From Source To Mouth: The Romantic Rhine

Although we are focusing on the Romantic Rhine - the region between Bingen and Koblenz—it's important to remember that these 65 kilometers (40 miles) represent only about 5 percent of the rivers 1,320 kilometers (818 miles), as it makes its way from the Swiss Alps to the North Sea.

Fed by glaciers, two branches of the Rhine flow together in Switzerland and enter Lake Constance near Bregenz, Austria. Sixty-seven kilometers (42 miles) later, it flows from the other end by Constance, where the current is so strong that swimmers and boats have been swept from the wide lake into the narrow river passage. It broadens again, and for the next 34 kilometers (21 miles), the so-called Lake-Rhine nourishes wetlands as it makes its way to historic Stein am Rhein, where the River-Rhine officially begins.

A scant 20 kilometers (12 miles) later, just after Schaffhausen (see October 2002), it plunges 25 meters (82 feet) at the Rheinfall, a series of waterfalls where the river cut its way through Jurassic limestone eons ago. (Interestingly, the official source of the Danube is barely 35 kilometers (22 miles) north, at the Donauquelleor Danube Springs in Donaueschingen.) Briefly, it's bordered by Switzerland on both sides before creating the Swiss-German border. Just past Basel, it turns north to form what today is the peaceful and undisputed border between France and Germany.

Here, the Rhine runs through a wide plain, the hills of the Black Forest to the east and the stark mountain wall of the French Vosges rising behind the Alsace plain to the west. The most visited city along this portion is France's Strasbourg, although Freiburg, Offenburg, Baden-Baden and Rastatt aren't far behind. By Karlsruhe, it fully enters German territory, gaining volume from the Neckar and the Main. In Bingen and Rüdesheim, it becomes the familiar Romantic Rhine, the Middle Rhine Valley that UNESCO named as a World Heritage Site earlier this year.

At Koblenz, it loses its World Heritage designation but gains more volume from the Lahn and Mosel. And it's just as scenic as it passes the majestic ridges of the Siebengebirge, the Godesburg fortress at Bad Godesberg, and the graceful promenades of Germany's Federal City, Bonn.

Shortly past the lofty spires of Cologne Cathedral, the Rhine takes on a different character. Reflected in its waters aren't towers and turrets, but smokestacks, as it travels through the megalopolis of Düsseldorf and the Ruhr region. After regaining its grace in the fields and forests of Münsterland, it leaves Germany at Emmerich for the final 150 kilometers (93 miles) to its mouth in Rotterdam. JJ

November 2002