At 1,320 km (820 miles), the Rhine River (German Rhein, French Rhin, Dutch Rijn) is one of the longest rivers in Europe. Its name is derived from the Celtic word "renos" (meaning "raging flow"). Together with the Danube it formed most of the northern frontier of the Roman Empire and since those days has been a vital navigable waterway, carrying trade and goods deep inland.
The Rhine's origins are in the Swiss Alps in the canton of Graubünden, where its two main initial tributaries are called Vorderrhein and Hinterrhein. The Vorderrhein (anterior Rhine) springs from Lake Tuma near the Oberalp pass and passes the impressive Ruinaulta (the Swiss Grand Canyon). The Hinterrhein (posterior Rhine) starts from the Paradies glacier near the Rheinquellhorn at the southern border of Switzerland. Both tributaries meet near Reichenau, still in Graubünden.
When leaving Graubünden, the Rhine flows north to form the frontier with Liechtenstein and then Austria, and then empties into Lake Constance. The Rhine then re-emerges, flows west, mainly on the border between Switzerland and Germany, falls over the Rhine Falls, is joined by the Aar river which more than doubles its water volume, and then turns north at Basel and forms the southern part of the border between Germany and France in a wide valley, before entering Germany exclusively.
At over 1000 km, the Rhine is the longest river primarily within Germany. It is here that the Rhine encounters some of its main tributaries, such as the Neckar, the Main and the Moselle.
Between Bingen and Bonn, the Rhine flows through the Rhine Gorge , a formation created by erosion, which happened at about the same rate as an uplift in the region, leaving the river at about its original level, and the surrounding lands raised. This gorge is quite deep, and is the stretch of the river known for its many castles and vineyards.
Though many industries can be found along the Rhine up into Switzerland, it is in the Ruhr area that the bulk of them are concentrated, with all of its streams — chief among them the Ruhr itself — draining into the Rhine, causing decreasing though still considerable pollution.
The Rhine then turns west into the Netherlands, where together with the Meuse it forms an extensive delta. Crossing the border into the Netherlands, the Rhine is at its widest, but the river then splits into three main distributaries: the IJssel, the Waal and the Nederrijn (Nether Rhine). From here the situation becomes more complicated, as the name "Rhine" no longer coincides with the main flow of water. Most of the Rhine water flows further west through the Waal and then via the Nieuwe Waterweg and, merging with the Meuse, through the Hollands Diep and Haringvliet estuaries into the North Sea. The IJssel branch carries its portion of the water north into the IJsselmeer while the Nederrijn flows west parallel to the Waal.
However, beyond Wijk bij Duurstede this waterway changes its name and becomes the Lek. It flows further west to rejoin the main flow into the Nieuwe Waterweg. The name "Rhine" from here on is used only for smaller streams further to the north which together once formed the main river Rhine in Roman times. Though they retained the name, these streams do not carry water from the Rhine anymore, but are used for draining the surrounding land and polders. From Wijk bij Duurstede, the old north branch of the Rhine is called Kromme Rijn ("Crooked Rhine") and past Utrecht, first Leidse Rijn ("Leiden Rhine") and then Oude Rijn ("Old Rhine"). The latter flows west past Leiden into a sluice, where its waters can be discharged into the North Sea.
Railroad bridges (with nearest train station on the left and right bank):
- Austria and Switzerland:
- between Lustenau and St. Margerethen
- Tens of bridges in Graubünden, too numerous to list
- between Köln Hbf and Köln Deutz/Messe (Hohenzollernbrücke )
Tributaries from source to mouth:
Historic and Military Relevance
The Rhine is closely linked to many important historical events — particularly military ones — in the adjacent states. For example:
- It was a historic object of frontier trouble between France and Germany. For example in 1840 the Rhine crisis evolved, because the French prime minister Thiers started to talk about the Rhine border. The nationalistic song The Watch on the Rhine was composed at that time and during the Franco-Prussian War it rose to the status of an national anthem in Germany. The song calls for defending the Rhine against France. The song remained popular in World War I.
- At the end of WWI the Rhineland was subject to the Treaty of Versailles, which created lots of bitterness in Germany, and was one of the many reasons for World War II. The reoccupation of the Rhineland by Nazi Germany increased Hitler's popularity in Germany.
- The Rhine bridge of Remagen became famous in World War II when the Germans failed to demolish the bridge in time and the allied troops were able to establish a bridgehead - much to their own surprise.
Mainz Cathedral - Over 1,000-year-old cathedral is seat to the Bishop of Mainz. Holds significant historic value as seat to the once politically powerful secular prince-archbishop within the Holy Roman Empire. Houses historical funerary monuments and religious artifacts.
Das Rheingold - The Rhine is one of the settings for the first opera of Richard Wagner's Ring cycle. The action of the epic opens and ends underneath the Rhine, where three Rhinemaidens swim and protect a hoard of gold.