Review of “The Rhine: Following Europe’s Greatest River from Amsterdam to the Alps” (A History) by Ben Coates

This delightful and entertaining book, part history and part travelogue, was written by a British transplant to the Netherlands who decided to follow the Rhine River along its 800 [ish] mile-route from its mouth on the North Sea coast at Hoeck van Holland to its source in the Alps. Along the way, Coates imparts interesting bits of history and local anecdotes, and shares his “contributions to the economies of cities along the route” by eating and savoring local delicacies. I laughed out loud throughout his guide to the Rhineland region.

As Coates points out, some 50 million people live in the Rhine watershed. It has served as a key artery of Europe’s trade system since the time of the Roman Empire.

The Rhine and the Danube formed most of the northern inland frontier of the Roman Empire. Coates tells us that the Limes Germanicus (Latin for Germanic frontier) was a line of frontier (limes) fortifications that bounded the ancient Roman provinces of Germania Inferior, Germania Superior and Raetia, dividing the Roman Empire and the unsubdued Germanic tribes from the years 83 to about 260 AD. At its zenith, the limes stretched from the North Sea outlet of the Rhine to near Regensburg (Castra Regina) on the Danube.

Roman forts along the limes

Much of Coates’ insights on Roman times comes from his use of Tacitus (c. 56 – c. 120 AD), the great Roman historian, as a source. The Germania, written around 98 AD was a historical and ethnographic work on the Germanic tribes outside the Roman Empire.

[To digress, I love the descriptions of the role of women in Tacitus’s Germania. Tacitus writes that they often accompany the men to battle and offer encouragement. He says that the men are highly motivated to fight for the women because of an extreme fear of losing them to captivity. Further, he observed (favorably) that the Germans are mainly content with one wife, except for a few political marriages. He also noted that adultery was very rare, and that an adulterous woman is shunned afterward by the community “regardless of her beauty.” You can read an English translation online, here.]

In more recent times, the Rhine became a symbol of German nationalism. The Rhine was adopted as the symbol of German purity, strength, and unity. In this way it inspired some of history’s most famous writers, poets, artists, diplomats and statesmen. In particular, Coates observes, “the movement known as Romanticism took the Rhine as one of its major recurring themes.”

Students of history may be familiar with “The Watch on the Rhine,” a German patriotic anthem which was one of the most popular songs in Germany from World War I through 1945. The song’s title was even used as the codename for the German offensive in 1944 known today as the Battle of the Bulge.

Thus does Coates expound on one of his themes, which is exposing how the Rhine had shaped – and continued to shape – the countries it flowed through, and the people who lived there.

Rhine Romanticism: Kaub and Gutenfels Castle (1824) by William Turner

To that end, he not only shares history, but scores of fascinating anecdotal stories related to the Rhine, from the development of Baedeker’s guide books for rich young travelers making “Grand Tours” down the Rhine, to the fact that Dutch women along the river were employed at one time by herring companies to lick the eyeballs of “any colleagues who were unfortunate enough to get fish scales lodged there.”

Some of the other things I learned about in this book include:

  • When Bonn served as the capital of Germany (1949 – 1990), the defense ministry built on the banks of the Rhine became known as the “Pentabonn.”
  • John le Carré worked and wrote in Bonn for a while. His description of of the city “helped establish many of the tropes of the modern espionage thriller: gloomy bridges and thick river mists, lamp-lit cobbled streets and morally dubious heroes.”
  • The national anthem of France, “La Marseillaise,” was written in 1792 by Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle in Strasbourg after the declaration of war by France against Austria, and was originally titled “Chant de guerre pour l’Armée du Rhin” (“War Song for the Rhine Army”).
  • In the early 1800s, there was a shortage of horses (for reasons ranging from the Napoleanic wars, to lack of food because of disruption of global weather after the explosion of the Indonesian volcano Tambora). People still wanted to get around, however, and it was an inventor from Mannheim along the Rhine who, in the summer of 1817, came up with a new invention to replace the horse: a bicycle. Later in the same area, Karl Benz (with significant but rarely acknowledged assistance from his wife Bertha) came up with the world’s first car.
  • Rhinestones actually began from the use of sparkly stones near the Rhine in Alsace. While the riverside rock collection business died out, the production of fake crystals soared worldwide, and became “beloved of low-key dressers like Elvis and Dolly Parton.” Coates writes: “The Rhine link was lost, but the original name of the shiny river stones stuck: rhinestones.”

Airships were another Rhine invention. Count Zeppelin was born in Konstanz along the Rhine and spent a great deal of time “tinkering with flying technology on, next to and over the waters” of Lake Constance (a lake on the Rhine at the northern foot of the Alps). Of most interest, however, was the fact that each dirigible made by Zeppelin was constructed with the intestines of 250,000 cows. In fact, the U.K. Independent reports:

“Cow intestines used to make sausage skins were such a vital component in the construction of Zeppelin airships that the Kaiser’s military chiefs were prepared to sacrifice bratwurst and other types of sausage in the pursuit of victory.

Rather than permitting the intestines to be eaten, they were used to create special bags to hold the hydrogen gas used to keep Zeppelins aloft.”

Well, who knew?

And in fact, while reading, voicing that expression was my most common reaction besides laughing.

It is also worth noting that although the book is literally studded with metaphors, they are almost all well-done – both entertaining and evocative:

“The riverbanks were so thickly forested that they looked as if they could have been knitted from bright green wool.”

“. . . . a cluster of thick chimneys smoked like cigars thrust upright on the riverbank.”

“. . . walls of shipping containers tacked like cereal boxes in the supermarket.”

“High-rise towers stretched away from the water like a bar graph.”

“At sunset, the old quarter [in Strasbourg] was . . . spectacularly lit, the ancient townhouses reflected I the rivers like dolls’ houses on a mirror.”

And then there are his descriptions, also entertaining and evocative:

Gentrification in Rotterdam: “areas where it had once been impossible to buy a croissant were now seething with kale and quinoa.”

Rhine cruise ships are “essentially mobile retirement homes.”

Evaluation: The Rhine is a quirky book that could hardly be classified as serious history, although it contains a lot of factual information on an important topic, i.e., the culture of Germany. Perhaps “travelogue with historical and sociological background” might be a more apt description. The writing is sprightly and entertaining, and the book presents an often delightful and decidedly unique guide to the region.

Heartily recommended both for those planning to travel abroad, and those who just enjoy learning about food and customs around the world. (Most humorously, the author frequently reports buying gifts of food for his wife and friends, and then eating them practically before he leaves the stores, as he “rolls on” to the next place.)

Rating: 4/5

Published in the U.K. by Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2018

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