Beilstein Introductory Walk
|If Rick stood on the banks of the Mosel in winter, he'd have more than just wet feet.|
By Rick Steves
Upstream from Cochem, along the Mosel River, is one of Germany's quaintest towns: Beilstein (BILE-shtine), a tranquil Cinderella-land with narrow lanes, an ancient wine cellar, territorial swans, and a ruined castle. Explore the town by following this short walk.
Beilstein's Riverfront: Stand where the village hits the river. In 1963, the big road and the Mosel locks were built, making the river so peaceful today. Before then, access was limited to a tiny one-way lane and the small ferry. The cables that tether the ferry once allowed the motorless craft to go back and forth powered only by the current and an angled rudder. Since the river was tamed by locks, it has no current, and the ferry needs its motor. Today, the funky little ferry shuttles people, bikes, and cars constantly.
The campground across the river is typical of German campgrounds — 80 percent of its customers set up their trailers and tents at Easter and use them as summer homes until October, when the regular floods chase them away for the winter. If you stood where you are now through the winter, you'd have cold water up to your crotch five times. Look inland. The Earl of Beilstein — who ruled from his castle above town — built the Altes Zollhaus in 1634 to levy tolls from river traffic. Today, the castle is a ruin, the last monk at the once-mighty monastery (see the big church high on the left) retired in 2009, and the town's economy is based only on wine and tourists.
Beilstein is so well-preserved because it was essentially inaccessible by road until about 1900. And its tranquility is a result of Germany's WWI loss, which cost the country the region of Alsace (now part of France). Before World War I, the Koblenz–Trier train line — which connects Alsace to Germany — was the busiest in the country, tunneling through the grape-laden hill across the river in what was the longest train tunnel in Germany. The construction of a supplemental line designed to follow the riverbank (like the lines that crank up the volume on the Rhine) was stopped in 1914, and since Alsace went to France in 1918, the new line no longer made any sense, and the plans were scuttled.
Follow Bachstrasse into town. You'll notice blue plaques on the left marking the high-water (Hochwasser) points of historic floods. At the first corner (Weingasse), detour left to a picturesque corner.
Town Center: In 1840, a quarter of the town's 300 inhabitants were Jewish. The synagogue (which dates from 1310) and the adjacent rabbi's home were at #13. The medallion above the door shows the Star of David embedded in the double-headed eagle of the Holy Roman Emperor, indicating that the Jews would be protected by the emperor. This was perhaps of some comfort, but not reliable. Of the town's many Jews, a majority left for the US in the late 1800s. By 1933, only one Jewish family was left in Beilstein to deal with the Nazis. There are no practicing Jews in town today.
Continue on this lane uphill, heading right, and then right again, with the church high above. You'll reach a long flight of stairs (marked Klostertreppe) that leads to the monastery.
Although the last Carmelite monk just retired, Rome maintains a handsome but oversized-for-this-little-town Catholic church that runs a restaurant with a great view. It's a screwy situation that no one in the town was comfortable explaining to me. Continue back to the main street. Bachstrasse ("Creek Street") continues straight inland through Beilstein, covering up the brook that once flowed through town, providing a handy disposal service 24/7. Today, Bachstrasse is lined by wine cellars. The only way for a small local vintner to make any decent money these days is to sell his wine directly to customers in inviting little places like these.
On the other side of Bachstrasse is the...
Market Square: For centuries, neighboring farmers sold their goods on Marktplatz. The Zehnthaus ("tithe house") was the village IRS, where locals would pay one tenth (Zehnte) of their produce to their landlord (either the church or the earl). Pop into the Zehnthauskeller. Stuffed with peasants' offerings 400 years ago, today it's packed with vaulted medieval ambiance. It's fun at night for candlelit wine tasting, soup and cold cuts, and schmaltzy music (often live Fridays and Saturdays). The Bürgerhaus (above the fountain) had nothing to do with medieval fast food. First the village church, then the Bürger's (like a mayor) residence, today it's the place for a town party or wedding (upstairs) and a venue for local craftspeople to show their goodies (below). Haus Lipmann (on the riverside, now a hotel and restaurant) dates from 1727. It was built by the earl's family as a residence after the French destroyed his castle. Haus Lipmann's main dining hall was once the knight's hall. The stepped lane leads uphill (past the Zehnthaus, follow signs for Burgruine Metternich) to...
|Beilstein's Jewish Cemetery is a resting place for past residents. Before Hitler, 25 percent of the town's inhabitants were Jewish.|
Beilstein's Castle: Beilstein once rivaled Cochem as the most powerful town on this part of the Mosel. Like so much around here, it was destroyed by the French in 1688. Its castle (Burg Metternich) is a sorry ruin today, but those who hike up are rewarded with a postcard Mosel view and a chance to hike even higher to the top of its lone surviving tower.
For more exercise and an even better view, exit through the turnstile at the rear of the castle and continue uphill 100 yards, where you'll find the ultimate "castle-riverbend-vineyards" photo stop. The derelict roadside vineyard is a sign of recent times — the younger generation is abandoning the family plots, opting out of all that hard winemaking work. A surprising sight — the most evocative Jewish cemetery this side of Prague (Judenfriedhof) — is 200 yards farther up the road. A small Jewish community in Koblenz maintains this lovely cemetery.
To reach the viewpoint and the cemetery without going through the castle, continue up the road past the castle entrance, then follow the signs for Jüdische Friedhof.
From here, you can return to the castle gate, ring the bell (Klingel), and show your ticket to get back in and retrace your steps; or continue on the road, which curves and leads downhill (a gravel path at the next bend on the left leads back into town).