The Rhine is one of the world’s greatest rivers. Winding its way some eight hundred miles from the Dutch coast to the Alps, it charges through not only Germany and the Netherlands but also 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. 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. More happily, the river has also brought huge wealth to almost everywhere it passes through, and 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. 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”.
For five years, Ben Coates lived alongside a major channel of the river in Rotterdam, crossing it daily, swimming and sailing in its tributaries. In The Rhine, he sets out to follow the river for its entire course, through the Netherlands, Germany, France, Switzerland, Austria and Liechtenstein, to its source in the icy Alps. He explores the impact that the Rhine has had on European culture and history and finds out how influences have flowed along and across the river, shaping the people who live alongside it. Along the way, he goes rowing through the centre of Amsterdam, explores underground nuclear bunkers, climbs through forests to ruined castles, goes wine-tasting in three different countries and rides on a cow through the mountains. He learns how water shaped the history of Holland, why Germans aren’t as efficient as everyone thinks they are, how the Romans brewed beer with ox-guts, 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.
Blending travelogue and offbeat history, The Rhine tells the fascinating story of how a great river helped shape a continent.
Copies are available in most bookshops in the UK and the Netherlands, and selected other bookstores worldwide; as well as from online booksellers and as an e-book.