I usually aim to post articles or blogs posts on this website quite regularly, but recently I’ve been shamefully lax in doing so. There, is however, a fairly decent excuse: I’ve been busy writing a new book. It’s called ‘The Rhine: Following Europe’s Greatest River from Amsterdam to the Alps’, and will be released later this summer (and, since you asked, is available to pre-order here).
Writing a book is a long and strange process. I’ve often thought of it as a little like building a house: you spend ages planning what you hope the end result will look like, painstakingly laying the foundations and drawing up plans. Then comes the construction: first building a solid framework, and then adding more and more detail until the whole thing finally looks beautiful enough to invite guests around. After nearly two years of work, I’m now at the final stage: touching up a few last bits of paintwork before the public arrives.
As I write in the book, the river Rhine often seems to get overlooked these days. The problem is partly that a lot of travel writing is essentially based on hyperbole: everyone wants to be the first person to ride a donkey across Tuvalu, or drag a fridge around Honduras. In that context, the Rhine can seem rather familiar or un-exotic. It’s also fair to say that rivers don’t permeate our consciousness in quite the way they used to. In times gone by, a major river like the Rhine would have been a maker and breaker of nations; a combination of moat, motorway, power station and water supply which people would gladly die to defend. In the 21st century, though, rivers aren’t seen in quite such dramatic terms. The world is flat, we’re told, and it doesn’t matter where you are, as long as there’s fast Wi-Fi and somewhere to charge your phone. Against that backdrop, the idea that a river might be worth fighting for has (in Europe at least) come to seem rather old-fashioned. Even the mightiest waterways are seen as nice places to walk a dog or have a picnic, rather than exciting, important things. In the case of the Rhine, there are also some odd cultural biases at play. Younger Dutch people, in particular, often seem prejudiced against the Rhine region, dismissing it as boring even as they fly over its waterfalls and mountains on their way to visit waterfalls and mountains in Asia. Many other Europeans automatically think of the Rhine as a German river, even though it flows through six different countries, and has its source in Switzerland and its mouth in Holland. In the UK, meanwhile, it’s still common to assume not only that the Rhine is German, but that German history began in 1914 and ended in 1945, and that anything German must be a bit joyless and industrial. Like the drummer in a rock band, the Rhine never quite gets the attention it deserves.
This is a shame, because by any measure, the Rhine is still utterly extraordinary. Winding its way some eight hundred miles from the Dutch coast to the Alps, it’s the second-longest river in central and western Europe. It charges through not only Germany but also the Netherlands, France, Austria, Switzerland and Liechtenstein; going from an icy pool through rocky gullies, a country-sized lake, majestic cathedral cities, grassy polder meadows, hipster harbours and then finally a dazzling sandy beach. The river has also played a crucial role in the history of Europe, and is continuing to shape its future. Under the Romans, the Rhine served as the edge of the empire; the boundary at which the Romans effectively gave up trying to claim new territory and decided to build a beautiful big wall. (Caesar wrote that the tribes living north of the river “showed such determination in their bravery that when those in the front rank had fallen, the men behind them stood upon the slain and continued the fight from on top of the corpses”.) Later, the river was fought over countless times, by everyone from Napoleon to Bismarck and the Nazis. During the Cold War, NATO said it would fight “to hold the Rhine River bridges…at all cost”, and stockpiled hundreds of nuclear weapons along its banks. France and Germany have battled over its banks as regularly as teenaged siblings forced to share a bedroom.
More happily, the river has also brought huge wealth to almost everywhere it passes through. It’s probably not entirely a coincidence that several of the countries of the Rhine (Switzerland, Germany, Liechtenstein, the Netherlands) are among the very richest in the world. Culturally, the river has also inspired countless statesmen, warriors, artists and writers, from John Le Carré to Wagner, Byron and Beethoven. Mary Shelley wrote ‘Frankenstein’ after a visit to a Rhine castle where a local man was rumoured to be experimenting on dead bodies, and Karl Drais invented the bicycle on its banks. Bertha Benz took the world’s first car for a joyride along the river, and it was in a riverside laboratory that a young Swiss scientist accidentally discovered LSD. As I write in the book, without the Rhine, there might have been no world wars and no European Union, no Golden Age and no Reformation, no Dutch paintings and no German car industry. “The Rhine”, wrote Victor Hugo, “is historical, …mysterious, …spangled with gold, …abounding with phantoms and fables”.
Today, the river still forms, in various places, the border between France and Germany, Germany and Switzerland, Switzerland and Liechtenstein, and Austria and Switzerland. It has Europe’s biggest port at its mouth, and some of Europe’s most dynamic cities – Rotterdam, Dusseldorf, Strasbourg, Basel, Cologne – on its banks. As I cycled, swam, walked and boated my way up the river, I found it littered with odd and interesting sights: nuclear power stations converted into theme parks, thunderous waterfalls flinging spray into the air, rowdy nightclubs in converted warehouses, glittering modern skyscrapers and Gladiator-style coliseums. I also found it extraordinarily beautiful. In my twenties, I spent years travelling the world in search of perfect tropical sunsets and jungle ruins, but rarely saw anywhere as jaw-dropping as the source of the Rhine at Lake Toma; a shiny blue pearl dropped high in the snowy Swiss mountains.
Setting out upstream from Amsterdam, I was looking forward to re-visiting some places I knew well, but also had a few big questions which I wanted to answer. I won’t give too much away here, but suffice to say I was pleased to find the river thriving. In the 1980s the Rhine was so polluted that people called it “the biggest sewer in Europe”, but after a decades-long cleanup operation it’s now overflowing with fish, beavers and storks. Cities like Dusseldorf are booming, and the port at the river’s mouth in Holland is still by far the biggest in Europe, handling more shipping containers each year than Zeebrugge, Barcelona, Southampton, Felixstowe, Genoa and Le Havre combined. From source to mouth, the river fizzes with energy.
Like everywhere else in the world these days, the Rhine isn’t without its challenges. During the months I spent travelling upstream, Germany was grappling to absorb more than a million refugees, and France had been hit by brutal terrorist attacks. Austria had nearly elected a fascist as President, Angela Merkel had been battered in the polls, Donald Trump was gleefully igniting trade wars, and the British were doing their bit to promote free trade by leaving the world’s biggest free trade area. In the Netherlands, there are still serious problems with flooding and climate change, and some of the riverside towns which have grown rich from international trade are (ironically enough) hotbeds of isolationist politics. The French economy continues to stumble, and German manufacturing giants like Volkswagen have had their reputations tarnished. Many places along the river are extraordinarily beautiful and successful but others, like the former industrial town of Duisburg, are not. For a region which has long thrived thanks to its openness to the outside world, the rise of alt-right politics can seem like an existential threat.
In most ways, though, the people who live along the river still seem to represent the very best of European values: open to the world, mercantile and hospitable. Even small towns on the Rhine are surprisingly cosmopolitan: places where Polish boatmen and American businesspeople rub shoulders with Australian tourists, Norwegian chemical engineers and Dutch designers; all busy making money and then going for a drink and a laugh in a kroeg or a brauhaus. Events like Gay Pride parade in Cologne, where there are more leather harnesses on display than at a horse-racing convention, could have been designed to disprove foreign stereotypes about Germany as a boring, sensible place.
In an age when our culture seems increasingly globalized and homogenized, this small patch of Europe is also still amazingly diverse, and it’s easy to walk over a few bridges and visit three different countries within ten minutes on foot. In places like northern Switzerland, the river fronts a bewildering patchwork of dialects, nationalities and opinions. Inevitably, many people along the river proud of their local traditions. The Dutch like to make jokes about Germans, and the Germans quick to look down on French. The Swiss moan about lazy Austrians, and the Austrians grumble about German drivers. The Alsatians gossip about the Parisians, and the Liechtensteiners complain that no-one knows their country exists. But as an outsider, it’s also interesting to notice that the people of the Rhine often have more in common than they’d like to admit. From Utrecht to Basel, people are open and laid-back but also oddly conservative; with a love of hard work and a reflexive aversion to risk, and a fondness for keeping everything in its place and on schedule. The Swiss are the Dutch of the mountains.
Writing a book is a strange process, often daunting and often stressful; like endlessly studying for an exam which never seems to arrive. (“I love deadlines”, Douglas Adams once said. “I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.”) Most of the time, though, writing – particularly travel writing – feels like the best job in the world: effectively making a career out of travelling to beautiful places, meeting unusual people and learning about interesting things. For me, writing this latest book was a great opportunity to explore more of the Netherlands and beyond, and also a lot of fun. Strictly in the name of research, I managed (among many other things) to go rowing through the centre of Amsterdam, explore underground nuclear bunkers, climb through forests to ruined castles, ride on a cow through the mountains, dance at a carnival, discuss politics naked with a group of elderly Germans, take my African dog to a ski resort, go wine-tasting in three different countries and eat fondue on a snow-capped Liechtenstein mountain. I learned about all sorts of things, from how the Romans brewed beer with ox-guts to what the French really think of the Germans, why the Swiss like shopping, why the Dutch eat so much cheese, and why gambling a book advance in a casino isn’t a good idea. Above all, writing about the Rhine helped me fall further in love with a region which I already knew well, but (like many people) had too often ignored in favour of more exotic things. I hope that (in due course) many of you will enjoy reading all about it, and fall in love with the Rhine too.