Wednesday September 27th – Day 5, Bernkastel-Kues
After slightly more driving than anticipated the day before we decided we’d take it easier on Wednesday and would spend the day pottering gently round Bernkastel-Kues, just 5k down the road. It was another foggy morning but we weren’t going to let that stop us. It boded well for the afternoon, and there was plenty we could do indoors while the cloud burned off.
After we’d parked up, and been side-tracked by the local market where I bought a much-needed new wallet, we started the morning on the Kues side of the river, at the Cusanusstift, an institution founded on 3rd December 1458 by a man of whom you will hear more in this post. It was intended as an almshouse for 33 men over the age of 50, which at the time was a very respectable age. It is still an old people’s home, these days for both men and women and has never been used for anything other than its original purpose. So that’s 559 years of providing care for the elderly of the town.
Now obviously that does not sound like a place anyone would be much interested in. Who wants to visit a hospice, after all? However, the late Gothic building also contains a glorious chapel, and a library containing numerous books owned by the founder Nicholas Cusanus.
Who he, I hear some of you say. Well, according to Wikipedia “Nicholas of Cusa (1401 – 11 August 1464), also referred to as Nicholas of Kues and Nicolaus Cusanus, was a German philosopher, theologian, jurist and astronomer. One of the first German proponents of Renaissance humanism, he made spiritual and political contributions to European history. A notable example of this is his mystical or spiritual writings on ‘learned ignorance‘, as well as his participation in the power struggles between Rome and the German states of the Holy Roman Empire.“
Something of an all round smart guy then, with a wide ranging career. He was born locally (hence Cusa for Kues) to a ferryman, of Johan Krebs (or Cryfftz) and Katherina Roemer. As a result of the family name, Krebs, he took a crayfish for his insignia and these can be found all over Bernkastel-Kues if you look hard enough.
and was educated at the universities of Heidelberg and Padua, before going on to teach at Cologne, and turn down a post at Leuven. He wasn’t lacking for employment, despite not going to Leuven. He was papal legate to Germany from 1446, was appointed cardinal by Pope Nicholas V in 1448 and became Prince–Bishop of Brixen two years later. In 1459 he became vicar general of the Papal States. And in the middle of all that, found time to set up a foundation in his own home town.
We has a nose round the chapel, which is tiny but lovely and has some very well preserved and rather fabulous medieval wall paintings. It’s also the burial place of Nicholas’ heart (the rest of him was buried in Rome) and of his sister Klara Cryfftz.
After we’d finished in the library as well, where there was a small exhibition of books owned by Nicholas, we headed outside and crossed the courtyard to the Wine Museum, which supposedly provides lots of interesting information about wine cultivation in the region. Well, it would if the machines in the place actually worked; most of them didn’t, so it was short visit before we crossed over to the associated Vinothek where you can taste and buy wines, and exchange your museum ticket for a glass of local wine. You could also taste a large number of wines for a relatively small outlay, but as it was only midday, we decided we’d best not!
We enjoyed our wine, and then headed along the riverside to search for the Cusanus birthplace. On the way we found the old railway station, which is now a splendid looking brewery.
There are also a good handful of splendid art nouveau houses, a repeated feature we would find in most of the reasonable sized towns along the river.
A short walk later and we’d found the house we were looking for.
It was supposed to be open, and so we rang the bell as instructed. A voice from the top floor proved to be owned by the museum’s curator who eventually appeared and opened the door for us. There is an small but interesting exhibition of Cusanus’ life and works, and he was even able to rustle up a copy of the guide in English for Lynne though he did make her promise to hand it back as it was the only one he had. He was also more than happy to tell us as much as we wanted to know about Nicholas and his life.
Half an hour later we headed back towards the town bridge knowing a lot more than we had about a medieval scholar we probably should have already known about. The Kues side of the town is a wonderful mix of medieval, modern and in between, and has the plus side of being almost unknown to the cruise ship tourists. It is thus not rammed and you can wander the streets untroubled by traffic.
There is also a church well worth a short detour for. This is the evangelical church, and although it’s not that old, it does – no surprise – contain a crayfish coat of arms or two.
It was now time to bite the bullet and cross back into Bernkastel, which while not quite the quintessential chocolate box medieval town on the Mosel (that title probably goes to Beilstein), is certainly a close runner-up and is thus overrun by tourists, including on this occasion the passengers of a Dutch river cruise ship who were all over the place, generally getting underfoot, stopping dead to take selfies, and making something of a nuisance of themselves. To be fair, when you hit the market square, you can see why everyone comes here:
Frankly by now all that history was making us hungry (and thirsty) so we needed a short break for cake and it needed to be outside! That meant we had to opt for Cafe Hansen as the only place with a table available.
I opted for a piece of plum cake, and a glass of federweisser, something I’d not seen before. It was because I wanted to know what it was, and was curious. What arrived was cloudy and seemed to have a certain amount of pétillance going on. It tasted very fruity, and not at all alcoholic, like a slightly fizzy grape juice. It wasn’t till I stood up that I realised it must be quite a bit stronger than I thought. A small amount of research later and I’d discovered that what I’d drunk was new wine, which basically continues to ferment in the bottle (or large plastic container). It does mean that apparently you mustn’t fasten the lid fully or the container or bottle may explode! Oh and it also comes in red.
We followed the town trail we’d picked up at the Tourist Information office earlier in the day from the market square, round the old houses of Bernkastel, and along to the wonderful Bernkasteler Doktor vineyards, which run along the edge of the town.
From there we found the Graacher Tor, which is a museum with possibly the oddest opening hours we found (basically about 4 hours a week, between 18:00 and 20:00 on two days). The original town gate was built in 1300, but the in 1689 it was partly destroyed by the French, under Louis XIV. It was later reconstructed and was used as a prison, and then as a hostel for the homeless, before ending up as the museum of local history.
We finished the afternoon off in St. Michael’s church, which is one of the more distinctive buildings in the town. It has a 600 year old tower that is a well-known landmark along the river, and the inside of the building is pretty snazzy too!
The church has three naves, which is unusual, and has a Baroque facade, restored in 1968. The sacristy dates from 1664 and the central feature in the chancel is a Calvary scene from 1496. There’s also a “plague altar” in the annexe showing a scene from 1630 where the town’s inhabitants have gathered in the market square to carry a victim of the plague to his grave.
It’s thought that the tower has been used for defensive purposes in the past as well as for attracting worshippers, and the whole is fascinating. It’s also a welcome respite from the tourists, as most of them don’t bother.
And as we were about to run out of our paid for parking time, we decided it was time to quit and head back to Zeltingen.
That night we had decided to try and eat at Saxler’s in the village. However, they were fully booked when we got there, so we booked for the following night, and then stayed in their bar for a pre-dinner drink before heading for the Zeltinger Hof, where we’ve eaten in the past (and stayed).
The meal started well enough, though they’ve redecorated and the dining room has lost a lot of its character as a result. We ordered the rather complicated starters. In Lynne’s case, the “Mosel-Faßdaubenschmaus” which should be served on a plank from a wine barrel and includes smoked trout in a saffron sauce, cream of pumpkin soup, toasted goat’s cheese with confit tomato and ham on gräwes (potato puree and sauerkraut). This arrived on the plate/slate for the other starter.
The starters were fine but things went downhill from there. First we were brought the wrong meals, having ordered venison steaks (and it took ages for the proper dish to arrive rather than the ragout that had appeared initially), and what did arrive was pretty tough as well as off-puttingly huge. Neither of us could finish it, and we ended up taking it home with us more on the waitress’s insistence than because we wanted to, but we could probably find something to do with it. If not, we could bin it and they’d not be any the wiser. I reckoned I could chuck most of it into a soup or something.
It was getting late and so we took a slow riverside stroll and then went home to bed.