Germany’s longest river, and one of the longest in Europe, the Rhine (German: Rhein) originates in the Alps of the Swiss state of Graubünden. By the time it flows into Lake Constance a.k.a. Bodensee and continues its journey through Germany to the Netherlands’ border west of Duisburg, the Rhine has already traveled 375km or 233 miles.
At Lake Constance, the Rhine officially goes to work meeting the needs of the German people, supplying a significant amount of the drinking water in southern Germany. Few of us, however, think about this river in terms of drinking water. We’d much rather focus on the characteristics that have led to its nearly universal title, “The Romantic Rhine.”
The Rhine is nothing if not extravagant in both its length and its mystique. At Lake Constance, for example, is the absurdly romantic island of Mainau. Between March and October, Mainau is ablaze with the color and drenched in the fragrance of half-a-million tropical blooms. They fill the gardens of the islands 18th-century Baroque castle.
Nothing conjures mystique in quite the same way as a dark and deep forest, and west of Lake Constance, the Rhine makes its way into the Black Forest (Schwarzwald) — the deepest and darkest of them all, indeed! Along the river plain itself, however, it’s an entirely different world…
Plenty of sun means thriving fruit orchards and vineyards (where do you thing the cherries for Black Forest Cake come from?). Cycling either the Baden Wine Route or the Rhine Veloroute will take you through the best that either side of the Rhine has to offer.
The Rötteln Castle overlooking Lörrach; the architectural park at the “City of Chairs,” Weil am Rhein; and the swan colony at Briesach all await on the road to Freiburg im Breisgau. Here you’ll find both a university founded in 1457 and a gothic church, the Freiburg Münster, the first stones which were laid in 1202. Its 380-foot (116m) tower has been called the finest in all of Christendom!
Continuing north from Freiburg, the Rhine flows through the vineyards of the Kaiserstuhl, passing Europa-Park (Germany’s largest amusement park) at Rust. It bids farewell to the Black Forest at Karlsruhe, before entering a stretch of cities key to the Holy Roman Empire.
At Speyer, the massive Cathedral shares the limelight with the Technik Museum. On the confluence of the Rhine and Neckar is the industrial center of Mannheim. Next comes the ancient city of Worms, where Martin Luther changed ecclesiastical history, and 35km/21 miles further on, the Rhein curves west at Gutenburg’s city, Mainz.
Entering Hesse, it passes the wine bars of Rüdesheim‘s Doppelgasse, across from Bingen am Rhein and the entrance to Rhine Gorge and the “Romantic Rhine.” From Bingen to Bonn, former capital of the FRG, it flows along sunny vineyard-clad slopes and dozens of hilltop castles, and past the legendary Lorelei.
Finally, the river reaches the Ruhr River at Duisburg, where all thoughts of romance are overwhelmed by one of the world’s most concentrated industrial areas before the Rhine crosses into the Netherlands.
If following the course of the Rhein seems like taking a course in German history, it’s simply because that’s exactly what you are doing. ;-)