One of the world’s most popular river cruising destinations is the mighty Rhine, which gets its name from the Celtic word renos (“raging flood”). But Europe’s longest and most important river begins as a trickle of melted snow from the Rheinwaldhorn Glacier high in the Swiss Alps. It first becomes the Rhine proper at Reichenau, whence it flows north to Lake Constance — a major water supply for Germany — and then heads through Schaffhausen to Basel, where Switzerland meets France and Germany.
En route, the Rhine lives up to its Celtic name near Schaffhausen, when it plunges 75 feet down in a spectacular torrent known as the Rheinfall. Its waters are much calmer at Basel, where the river first becomes navigable (and where many cruise ships embark). From there, it wends its way on a journey of almost 870 miles to merge with the North Sea at Rotterdam, passing through six countries (Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Austria, Germany, France and the Netherlands) as it goes.
There are many legends surrounding this great river, the most famous being the tale of Lorelei, a beautiful maiden who drowned for love and became a mermaid. It’s said that her seductive song lures boatmen to their deaths and their vessels down to the riverbed. You’ll find her statue on a narrow strip of land jutting into the river between St. Goar and St. Goarshausen, about 16 miles from Rudesheim. This is the narrowest, deepest part of the Rhine and, therefore, the most difficult stretch to navigate (which is probably the source of the legend).
A Rhine cruise is a heady experience indeed. Prepare to see ancient castles and lush vineyards, explore the winding streets of sleepy medieval villages, revel in the historic grandeur of lovely old cities like Strasbourg and Koblenz and enjoy the buzz of vibrant, modern ones like Cologne and Basel.
That said, do be aware that the river isn’t bordered by fairytale castles from end to end. The “Rapunzel’s castle” bit is actually around the Rhine Gorge, and while it is indeed spectacular, it’s certainly not all this river is about.
The Rhine is a hardworking and very busy main artery through Europe. Its tributaries include the Moselle (which runs southwest past Luxembourg into France), the Neckar (flowing southeast at Manneheim to Heidelburg) and the Main (which runs southeast from Mainz through to Frankfurt). The Rhine is also linked to other great European rivers –including the Seine, Elbe, Rhone, and Saone — via a network of canals like the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal, which starts east of Frankfurt and links the Rhine with the Danube.
The Rhine’s very importance means that not all of its scenery is pretty; much of it is, but you’ll also have to allow for the odd glimpse of a factory or power station, particularly around more industrialised places like Basel. Just don’t go expecting Disneyland, and you’ll have a ball.
Adapted from cruisecritic.com