Travelogue LXXI: Weinbergen

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFebruary 28, 2016 Yesterday, the sun shone in Germany–really shone, with a strength and warmth that have been absent for months. And when the sun shines in Germany in the winter, you leave the libraries at the university behind and you get out and you do something.

So we packed a picnic lunch and tea and tools into the back of a rattly rainbow Volkswagen and drove into the Weinbergen (vineyards; literally “wine mountains,” which I think is much more poetic). In the late winter the vintners begin the process of pruning the grape vines in preparation for the next growing season, and I was lucky enough to be invited by one particular vine-pruner to tag along.

And it was marvelous.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe vineyards of the Rheingau are almost ridiculously steep, falling straight down to the banks of the river. The slopes are covered in slippery silver-blue or red slate. Standing upright requires strong legs and a good sense of balance; actually doing something at any level of efficiency while standing upright requires genuine skill.

In these vineyards, the steepness means that all of the work is still done by hand, using techniques that have been in place for centuries. Pruners now use battery-powered clippers, but the process is still the same: cutting away old or unwanted growth from each plant and training selected shoots to grow in the proper directions. It all sounds simple enough, but is in fact anything but–every plant is a decision, a tiny work of art, shaped and re-shaped over a period of decades by dozens of hands.

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Stone steps are built into the walls to access lower terraces.

And so we worked. Or rather, J. pruned like a professional while I took pictures, did not fall off any walls, tried not to cut off the wrong things, and generally enjoyed myself more than I have in a long time.

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Hands down the most excellent vine-pruner in the Rheingau.

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Different types of slate.

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Battery-powered clippers.

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Yes, that’s me cutting grape vines in a flannel shirt from Vermont in a vineyard on the Rhine. With thousand-year-old-castle ruins in the background. Sometimes it is possible to get the miraculousness of existence into a photograph. 

I think the rest of the pictures speak for themselves. Even from the most distant of perspectives, the Rheingau in late February, perched on the dividing line between winter and spring, is pretty dang gorgeous.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt the end of the day, we hiked up to the very top of the ridge. Tired legs, chapped hands, lunch long forgotten. But the sun was slowly falling towards the mountains on the other side of Rhine and we didn’t want to go.

I’ve never been one for meditation in any traditional form. But this, I thought, sitting on a bench and looking at the mountains and not being alone, this comes pretty close.

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A gazebo at the very top of the mountain, with a self-service shelf of wine and glasses for hikers.

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Gloaming. Dämmerung.

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Sunset. Sonnenuntergang.

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Travelogue XLIII: Rheinromantik

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMay 24, 2015 This afternoon, a trip down the Rhine to Bacharach, a tiny town in the midst of the Loreley region. There was still and warm air, birdsong, and solitude in the midst of the Sunday tourists. The chance to get out into the green and move and breathe a bit.

The town itself was lovely, of course, full of timber-frame homes and grape vines climbing up stone walls, built up around a 1,000-year-old church. Wine and religion–the two great shaping forces behind the appearance of so many small towns in this region of Germany.

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I first hiked up to the castle, high above the town–Burg Stahleck, originally dating back to the 11th century, and now a youth hostel.

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The only way one can get up to the castle was by climbing steps.

Lots of steps.

Lots of steps.

So. many. effing. steps.

So. many. effing. steps.

The top step. My poor calves.

The top step. My poor calves.

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But the castle was lovely–very rustic, partially carved out of the mountain side.  It serves as a youth hostel today, so you can actually come and spend the night.

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There was also an abandoned Gothic cathedral on the way up.

….And then back down into the gorge and up the other side, into the vineyards. The air smelled like freshly-cut hay–the smell of a Vermont meadow in high summer, here in May and thousands of miles from home.

Along the Rhine, the vineyards plunge right down to the water’s edge. There are zigzagging paths along the tops of the stone terraces, and one can walk for miles, high above the river and the slate rooftops below.

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The views down into the town were lovely.

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Vineyards--plunging down to the Rhine, almost impossible steep. Here, Riesling and Scheurebe....

Vineyards–all the way down to the Rhine, almost impossibly steep. Here, Riesling and Scheurebe….

Teeny tiny grapes!

Teeny tiny grapes!

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I stopped at one of the Weinstuben in the town on my way back to the train station to eat a bowl of excellent potato soup and drink a glass of wine grown from the grapes on the slopes behind me. I sat across the table from an older gentleman who was on his yearly bicycle tour, from Stuttgart to the Rhine, and then down river all the way to Koblenz.

Zum Wohl,” I said, when my wine arrived. “Cheers.”

He spoke about the Rhine as if he was talking about a person. “There is such power there,” he said, “and such violence. You have to accept it, have to give yourself to it heart and soul. It is impossible to do otherwise, especially if you are out on the water itself. Even those great powerful barges you see can’t escape it. Vater Rhein–Father Rhine–there is something to that, I think.” We talked about the Rhine as a creator of art, of Mythos, of music, from the Middle Ages to Wagner and back again. I told him I most likely wouldn’t be in Germany at all without the opening chords of Wagner’s Das Rheingold–E-major swelling into the sun, the Rhine as creator, as Father and Mother and God all at once. “That river is the original Genie,” he said. Yes, exactly.

Lorch on the left, Bacharach on the right. Father Rhine, indeed.

Lorch on the left, Bacharach on the right. Father Rhine, indeed.