The Rhine Cycle Route: from source to sea
The Rhine Cycle Route, passing through six countries, is a delightful journey and one that continues to inspire Mike Wells, author of the Cicerone Press guidebook. In this blog post, Mike Wells explains a little about the route and the river itself.
The great attraction of following a river from source to sea is that it is downhill all the way (well, almost all the way – our route does occasionally climb a little for spectacular views down into the valley). From the summit of Oberalppass (which can be reached by cycle-friendly train), near the source of the river at Lai da Tuma, the Rhine Cycle Route descends 2046m to the North Sea at Hoek van Holland (Hook of Holland), 1378km distant. The cycling is straightforward, with much of the route following well-surfaced cycle tracks, often along the riverbank or flood dykes. On those occasions where roads are used, these are usually quiet country routes with dedicated cycle lanes. All the countries it passes through are highly cycle-friendly, and motorists will generally give you plenty of room. This route is suitable both for experienced long-distance cyclists and those who have done only a little cycle touring and wish to attempt something more adventurous.
The Rhine Cycle Route mostly follows Swiss, German, French and Dutch national cycle trails, with a high standard of waymarking throughout. This guide breaks the route into 27 stages, averaging just over 50km per stage. A fit cyclist, covering two stages per day, should be able to complete the trip in two weeks. A more leisurely 80km per day would allow some sightseeing and you would still complete the journey in 17 days. You can break the journey at almost any point as there are many places to stay along the way. These are suitable for all budgets, varying from 35 Hostelling International youth hostels (and many backpacker hostels) to B&Bs, guesthouses and hotels. If you do not mind the extra weight of camping gear, there are many official campsites.
The Rhine is rightly one of the world’s greatest rivers and one of the most visited by tourists. Many travel by boat, disembarking only at tourist honey-pots and eating international food on-board. By cycling the length of the river you will have a completely different perspective, passing through smaller towns, meeting local people and eating local food. English is widely spoken, almost universally in Switzerland and the Netherlands.
This is a journey of variety. Passing through six countries (Switzerland, Germany, France and the Netherlands, with short sections in Liechtenstein and Austria) you will be exposed to much of the geography, history, culture and economic success of Western Europe.
From the River Rhine’s upper reaches in Switzerland, surrounded by high Alpine mountains, our route passes the tiny principality of Liechtenstein to reach Bodensee (Lake Constance), Western Europe’s second-largest natural lake. On the shores of Bodensee are the Austrian festival town of Bregenz, where open-air opera is presented every summer on a stage over the water, and Friedrichshafen, home to the Zeppelin. Beyond the lake is Rheinfall, continental Europe’s largest waterfall by volume of water. Below here the river flows through an attractive wooded valley between the Black Forest and the Jura mountains, passing a series of unspoilt medieval towns. After Basel, the route turns north through French Alsace, an area much fought over, with many remnants of successive wars. Then it is on past the French gastronomic centre of Strasbourg, the great industrial cities of Karlsruhe and Mannheim/Ludwigshafen, and the imperial cities and religious centres of Speyer, Worms and Mainz, before reaching the barrier of the Taunus and Hunsrück mountains. The Rhine Gorge, cutting between these ranges, is the most spectacular stage of all, lined with fairy-tale castles and award-winning vineyards. Halfway through is the infamous Loreley (or Lorelei) Rock. Continuing between the dormant volcanic Eifel and Siebengebirge ranges, where an active geyser demonstrates the power of vulcanism, the Rhine emerges onto the North German Plain.
The Rhine Cycle Route continues to Bonn, past the Bundeshaus (where the West German parliament sat from 1949 to 1999) and Beethoven’s birthplace, then on to Köln (Cologne), with over 1 million inhabitants the largest city en route and site of the world’s second tallest cathedral spire. Then past Düsseldorf and through the industrial city of Duisburg, which produces half of all German steel and is Europe’s largest inland port. For most of the way through this area, the river is followed, avoiding much of the intensive industrial development. Continuing through wide open flat agricultural land into the Netherlands, the river starts dividing to eventually reach the North Sea by way of five different channels. Our route follows one of these, the Lek, cycling on top of flood dykes with intensively farmed polders, lower than the river and reclaimed over many centuries, lining the river’s course. At Kinderdijk there are 19 surviving windmills of the type used to drain this land. The last great city is Rotterdam, rebuilt hurriedly after destruction in the Second World War and now being rebuilt again with much stunning modern architecture. On the opposite bank, between Rotterdam and the North Sea is Europoort, which was the world’s busiest port until overtaken by Shanghai in 2004.
Throughout this guide the English spelling of Rhine is used, except for in proper nouns such as Rheinquelle, Canal du Rhône au Rhin, Neder Rijn, where the appropriate national spelling is used. On the maps, Rhein is used in German-speaking areas, Rhin in France and Rijn in the Netherlands.
Geographically the Rhine has six distinct sections:
- Alpenrhein (Alpine Rhine) is the combination of the Vorderrhein and Hinterrhein tributaries that flow rapidly down the north side of the Alps, along deep glacial valleys, into Bodensee.
- Hochrhein (Higher Rhine) continues descending through broad wooded gorges providing the border between Switzerland and Baden-Württemberg (Germany) from Bodensee to Basel.
- Oberrhein (Upper Rhine) meanders north from Basel across a broad plain, between the Vosges mountains in French Alsace and the German Black Forest, as far as Mainz.
- Mittelrhein (Middle Rhine) is a picturesque stretch from Mainz to Bonn, where the river has cut the Rhine Gorge between the Hunsrück/Eifel mountains (west) and the Taunus/Siebengebirge ranges (east).
- Niederrhein (Lower Rhine) crosses the North German Plain from Bonn to the Dutch border.
- Delta Rijn (Rhine Delta) is the Dutch part of the river, which divides into five different arms to reach the North Sea.
However, the Rhine is more than just a river. Flowing through the heart of Western Europe, it has significance far beyond its relatively modest 1232km length. It can be described as four rivers in one. Firstly it functions as an important national border; secondly it is the source of many of the myths and legends central to European culture; thirdly it is a great commercial artery and location for industry; and fourthly it has a magnetic attraction to tourists and pursuers of leisure activities.
The border Rhine
For two millennia, the river has represented the border between major national entities. The Romans set their northern frontier along the Rhine/Danube axis and established the first towns on the Rhine at Colonia (Köln), Mainz, Strasbourg and Xanten as bases for legions defending their empire against barbarian tribes to the east. By medieval times this demarcation had developed into a border between Germanic speaking nations of the Holy Roman Empire, east of the river, and Francophone ones to the west. From the Middle Ages up to the mid-20th century, continuing power struggles saw frequent territorial claims and border incursions. Further south, Swiss, Austrians and Bavarians competed to control the northern approaches to the Alps, with the Rhine becoming a natural boundary between their interests. In the far north, both the Dutch and Spanish used the river in their struggle for hegemony over the Netherlands.
As a result, the river is peppered with military hardware from Roman fortifications, through medieval castles, fortified military towns and integrated defensive lines to concrete anti-tank defences, each passing into history as the technological progress of warfare made them redundant. Riverside settlements still show the scars of battle, particularly from the Second World War, where intensive bombing was followed by destructive land warfare. This is particularly evident in relation to the bridges. In the mid-19th century, the Prussian military authorities controlling the Rhineland resisted the construction of railway bridges as a potential danger of invasion. Before and during the First World War German forces constructed a series of mighty bridges to support the war in France, only to destroy them in 1944/45 in an attempt to prevent Allied invasion of Germany.
The legendary Rhine
The oldest tales of the Rhine are derived from the Nibelungenlied, a 13th-century poem by an unknown German author. It centred on the bloodthirsty affairs of court in Worms and featured Siegfried, Brunhilde and a hoard of gold that caused much strife and was eventually buried in the Rhine to prevent further trouble. Siegfried went on to feature in many other legends. Composer Richard Wagner (1813–1883) used this tale for the basis of Das Rheingold and subsequent works making up The Ring of the Nibelung opera cycle.
Many of the towns, villages and castles along the German part of the river have local legends, some of which are related in the route description. Perhaps the most famous is the song of the Loreley maiden. First appearing in 1801, the story was rewritten by the author Heinrich Heine in 1824 and set to music in 1837.
The Rhine provided the inspiration for two great patriotic songs. La Marseillaise, the French national anthem, was written in Strasbourg in 1792 as a ‘War song for the Army of the Rhine’ to honour troops defending post-revolutionary France from Prussian and Austrian invasion. On the German side, the poem/song Die Wacht am Rhein (‘The Guard on the Rhine’) was written in 1840 as a call to arms following French political moves to extend French territory. During the Franco-Prussian war (1870–71) it became an unofficial German anthem and remained popular until the Second World War, although it is rarely heard nowadays.
The commercial Rhine
Although used from Roman times as a freight transport route, medieval use of the river was limited by rapids, shallows and local tolls collected at over 200 toll stations. These toll stations were swept away by the Congress of Vienna in 1815, while a series of river improvements throughout the 19th and 20th centuries have removed barriers to navigation on the Mittelrhein and canalised much of the Oberrhein. Steam navigation commenced in 1840 as far as Mannheim, but it was nearly 100 years before improvements allowed commercial operations to reach Basel. Today, thousands of boats and barges carry approximately 250 million tonnes of merchandise annually, including coal, oil, ore, chemicals, building materials and manufactured goods. Major flows are from the huge ports of Rotterdam and Europoort to Duisburg, Köln, Mannheim, Karlsruhe, Strasbourg and Basel. Canals linking the Rhine with the neighbouring river catchments of the Elbe, Danube, Marne and Rhône enable trans-European waterway transport.
Ease of transportation has encouraged industrial development all along the navigable river. Most noticeable is the chemical industry, with 20% of the world’s chemicals produced at a number of huge integrated chemical works, including BASF at Ludwigshafen, the world’s largest single company chemical plant.
The leisure Rhine
Millions of tourists visit the Rhine every year. Many come by road to see great tourist sights such as Köln, the Rhine Gorge, Rüdesheim, Speyer, Strasbourg and the Rheinfall. Others come to cycle round, sail on, swim in or just laze beside Bodensee, southern Germany’s principal resort area. Rhine cruising in large all-inclusive boats is big business and many companies operate in this area. Cruises typically follow seven-day itineraries between Amsterdam and Basel (or back), stopping at principal cities along the way. At popular locations up to 10 boats may call every day. Short-trip and day excursion boats operate on a few stretches, particularly between Köln and Mainz, Schaffhausen and Konstanz and on Bodensee.
Leisure activities are numerous. Almost every town has a public swimming pool, often beside the river. White-water raftingis possible through Ruinaulta (Stage 2), while Huningue (Stage 9) has a canoe slalom course. Rowing and sailing clubs abound. Cycling is one of the most popular leisure activities in all of the countries of the Rhine, particularly in places like Bodensee, the Rhine Gorge and Kinderdijk, where cyclists of all ages and degrees of fitness can be seen. Cycling as a family holiday is popular in Germany.
Mike Wells has been a keen long-distance walker and cyclist for over 20 years. He has walked all the major British trails, the GR5 through the Alps from Lake Geneva to the Mediterranean and has explored the Italian Dolomites' Alta Via routes. He has also walked in Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Norway and Chilean Patagonia.
Mike has cycled the C2C route across northern England as well as the Camino and Ruta de la Plata to Santiago de la Compostela. He has completed an end to end traverse of Cuba, a circumnavigation of Iceland and a trip across Lapland to the North Cape.