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November 23, 1996


Gently Down the Rhine

Zelda Pande

Call up an image, if you would.

As the boat pushes ahead, the river laps around you, greeny-blue and placid. Swishing past every half minute are barges sagging with a variety of cargo. Some waving the Swiss flag and others unfurling the red, white and blue stripes of France. Sailing gaily by are boatloads of tourists too, festooned in cameras and binoculars.

Every half an hour the hydrofoil whooshes up to dock at a quaint medieval town, perched on a hill top. With a toot it pulls out again and moves upstream, passing an ancient bastioned schloss and bountiful vineyards that curve vertically downward to the water's edge.

We are cruising on Der Rhine, the river Lord Byron spoke of in awed tones as the place "blending of all beauties". The legendary Rhine, consecrated in the literature of its lands - in the German epic - Nibelungenlied and often been the focus of rhetorical tempests of nationalism.

It is this watery artery that has bound together European peoples for centuries and ironically cast asunder communities, by acting as a cultural and political boundary.

Taking a cruise down the Rhine from Koln to Koblenz or Mainz has become almost a cliché for travelling in Europe. How can one travel through Germany without sailing down the Rhine? Where you invariably bump into a stampede of tourists, jabbering in a multitude of tongues and poking their elbows into your ribs as they click pictures a dozen by the minute, vulgarly sniffing out souvenirs. So what would be a better option? Skip a Rhine cruise? Nope.

Sorry pal. You'll have to brave the tourist ambushes because a Rhine cruise is a must on a list of top Europe sights. Floating down one of Europe's most famous rivers is quite incomparable to any other experience.

Unlike chugging on the Danube, say between Vienna and Budapest, the banks of the Rhine are crammed with interesting sights - be it a haughty castle or a quaint hamlet. The countryside is very picturesque and there are no boring barren stretches of land because every inch has been furrowed by vineyards. Vineyards that produce the Rhine wines - the famous light, still and dry wines like the Rheingau and the Pfalz.

There are a few ways to do a Rhine trip. (Click on the map on the left to get a detailed route map) It can be accomplished through a five hour ride from Koln to Koblenz by hydrofoil. Or an all day ride on a steamer. Though the river is easily navigable from Basel to Rotterdam, for most a Rhine cruise must merely include the 80 kilometre stretch of the Rhine Gorge from Mainz to Bonn.

The hydrofoil ride though expensive is the fastest, yet most adequate. If you prefer sightseeing in a precise, business like fashion then this is your best option . However, if there is unlimited time at one's disposal and some extra funds, then wining and dining and gently floating down the waterway on a steamer for eight hours is a fine way to spend the day.

And then you must decide the starting and alighting point, and whether you would like to travel north down the river or south up the river. At the quayside at Koln or Koblenz - the starting points of the standard cruise, there are several choices of boat lines. We recommend the KD Line or the Koln-Dusseldorfer Line, most efficient although at times not the most hospitable.

I took the 9 am hydrofoil from Koln on a chilly day in May. The boat was a tiny affair with about 20 window seats. The ideal vantage point was the first seat, giving a front windscreen view or alternatively a seat outside on the back deck, in the open nippy air. Warm clothes recommended. Also a must is a pair of binoculars.

The boat sat in the harbour under the shadow of the magnificent Koln cathedral, on the left bank of the river and gradually filled up with tourists, mainly Japanese. Some snored most of the way to Mainz.

At this point, the river 1500 feet wide. Koln, once an elite university town dates back to 48 AD. The town gained fame and fortune for the eau de Cologne, which was first industrially produced over here in the 18th century. Koln's vast Gothic cathedral, referred as the Dom is extremely impressive (Click on the first picture in the article to get a better view of the Dom). Daunting in size and the beauty of its design. It takes nearly 20 minutes to walk around this enchanting, twin-towered cathedral. Completed in 873 AD, it has survived 262 air raids suffered by Koln during World War II.

I had a chance to look at the cathedral before sitting in the boat. I would advise all headed for a Rhine cruise to begin their trip with a small tour of this cathedral. It stands 515 feet high and contains many valuable pieces of art and historical artefacts worth a peek. The Dom's stained glass windows, installed in the 14th century are perhaps the most beautiful church windows in the world.

The boat started with a roar, billowing foam in its wake as it took off on a journey down the Rhine. We zoomed under Koln's huge but classically beautiful Hohenzollern Bridge, that rumbled and rattled almost melodiously with the noise of trains pulling into the Koln Bahnhof every few minutes.

Koln was soon left behind. The huge cathedral with its memorable Gothic arches and dark facade gradually diminished to a speck in the distance. On the first leg of the cruise from Koln to Bonn, the land was flat and surrounding land is a rich lignite belt. The scenery was rather tame and consisted of various commercial outposts that probably contribute to making this the most busiest section of the river. It is said portions of the Rhine, north of Koln where the Ruhr River enters the river has the highest concentration of industrial activity in the world. Rhine sees the busiest traffic from the north of Ruhr to the Netherlands, where the majority of boats belong to the Dutch and the Germans. The Swiss, French and the Belgians operate very few boats by comparison.