The Rhine River has been an inspiration to writers, poets, artists, statemen for a millennium. As Victor Hugo wrote ‘’the Rhine is unique; it combines the qualities of every river… mysterious, like the Nile, spangled with gold, like an American river, and like a river of Asia, abounding with phantoms and fables’’. This mighty River has also served as an inspiration to author Ben Coates, who wrote a book "The Rhine: Following Europe’s greatest river from Amsterdam to the Alps", in which he chronicles his (cycling) trip from the Netherlands to Switzerland, intertwined with an overview of Rhine’s rich history and lore, and many amazing sites, cities and localities.
Since the time of the Romans, Rhine has served as limes – a boarder separating tribes, empires, nations and people. Throughout its turbulent history, it was a battleground, but it also acted as a major facilitator in trade, economic development and arts. EuroVelo 15 – Rhine Cycle Route follows this river, and continues to connect people from different regions and countries though cycling tourism even to this day.
Ben Coates (BC) has worked as a political adviser, corporate speechwriter, lobbyist and aid worker in Britain, the Netherlands and in Africa. The following is our interview about his travels along the Rhine.
ECF: Mr. Coates, what has particularly motivated you to go on a trip along the Rhine? What lead you to write this book?
BC: I lived near one of the mouths of the Rhine in Rotterdam for years, and like many people never gave the river much thought: it was just something which was always there, in the background, and pretty easy to ignore. Then one winter things got very cold and a lot of the smaller tributaries froze, and I spent days skating for miles across the Dutch countryside. That was an eye-opener for me: suddenly I realised these waterways I’d been ignoring were part of a huge network which stretched right across Europe, and that you could follow one right from my doorstep near the North Sea to its source high in the Swiss Alps, six countries away. So that’s exactly what I set out to do: following the Rhine from mouth to source, by bike, foot and boat.
ECF: The Rhine is one of Europe's most important rivers. Who is the Rhine for? What type of travelers?
BC: What’s great about it is there’s something for everyone. If you’re someone who wants to go slow then there’s dozens of beautiful small towns in Germany and Switzerland which you can cruise between by boat, making short day trips, drinking wine and visiting castles and museums. If you’re more active, you can make epic bike rides across Germany or The Netherlands or France, or climb through stunning Alpine scenery in Liechtenstein, Austria and Switzerland. Or if it’s cities you’re after, places like Rotterdam and Düsseldorf are buzzing with energy and nightlife. From beaches to cities, museums and nightclubs, there’s really something for everything.
ECF: One of 17 European long distance cycle routes is EuroVelo 15 - Rhine Cycle Route. Every year a large number of travelers decide to get on their bikes to explore the magnificent Rhine. What do you think would be special about discovering the Rhine by bike?
BC: What makes the Rhine lovely for cycling is that its banks are obviously very flat, so you can cover lots of ground by bike very easily. But the scenery it passes through can be quite dramatic, with steep-sided canyons, thick forests, big features like the Lorelei Rock and eventually the Alps. So although your bike ride will probably be pretty flat, the scenery you pass through will be anything but.
ECF: At one point in the book, you mention Karl Drais from Mannheim, who in 1815 invented a Laufmachine (running machine), a precursor to a modern bicycle. At first, people doubted this invention, but his predictions on bicycle use were proven right. What is your impression on the popularity of cycling today in the Rhine region?
BC: I think it’s increasing fast, as it is many places in Europe. The combination of the pandemic plus the climate crisis has shown a lot of people that there are better ways to travel than flying or driving, and bike use has really exploded in some cities. And tourists, too, are realising it's much nicer to see a city or a beauty spot from two wheels than it is through the window of a tour bus.
ECF: You’ve experienced several natural and historical sites and locations on the Rhine. For example, Biesbosch in Netherlands, cities Düsseldorf, Cologne and Koblenz in Germany, Strasbourg in France, Swiss Alps, Lake Constance and Lake Toma in Switzerland. Any memories worth sharing about these places? Any other special place to mention?
BC: The Rhine passes through too many special places to mention. But one I’ll always remember is the source at Lake Toma in Switzerland. After following the river all the way across Europe I suddenly saw it reduce to a small stream, and followed it up a steep, rocky hillside strewn with patches of snow. And after some hard hiking suddenly there it was: the source of the Rhine, a crystal-clear little lake nestled between the mountains. It was hard to believe this was where it all started, and that all the wars fought, fortunes made and art created over the course of the river stemmed from here. At the other end of the spectrum, I also really enjoyed visiting the industrial areas in the North of Germany, around Düsseldorf and Essen. These don’t always have a great reputation and are pretty ugly compared to the waterfalls and mountaintops you see elsewhere, but a lot of deprived former harbor towns are now bouncing back with cool bars, hotels and restaurants where there used to be docks and factories. If you’re looking for a cold beer after a hard day’s travelling, they’re a fun place to be.
ECF: Do you have any (insider) advice, tips and tricks for enthusiastic cyclists willing to traverse the Rhine Cycle Route?
BC: Travel light; you can buy or borrow anything you need on the way. Allow plenty of time, so you can actually enjoy the places you’re passing through, rather than just whizzing off to your next checkpoint. And think carefully about where you want to prioritise. You might not have time to travel the whole river and the different sections can be very varied. So think hard about what kinds of things you most want to see. The green countryside and pretty small towns of The Netherlands? The powerful history of Northern Germany? The thick forests, taverns, museums and opera of southern Germany? The culture and cuisine of Alsace? The vaguely Mediterranean Lake Constance? Or the majesty, scenery and fondue of the Alps?
ECF: What can a cyclist on a ride along this river find especially interesting in "The Rhine: Following Europe's greatest river from Amsterdam to the Alps?"
BC: I wrote the book because I wanted to share what I’d learned about the Rhine’s amazing history - how it was the frontier of the Roman Empire, how it was the epicenter of a world war, how it inspired artists, poets and musicians, how it made countries like Germany, Switzerland and The Netherlands unbelievably rich - but I also wanted to do that via a story which was entertaining and exciting and would make you laugh out loud every few pages. I hope that’s what I achieved.
EuroVelo 15 - Rhine Cycle Route is a certified EuroVelo route which crosses four countries and is suitable for cyclists of all ages and abilities.
ECF is running a Summer Photo Contest until 26 August for both Rhine Cycle Route and EuroVelo 19 - Meuse Cycle Route. This is an opportunity for you to demonstrate your photography skills and a chance to win a cycling tour on the Meuse Cycle Route.