately, considering Trier has made it this long, I suspect it’ll be around for a while.
Looking for more Germany? Check out the Germany off the beaten path travel guide, my top things to do in Germany, German language tips, and how to ride the German train system. Want something more literary? Read chapters from my upcoming memoir on moving to and living in Germany and finding my roots — There Must Be Order.