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Paddling a Canoe Under Vineyards on the Mosel

August 09, 1987|FRANK RILEY | Riley is travel columnist for Los Angeles magazine and a regular contributor to this section

TRIER, West Germany — A white swan watched as we pumped up our inflatable canoe beside the Mosel River.

It was 9 a.m. on a recent Saturday in this city founded by the Romans more than 2,000 years ago. The nearest navigation marker on the river bank is numbered 191, which meant that my wife and I could look forward to paddling 191 kilometers, about 122 miles, beneath vineyards and past ancient wine villages to reach Koblenz, where the Mosel flows into the Rhine.

It was an adventure we had been daydreaming about for three years--ever since the springtime when we had traveled this route slowly on the Mosel Wine Road in a rental car.

We knew from canoeing other rivers of the world that a day of slow driving and sightseeing could mean nine or 10 days of paddling our canoe and towing the small dinghy that carries our luggage.

At such a pace, the vineyard panoramas and millenniums of history could be experienced as in no other way of travel.

Upstream on Cruise Ship

Coming to the Mosel this time, we had checked the canoe and dinghy with our other baggage aboard the Lufthansa flight from Los Angeles to Frankfurt. After traveling around Germany and finally reaching Koblenz by rental car, we then relaxed in the luxury and leisure of cruising the Mosel upstream to Trier aboard the KD German Rhine Line cruise ship Europa, spending three days on the river and two overnights aboard while docked in wine villages.

This had given us fascinating perspectives on the scenic beauty and history of the river as we charted our canoeing course, making notes about the river itself, the waterfront inns and possible landing places in each wine village. For those who can't bring their own boat to the Mosel or rent one here, a combination of the KD cruise in one direction and the wine road by rental car in the other could also be a rewarding travel experience.

It's always difficult to leave Trier by any mode of transportation. We were here three years ago, when this city of 100,000 was celebrating the 2,000th birthday of its founding by the Caesars as a colonial capital of the Roman Empire. On this visit we spent much of two days walking along streets from the river banks to and around Porta Nigra, the largest city gate ever built by the Romans.

Storybook Villages

The swans stayed close behind the dinghy until we paddled slowly with our double-bladed paddles under the last of Trier's bridges and turned to wave farewell to them and the city.

Scarcely four kilometers from our departure ramp we were between two storybook villages. Near the shore of Pfalzel on the left bank we drifted close to the remains of a palace once occupied by Frankish kings and the Roman governors.

Letting the slow current carry us along, I dipped the tip of my paddle to steer from the rear of the canoe while Elfriede, my wife, rested against the inflated back of her seat, which I braced with my bare feet. She read aloud the story of Pfalzel in our illustrated river map, pointing out a 7th-Century parish church and a beckoning wine pub that may be even older.

We also carried with us a copy of the classic, "Small Boat on the Moselle," written by English author Roger Pilkington and published in 1968. His small boat was a 45-foot diesel cruiser, large compared to our canoe but small in relation to the barges and cruise ships sharing the waterway.

We navigated a widening of the river zoned for water skiers. The wind surfers stayed clear of them. Weekenders were out in their powerboats. Sightseeing cruise ships passed us. Barges with the skipper's family living aboard moved downstream toward the Rhine or upriver toward Luxembourg and France.

We exchanged waves with everyone. On previous canoe trips along European rivers we had learned to cope with the waves created by barges, cruise ships and powerboats by quartering into them to avoid being swamped or rolled over.

The river began to wind in curves, often nearly forming a circle. Vineyards and forests soar above both banks, on hills often topped with ruins of ramparts and castles. On the left bank a baroque palace rose out of the wine village of Quint, where a rivulet flows into the Mosel.

Fishermen on the banks greeted us. Children came racing from riverfront campgrounds for a closer look at our canoe and dinghy. The heat of the summer day settled in and we began wistfully hoping for a cool breeze around the next curve.

At the Longuich-Kirsch river bend, the wine village church of St. Laurentius presented a smiling Madonna of the 16th Century. She held a bunch of grapes, a reminder that we would soon be ready to sip and dine.

Little Boat, Big Lock

We had been paddling about seven hours when we reached the lock at Detzem, one of the system of 10 locks that grew out of a post-World War II cooperative effort put together by Charles de Gaulle of France and Konrad Adenauer of West Germany.

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