By Miranda Metheny
When I first arrived in Aachen, Germany, something about the map disoriented me. It took me a few minutes of trying to get my bearings before I realized what was missing — I was a month into my third visit to Germany, and for the first time, I was off the river Rhine.
The Rhine and I have become old friends by now. I’ve met it, cold and clear and young, in Switzerland, followed it through the French city of Strassbourg and the green valleys and castles of Rheinland-Pfalz, passed the industrial ports of Cologne and Düsseldorf, and even to its last miles, as it flows through charming Dutch Utrecht on its way to the sea. And, of course, it’s a daily part of my life in Bonn, shaping its past and present and glittering outside the windows of the library.
The Rhine is part of a very deep and ancient history. Most European languages are thought to originate in the lands along its banks, and the name Rhine itself comes from the same ancient root word, *Reinos, *rei- “to flow, to run”, as river and run… making it in a sense The River, to which we unknowingly compare all others. The Rhine long served as a border to the Roman Empire, separating civilization in the south from the barbarians of the north. The Middle Ages brought the construction of literally dozens of castles and cathedrals, most of Wagner’s Nibelung Opera takes place along its banks and the narrowest turn of the river, the Loreley, was long since immortalized in legend and song as a beautiful maiden luring sailors to their deaths on her rocks.
When my dad came to visit me, we spent an evening on the banks of the river for the Rhine in Flames firework festival. “What I love about this river,” I told him, “Is that it’s pretty and historic and filled with mystery and legend… but simultaneously, it’s very real, very much a part of today’s German economy. It’s not just for the tourists.”
“No,” my dad agreed. “It’s a workhorse.”
At 766 miles (1,233 km) the Rhine the longest river emptying into the North Sea, and broad and highly navigable for most of its route. Alongside tourist cruises, ferries and private watercraft, it allows a constant stream of barges to transport machinery, automobiles and countless shipping containers from Switzerland all the way to the ocean. It serves Duisburg, the world’s largest inland port, as well as Rotterdam, the largest sea-port in Europe.
It’s the backbone and life-force of western Germany, and a mirror for it as well. Ancient, Legendary, Powerful, Efficient, Treacherous, Beautiful, Industrial, Proud, Strong… call it what you will, the river is different at every twist in its path, but remains, and flows on.