Rhine River

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RHINE RIVER - Introductory Facts

The Rhine River , whose name comes from the Celtic word renos, meaning raging flow, begins at the Rheinwaldhorn Glacier in the Swiss Alps and flows north and east approximately 820 miles (1,320 km). The glacier is located northeast across the mountains from the town of Andermatt in the Uri canton (state/province). The Rhine begins as a tumultuous Alpine stream churning through deep gorges, and although the river's flow is moderated somewhat as it passes through the Lake of Constance (Bodensee), the river remains a torrent westward to Basel. Just south of Chur, Switzerland, the Hinter Rhine, flowing northwesternly from the glacier, joins the Voder Rhine streaming from Lake Tuma, to form the Rhine proper at Reichenau. The river then flows north to Lake Constance and west through Schaffhausen to Basel, Switzerland. Near Schaffhausen it plunges 23 m (75 ft) over a spectacular waterfall, the Rheinfall. At Basel the river turns north and enters the Rhine Graben, a flat-floored rift valley lying between the Vosges Mountains on the west and the Black Forest (Schwarzwald) on the east. Strasbourg, France, a focal point for merging water routes from the Paris Basin, is located at the valley's northern extremity. With the junction of the Main River at Mainz, in Germany, the Rhine's seasonal regime becomes more stabilized. Along its course from Bingen to Bonn is a beautiful stretch of the Rhine Valley. The river has cut the deep, steepsided Rhine Gorge through the Rhineland Plateau and the Rhenish Slate Mountains. This picturesque gorge, with terraced vineyards and castle-lined cliffs, has often been called the "heroic Rhine," renowned in history and romantic literature. It is complete with fairy tale castles and vineyards snuggled in the overhanging rock face, known as the Mittelrhein. The river flows past Bonn, Germany and becomes the Lower Rhine and emerges onto the North German Plain before it empties into the North Sea. Leading cities on the stream's banks are Cologne, Düsseldorf, and Duisburg. At the Netherlands frontier, it divides into two parallel distributaries, the Lek and the Waal, as it crosses a wide, marshy plain and a great delta before entering the North Sea. Much of this area is at or below sea level, but diking contributed to its becoming one of the most densely populated and important economic regions on the continent. Rotterdam, the leading port of continental Europe, is located near the river's mouth. It passes through or borders on the countries of Liechtenstein, Austria, Germany, France, and the Netherlands.

It is navigable from the North Sea to Basel, Switzerland, a distance of some 500 miles (some 800 km). Eighty percent of it's ship-carrying waters pass through Germany. The entire distance can not support ocean going vessels and they must end their journey in Cologne, Germany. Cologne is located between Koln and Bonn. From there cargo must go by barges pushed by smaller ships until the Rhine reaches the three point intersection of the borders of France, Germany, and Basel, Switzerland.

Because of the multi countries and languages, the river has four names. They are: Rhein, Germany; Rhine, France; and Rijn, Netherlands (Dutch); Rhenus, ancient. There are many other important tributaries that flow into the Rhine. In fact, the Rhine splits into two tributaries near Emmerich, Germany and Zevenaar, Netherlands. Those are the Lek on the north and the Waal on the south. Some of the main tributaries are: the Mosselle (Mosel), that runs south west bordering Luxembourg and on into France; the Neckar that flows south east at Manneheim on through Heidelburg, Germany; the Main, flowing east and south from Mainz through Frankfurt, Germany. The principal rivers of Western Europe, including the Seine, Elbe, Ems, Rhône, and Saône, are linked to it by canals. East of Frankfurt is where The Rhine-Main-Danube Canal links the Rhine with the Danube River, providing a transcontinental route from the North Sea to the Black Sea near Odessa, Ukraine.

Historical Data

During early historic times, Germanic tribes settled on either side of the lower Rhine and Celts alongside its upper sides. Julius Caesar bridged and crossed it in 53 and 55 BC. The Germanias were formed on the north and the Roman empire to the south and east. When the Western Roman Empire disintegrated around 400 AD, the Rhine was crossed along its entire length by Germanic tribes and formed the central backbone first of the Kingdom of the Franks and then of the Carolingian Empire. In 870, the Rhine again became the central axis of a political unit; the Holy Roman Empire. Over time, fighting and political events disintegrated this empire along the Rhine. Even with the fighting and changing hands of frontiers, a goal to connect the North Sea to the Black Sea had existed. It was first put into action by Charlemagne in 793, but it was never a success. The Thirty Years' War, 1618 through 1648, ended with the final separation of the Rhine headwaters and delta area from Germany. This territory would later become Holland. Louis XIV acquired Alsace for France along the eastern border, and in 1660, the European continent was at peace for a while. The borders of countries along the Rhine were just about formed as we know them today, but not exactly, and not permanently. The French Revolution, in the late 1700's through the early 1800's, shows borders were still changing.

In 1832, the first steam boat came from the North Sea all the way to Basel, but this was not regular. Mannheim was an established port by 1840, and heavily travelled during the industrial revolution. In 1846 the Ludwig-Donau-Canal was completed after 9 years of work. It was named after King Ludwig I of Bavaria.

The Prussian armies in the Franco-German War of 1870-71 took Alsace from France and thus its Rhine frontier was gone. France regained it after World War I and built the fortified defensive system of the Maginot Line from 1927 through 1936. It adjoined the French bank of the Rhine from the Swiss border at Lauterbourg. The opposing Siegfried Line was built on the German bank from the Swiss border to near Karlsruhe from 1936 through 1939. Then came World War II, and the mass destruction of bridges, trains, and ships caused flooding because of blockades.

After World War II the struggle for possession of the Rhine had been superseded by a trend toward economic and even political union of the rival countries. The Ludwig-Donau-Canal was also destroyed during World War II. A passage from Nuremburg to Kelheim was opened in 1992. Although the name is Rhine-Main-Danube, the primary canal work was done on the Main.

Vineyard Agriculture

Most of Germany's vineyards owe their existence to the Rhine river. It flows past a wide fertile valley past the Baden vineyards. The Pfalz , on the east facing slopes on the Haardt Mountains is the most southerly of these Rhine wine regions. Next comes the Rheinhessen with it's finest vineyard sites around the Neirstein on the so-called Rheinfront or Rheinterrasse. North of Mainz, the Rhine meets the mass of the Taunus Mountains and is forced west along a short stretch between Weisbaden and Assmannshausen. This area is called the Rheingau. At Bingen, the Nahe River flows in and along it's banks where some of the best south-facing vineyards are located. North of Bonn is the tiny river Ahr, which is a tourist spot with it's own vineyards. All of these German regions produce different styles of wine, but in general, Rhine wine is fuller and richer then Mosel wines. As in the Mosel, the primary grape is the Reisling, but there are other varieties of grapes too. There are a a few Weissburgunder (pinot blanc) and some Chardonnay. The German wine research center at Geisenheim has created many new vine hybrids, such as Ehrenfelser, Scheurebe, and Kerner. They are not as popular as the native Rheingau.

The Alsace region of France that borders the Rhine is a long strip of land centered south of Strasbourg and around the town of Colmar. The prosperous plain backs up to the Vosges Mountains where they are protected from strong westerly winds. Unlike other French wines, those from the Alsace tell which grape variety they are pressed from. The Alsace region is primarily white wine country. The Sylvaner is the most widely grown grape and produces a light and sparkling wine. Pinot Blanc, also known as Klevner accounts for about 10 percent of the area vines. Only about 1 percent grows Pinot Noir, which is the only rose' of the area. Other varieties include Muscat, which is drier in this region; Chasselas Blanc, a pale greenish wine grown in the Haut-Rhin; and Tokay, imported in the 16th century from Hungary. This area is sometimes known as the Route du Vin.

Switzerland along the Rhine produces some wines too. Mostly reds that can be compared to those of Baden, Germany. The primary types are Schaffhausen, Mariafeld, and Blauburgunder. Most of the Swiss wine is produced along the Rhone Valley between the Bernese and Valais Alps. Syrah is a well known red grape from the Rhone on over into southeast France. It cost four times as much to produce wine in Switzerland than it does in France, so it is not commonly exported. The Rhine flows over into Austria, but most Austrian wine is produced on the eastern side from north of the Danube to the southern border.


The castles are an unmistakable feature of the Rhine landscape. Their founders were feudal overlords, who built them to protect their lands from marauders. They were far from thinking of any romantic notions as we do today. Besides the warlike function for which they were built, think about the back-breaking labor of the feudal serfs, whom must have been forcibly employed in quarring the huge stone blocks and dragging them up the mountain slopes. The mid-Rhine is also known for its German legends. One of the best known is the story of the Lorelei. As the story goes, a nymph lived in the Lorelei rock high above the Rhine. She is said to have lured fishermen to their destruction with her singing until she was overcome with love and plunged to her own death. A bronze statue of the nymph overlooks the river. Another famous landmark is the "Drachenfels" castle where Siegfried is reputed to have slain a dragon. The former masters of the castle, the Counts of Drachenfels, had a winged, fire-spitting dragon in there coat of arms. The view from the castle tower is considered one of the most famous on the Rhine.

Along the Rhine, particularly in the narrow gorge connecting Bingen and Koblenz, which has a length of only thirty-five miles, there are more castles than in any other river valley in the world. Many are ruins, but some have been restored as hotels and are open for tours. They stand like sentinels on the cliffs above river side villages, and others stand alone surrounded by vineyards.

In the French regions of Alsace and Lorraine there are quite a few castles too. One of those is in Kayersberg built in the early 1200's. Another is the Mont Sainte Odile, founded by St. Odile in the 7th century, is said to have over a million visitors a year. The most visited and well known is the Haut-Koenigsbourg. It rises out of the forest of Selestat and was in ruins in the 1890's. It was fully restored by Bodo Ebhardt after the ruins were given to the Kaiser when the Alsace was in German possession.

The Mediaspecialist site has a good review of the castles in this area.

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