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Rhine journey: from the mouth to the source
Rhine journey: from the mouth to the source
Out and about on the busiest river in the world
The Rhine between the North Sea and the Swiss Alps is not only the busiest river in Europe, but also the most diverse. On its 1230-kilometer journey, it offers bikers the greatest possible variety and lessons in history.
October 13, 2011
Rhine or not Rhine? That is the question that is not that easy to answer. At the end of its journey, long before it reaches the North Sea, the Rhine branches into countless arms, sometimes called Rijn, Waal, Maas or Lek, which in turn are connected by canals to form a huge waterway labyrinth. Only one thing is clear here: in the end, everything spills into the sea.
From the pretty little town of Westkapelle with its massive 54-meter lighthouse, I follow the dike northwards. Anyone looking for viewpoints in the west of Holland can climb the lighthouse or the dike and see a landscape that lacks any drama. The horizon is level. always.
The N57 jumps from island to island, crosses the Rhine delta on long bridges and ends in Europe’s largest port: Rotterdam. A 40 kilometer long, confusing complex of docks, refineries, power plants, oil tanks, container terminals and marshalling yards. Only at the Maasvlakte, where the port exit joins the sea, can I park the Tenere on the dike, take a deep breath and enjoy the view over the open sea.
In addition, the Maasvlakte is the ideal place to “watch ships”. Each of the 35,000 ocean-going steamers that call at Rotterdam every year comes by here, from the coaster from Brunsbuttel to the 350-meter-long iron ore freighter from Brazil. The big wide world visits Holland, and for some ships the voyage ends here. For me it is only just beginning: I want to drive 1230 kilometers against the current until I study sources in the Swiss Alps.
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Away from the highways and big cities, the country looks idyllic and contemplative, small houses, often thatched, right on the canal with boat moorings and flower-strewn gardens. Rotterdam seems light years away. Along the Lek, also known as the Nederrijn, the Yamaha rolls relaxed through the flat country. Meadows, cows, poplars rustling in the west wind, countless canals, now and then a windmill and small villages like Nieuw-Lekkerland, Ottoland or Hoogblokland. An extremely calming scene.
At Zaltbommel I reach the ship-rich main arm of the Rhine. Stone groynes slide from the bank into the river, break the current and ensure calm water near the bank. Between them there are small sandy beaches that are well frequented at 32 degrees Celsius in summer: children romp, men have a barbecue and women show off trendy bikinis. Rimini is everywhere.
The most exciting road since the North Sea runs between Dodewaard and Nijmegen. She juggles on the top of the dike and follows each of the astonishingly many curves of the dike. Driving is finally fun, and the number of local motorcyclists is increasing dramatically. Curves are a precious commodity in Holland. What the Alps are to one person, his dike is to another.
Past Nijmegen, I cross the almost invisible state border and am on the Lower Rhine. The landscape hardly changes when there are also smaller forests to marvel at.
Castles and winding roads along the steep banks of the Rhine in the slate mountains.
And a bizarre adventure park: the core water wonderland near Kalkar with the once hotly controversial fast breeder. In the 1970s, the mirage of the nuclear industry shone here, concreting the prestige nuclear object with the powerful help of the federal government in no man’s land. Four billion euros were sunk, countless lawsuits were carried out, battles were fought at the site fence, but ultimately the power plant did not go into operation. In 1995 a Dutch millionaire bought the facility, converted it into a strange amusement park and now advertises that everything is guaranteed to be radiation-free.
The solar radiation on the nose, I drive the Tenere southwards. The Rhine meanders in wide curves through the green, peaceful land. But then the Schimanski city of Duisburg comes into view. No more tranquility, smoking chimneys, broken steel works, dreary suburbs and the largest inland port in the world. The structural change in the coal and steel industry has had a major impact on Duisburg, has changed a lot, not always for the better.
The village on the Dussel, just a few kilometers up the Rhine, has a completely different character. State capital, center of the beautiful and the rich, extravagant architecture at the new media harbor and international airport. Dusseldorf makes for a cosmopolitan city and is in constant competition with the actual metropolis on the Rhine – Cologne, a synonym for the fun life between Carnival, Kolsch, Klungel and church. Dusseldorf may also be more modern – which the Cologne resident doubts, of course – but now Dusseldorf really doesn’t make a stab of the unique city panorama around the cathedral and electricity. The city is dominated by the gigantic cathedral with its 157-meter-high twin towers. If you like, you can experience the gloomy giant up close, climb one of the towers over 509 steps, admire the Gothic architecture from 600 years and enjoy the view. When the weather is clear, this extends from Dusseldorf to the Siebengebirge.
Mountains – finally the flat land is over. In front of us lies the most beautiful part of the Rhine, the breakthrough through the Rhenish Slate Mountains. Birgit is now part of the party. As a Cologne resident, she may have spent her life on the bank of the river, but has never looked where all the water actually comes from. A good part of this is contributed by the Moselle, which donates all of its water to the Rhine at the Deutsches Eck in Koblenz.
The next 60 kilometers of the river to Rudesheim are tough and have been ennobled as the Middle Rhine Valley with the distinction of “Unesco World Heritage”. Nowhere else is the density of castles higher than here. 31 medieval walls are enthroned on both sides of the Rhine in a panoramic position. For the lords of the castle in the 13th and 14th centuries, the choice of the building site had two main reasons: to be strategically on the safe side and to collect a lot of customs from the passing ships. Highway robbery in the Middle Ages.
Today the castles are the summit of the much-used Rhine romanticism. Which too often sinks into kitsch, noise and commerce, especially noticeable in Boppard and Rudesheim. As beautiful as the valley is, the constant roar of trains and cars is annoying. And there are no curves either. That can easily be changed, as wonderful roads climb out of the valley towards Taunus or Hunsruck. In Boppard we turn off, swing through a dozen serpentines and even more curves up into the mountains, lose ourselves on heavenly quiet little back roads that cross through old beech forests, and finally end up high above St. Goar at a fantastic vantage point.
Gehry buildings in the media harbor in Dusseldorf.
Directly below us, the Rhine has cut its most famous triple curve in the mountains, circles in a tight radius around the Loreley rock and forces the captains to maneuver their long ships around the corner in adventurous drifts. Thanks to modern control technology and traffic light-controlled passage, this is usually no longer a problem today. But in the times when the femme fatale lorry from her rock Ley beguiled the inland boatmen with their singing, they put their boats down in rows. At least that’s what the legend tells. Today the Loreley especially enchants visitors from overseas.
We rappel down into the valley again and take a look at the most extraordinary of all Rhine castles: Pfalzgrafenstein, which was built like a medieval fantasy battleship on a small island in the middle of the river and can only be reached by boat. The atmosphere between meter-thick walls, 650-year-old oak beams and dozens of battlements and turrets is unique.
15 kilometers further on, the narrow valley ends abruptly and merges with the Rhine plain at Bingen. Time to walk a few meters, leave the river on the left and drive the motorcycles south through France. It gets exciting again behind Basel, where the Rhine flows green and clear within sight of the Black Forest.
Past Bad Sackingen, -Rheinau and Diessenhofen, decorated with beautiful old houses and historic wooden bridges, we set our sights on Lake Constance and of course marvel at the imposing Rhine Falls near Schaffhausen.
A little later, the mountains on both sides of the densely populated valley crack the 2000 meter mark. The Rhine is diked, canalized and has the noisy autobahn as a constant companion. But after Chur everything gets better, the valley narrower, the mountains higher and the river wilder. At Reichenau it divides into its two source rivers, the Vorder and Hinterrhein. The Hinterrhein disappears into the dramatic Viamala Gorge. 300-meter-high walls hardly leave any space for the river, it rushes and swirls over steps and narrow holes, and is allowed to rest in quiet and crystal-clear whirlpools in between. From Avers we follow the Avers Rhine, climbing higher and higher with the enduro bikes into the alpine world to Juf at 2126 meters. Ancient houses with roofs made of massive stone slabs, the tinkling of cow bells and farmers turning the hay by hand. Pure alpine idyll. Italian water even flows from the side valley of Lago di Lei into the Hinterrhein.
Its source is almost within sight, hidden under the shrinking glacier of the Rheinwaldhorn, which rises high above the San Bernardino Pass. The Bernardino is a driving revelation, its southern ramp curves down almost 2000 meters to Bellinzona, where life is clearly Italian. We polish the single-cylinder on a north course, whiz over the Lukmanier Pass to -Disentis to the Vorderrhein, which is called Rein Anteriur here in Romansh. In contrast to Bellinzona, Disentis is picture-perfect Switzerland: geraniums in abundance, wooden houses, greenest meadows, leisurely, traditional and touristy.
Only 25 kilometers to the source. The wide valley narrows and heads towards the Oberalp Pass. Dozens of waterfalls plunge down into the semicircle of the three-thousand-meter peaks. One of them has its source in Lake Toma. Located at an altitude of 2345 meters, it is considered to be the source of the busiest river in Europe, 1230 kilometers from the mouth near Rotterdam. Which would end our Rhine trip, at least thematically. But simply turning around at the Oberalp Pass would be foolish, because the Oberalp is the aperitif for the most exciting passes in the Swiss Alps: Grimsel, Susten and Furka. We can’t possibly skip them. Rhine or not Rhine, that is no longer a question here. The magic triangle of passes is calling.
Travel time: 14 days. Distance covered: 2500 kilometers.
The Rhine is known for its mild climate. That is why the trip – assuming reasonably civilized temperatures – can start as early as April. However, the high Alpine passes in the headwaters of the Rhine do not open until May at the earliest. A special tip for the Middle Rhine between Bingen and Koblenz is the first week of November, when the bright yellow of the vineyards enchants the valley.
Free choice. From a campsite for eight euros to a five-star hotel or a hearty overnight stay in a castle for 250 euros, everything is possible. In most places there are enough private pensions. Almost every city has a tourist information office, where there are also room certificates.
There is an almost infinite amount to discover along the Rhine. Therefore only a subjective selection of highlights here. The thickest pots can be seen at the entrance to the Rotterdam “Europoort” near Maasvlakte. Also noteworthy are the huge storm surge barriers such as the two-winged Maeslantkering near Rozenburg, which is supposed to protect Rotterdam from the violence of the North Sea. Definitely worth seeing: the 19 windmills at Kinderdijk. The highlights of the Lower Rhine are above all the tranquility and expanse of the landscape, garnished with pretty towns like Xanten. The big cities of Duisburg and Oberhausen with their staged industrial ruins (Landschaftspark Duisburg-Nord), the self-confident Dusseldorf and the cathedral city of Cologne are of a completely different caliber. The viewing platform on one of the 157-meter-high cathedral towers offers the best overview of Gothic details. The best insights into the “Cologne soul”, on the other hand, can be found in one of the numerous breweries – or of course during Carnival time. One of the highlights is the Middle Rhine Valley between Koblenz and Rudesheim. The world-famous Rhine wine towns are well worth a visit because of their medieval half-timbered architecture. Particularly beautiful: Linz, Boppard, Oberwesel and Bacharach. Many of the 31 castles can be visited, some offer overnight stays or jousting games. For more information, see the tourist information. It’s not very exciting between Mainz and Basel, the Rhine is often canalised. The arms of the Old Rhine are well worth seeing, especially the Taubergieben oasis. To the east of Basel there are again picturesque places, and the river is much narrower. Most places on Lake Constance are worth a visit. South of Lake Constance, things get exciting from Chur: The Viamala Gorge, every side valley that meanders high into the mountains, the two Rhine springs and finally the Alpine passes are all worth experiencing. From Bellinzona there is even a detour to Lake Maggiore.
The roads that closely follow the Rhine offer the best views of the river, but rarely are driving highlights. The numerous side roads that curve up in the Middle Rhine Valley in Hunsruck or Taunus promise variety (see report in Motorrad 9/2009). Further south beckon trips to the Black Forest and the Vosges. After all, in the Alps everyone will find roads to their taste.
Many travel guides only refer to the Middle Rhine, such as the HB picture atlas “The Rhine between Mainz and Cologne” for 8.50 euros. The illustrated book “The Rhine between Schaffhausen and the North Sea” by Manfred Fenzl (Edition Maritim, 44 euros) already covers more. Maps: Michelin sheet 532 Netherlands South, scale 1: 200000, general maps of Mairdumont, sheets 4, 5 and 6. For Switzerland: Shell country map, scale 1: 301000 or general maps of Switzerland in 1: 200000.
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