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Village Seduced a Poet

August 02, 1987|FRANK RILEY | Riley is travel columnist for Los Angeles magazine and a regular contributor to this section

NEUMAGEN, West Germany — "The whole scene of this village smiled alluringly upon me--like the prospect and charm of Bordeaux, my beautiful homeland."

Those words were written in AD 370 by Ausonius, poet of the Roman Empire, born in Bordeaux. He was also a scholar and teacher, and is regarded as the most gifted travel writer of his century.

He had been traveling with Roman forces in the north of Europe. Coming toward the Mosel he saw the wine village that was about to smile at him: "Noviomagus and the splendid citadel of the heavenly Constantine."

Noviomagus is now Neumagen, a village among the vineyards of the Mosel River. It awaits discovery by anyone tempted to follow the poetic travelogues of Ausonius.

Most travelers along the Mosel and its wine road spend their time in the better-known wine villages and towns. They tend to overlook Neumagen, which is Germany's oldest wine village and flavored with nearly 20 centuries of stories as well as mellow wines.

Roman Artifacts

Since the age of Ausonius and the Roman Empire, history has often smiled on Neumagen, although sometimes the smile has seemed to disappear quickly--like when a great treasure of Roman artifacts was discovered in 1877 beneath the ancient foundations of what were once ramparts around the village.

Neumagen's location is important to what happened in the last century. The village is 22 miles downstream along the winding Mosel from Trier, which this year is 2,003 years old, Germany's oldest city. In AD 367 Ausonius came to the Mosel when Emperor Valentinian offered him the post of private tutor to his 6-year-old son and heir at the imperial court in Trier.

Before the Romans the site of Noviomagus had been a celtic settlement. Then Emperor Constantine built a grand castle here for his summer residence. When the Romans added to the fortifications of Noviomagus against German tribes, they pilfered town squares, mausoleums and memorials of wealthy families in the surrounding country to get stonework for the foundation of a defensive rampart.

Castle Walls Remain

The walls of the Constantine castle still stand at Neumagen, but as the wine industry prospered in the late 19th Century, new houses were constructed without much awareness of history on foundations of the old rampart around the castle and village. By chance, one builder discovered in 1877 that the foundations and the supports beneath them contained many sculptures.

He reported this to the village priest, who notified Trier, where a new federal museum was being built. The museum director came to Neumagen, and the people of the village began to dig into their history.

The next seven years are known as "Gold Rush Times" in Neumagen. The federal museum offered what seemed like a good deal for that era: one German mark for every 100 kilograms of artifacts dug out of the earth. By 1884, 370,000 kilograms, or about 750,000 pounds, had been excavated.

Sculptures from the early Roman times showed people, animals, plants and many activities of life. There were hunting scenes and work scenes. One sculpture portrayed a lady beautifying herself with the help of maids at her morning toilette.

Another depicted a wealthy landowner collecting rents from tenants. A thief was sculptured in stone. So was a scene in which a private tutor was trying to instruct a merchant's sons who would rather be fishing in the Mosel.

Sculptures Tell Story

The most important sculpture was a river wine ship filled with workers; its discovery established Neumagen as the oldest known wine village in Germany.

A sculpture of the "Froehlicher Steuerman," the Happy Helmsman, was another major find. He is smiling and his eyes are turned up, capturing the happy hour after he and his crew had received their ration of wine.

"On your first visit to our village," says Mayor Heinz Schuh, "you would most likely ask: Where are the remains of Noviomagus, which was praised by the poet Ausonius? We must then sadly say that all of the Roman finds were transported by ship to the new federal museum in Trier."

Thus it was that Neumagen got its reputation as the nation's oldest wine village while the museum in Trier acquired the priceless historical treasures that established the fact.

But today Ausonius would feel that Neumagen is smiling at him again. A reproduction of the Roman wine ship stands in front of Peter's Chapel. A sculptured statue of Ausonius is in the small park beside the chapel, against a backdrop of hillside vineyards and forests. The lady beautifying herself has been re-created, and taxes are being collected in sculptured stone in front of the village hall on Roemerstrasse. The Happy Helmsman has been re-created to beam again in his original village.

Neumagen had no museum in the 19th Century, but now there is a small regional museum with the tourist office behind the council chambers.

Museum Depicts Wine History

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