Cycling the Rhine Valley: from the source in the Swiss Alps to the mouth in Holland. A Photo Essay.

In June 2022 I cycled from the source of the River Rhine in the Swiss Alps to the mouth at the Hook of Holland, 1378 km over 18 days. From the narrow, high energy, rushing white water alpine source to the steady, slow and powerful current meandering in lowlands, the river and this route has many stories to tell. The Rhine effortlessly combines multiple roles: as source of leisure with people swimming, cruising, floating and lazing around, as a more gritty industrial transport system, as a hydro-electro power source and as a place of nature conservation. It effortlessly criss-crosses national borders around Switzerland, Austria, Germany and Lichenstein, sometimes in the same day, wonders into France and then lazily oozes into Holland and the North Sea. I mostly followed the Euro Velo 15 route.

Determined to avoid flying if possible (which anyway has its own set of obstacles with a bike), it took six trains and a ferry (Dover UK to Calais, France) over two days to get from Totnes, Devon, UK to Oberalppass, the source of the river in Switzerland. Booking and completing these journeys took some determination with the upside being beautiful train rides this region of Western Europe. Some UK train companies are probably the worst for cyclists (hang your heads in shame GWR trains); a positive exception in the UK being South Eastern Trains from London to Dover with their walk on spacious cycle space coaches. French trains were hit and miss, plenty walk on cycle room on TER’s (local regional trains) it seems, more complex on some other booked services, but at least possible. Swiss trains – amazing for cycles! Of you course like everything there you pay for it in Switzerland, but it was almost worth it.

GWR with their cramped spaces only suitable for small light road bikes. Overbooked for this journey so no space in the first place. The frontline staff are accommodating and good natured in their dealing with the failures of higher management.
Getting roomier in Continental Europe.
The final train to Oberalppas in Switzerland.

On arrival in Oberalppas, it was a freewheeling downhill for at least the first 20 kilometres through stunning alpine scenery and tiny villages relatively untouched by the modern world. Most of Switzerland speaks German, French or Swiss, but there is a small ethnic group in this region called the Romansh , who have their own nationally recognised language, seemingly a form of proto Italian from the Roman Empire period. There are distinct small pockets where everyone seems to have black hair.

Oberalppas , the source of the Rhine (though there appear to be multiple contributing sources up here).
One of the many potential contributing sources .
The hills are alive…🎶.
Traditional Swiss scenes aplenty in this region.
Graubunden area where some of the tiny ethnic minority of the Romansh live.
Switzerland is famous for being orderly, even all the log piles seemed to be cut the same.

Switzerlands beauty and order costs, about one third more than the rest of Europe, so camping and supermarkets for food it was. In general over the trip two of us split accommodation between camping around 50% of the time and hostels, AirBNB and what ever popped up on Google maps and for the rest.

Beautiful to wake up in the tent and the sounds of nature. A bit more work when you arrive and leave, but worth it when you have the weather and the time.
The still infant Rhine.

Into lowland Switzerland the temperature hit 40 degrees C, so we had to stop, set up camp and join the locals floating in the river until it cooled a little.

Super light chairs were worth the little extra weight.
How many can you get on a paddle board?

As the weather cooled a little we moved further into the Swiss lowlands. Weaving through national borders (no passport checks), on past Lake Konstanz where all accommodation was packed due the Catholic Corpus Christi holiday; luckily someone kindly let us share their pitch on a campsite beyond the lake as it got late that day and literally everything was full.

Stein am Rhein, half the town is in Switzerland and half in Germany due to an old border dispute and unresolved war treaty.
Beautiful medieval wooden footbridge that links Bad Sackingen in Germany with Stein in Switzerland as an unmanned border.
Any UK readers wonder where Woolies went ? It’s alive and kicking in Bad Sackingen, southern Germany (but no pick and mix).
Old salt mine shafts in this region, with stork nests on top.

On towards France and the now burgeoning Rhine splits the city of Basel in Switzerland in two. Based in Switzerland, Basel also has suburbs in both Germany and France in keeping with the multi-national and linguistic character of the region.

824 km to go !
Entering Basel.
Swimmers and industrial transport happily sharing the water in Basel.
Basel Cathedral.

Into France and Alsace-Lorraine, which despite being one of the most strategically important fought over areas of Europe historically, now has a sleepy agricultural backwater charm (a three person queue in an Aldi supermarket checkout took 15 minutes due to general chatting and unhurriedness). The Marginot line (military defences built by the French in the 1930’s to deter German invasions) is here, hopefully not needed any more. There is commemorative detritus from 20th Century world wars scattered around and a memorial for the battle of Pont Beuc where tragically 1500 French colonial soldiers were lost near the end of WW2. In keeping with the history of the territory passing to and fro between France and Germany many towns retain Germanic sounding names such as Munchhausen, Durselheim and many other names ending in ‘heim’.

Eventually the endless corn fields petered out and we wheeled into cosmopolitan Strasbourg, the seat of the European Parliament. We stayed in a French Budget hotel called Premier Classe (someone has a sense of humour, it was fenced in and locked up up like a fortress) in a part of Strasbourg with many immigrant communities, a noticeable contrast to the European parliament side of the city. A slightly edgy feeling environment after Switzerland and rural Alsace but nonetheless a relief for me to get some great affordable Asian food after the general fare of supermarket bread , cheese , pre packed salads and tinned fish topped with nectarines.

A section of the Rhine canal. For engineering geeks much of the Rhine is punctuated by a series of impressively designed bridges, hydro electric projects and diverted canals with water used for agricultural or other needs.
The many species of freshwater fish in the Rhine appear to have been considered in the engineering works which make sure they can move around between regions.
Otters in the Rhine canal, Alsace.
Timeless scene along one of the many confluents of the Rhine.
Second World War tank.
Good to get out of the tent into a ‘pod’ for a night in Alsace.
Strasbourg’s Roman/Gothic cathedral.

The Rhine expands swells and dilates into the western regions of Germany, part of Europe’s industrial heartland. Grittier cities such as Mannheim (the home of Mercedes Benz and great street food) and Speyer (very hot and sleepy as we passed) co-exist with very old European Christian centres such as Worms. Quieter rural areas in between are home to many storks.

Industrial transport.
The Technickmuseum in Speyer.
BASF company bicycle parking in industrial region of Ludwigshafen (Mannheim).
A statue of Protestant reformer Martin Luther in the town of Worms, which has a claim to being the oldest town in Germany.
Stork territory.

Peddling slowly north along the middle Rhines the industrial region gives way to the visually striking wine growing region in and around the Lorelie Gorge with castles and vineyards adorning the steep hillsides. On the other side of the gorge warm weather greeted us through Koblenz (appealing), Bonn (a university town) and on to the bigger city of Cologne.

Historically a region of small kingdoms and fortifications.
The middle Rhine region.
Middle Rhine region.
The region also attracts cruise boats the size of small villages.
Cologne Cathedral, the largest gothic church in northern Europe.

From Cologne the land spreads out as we headed towards Holland and is often somewhat non-descript, but pleasant enough to cycle through, apart from Duisburg which seemed like a special kind of cyclists hell to get through with an unusually poor infrastructure for this part of the world.

Wunderland, a former nuclear power plant converted to a children’s theme park in Kalkar, Germany.
Xanten in Westphalia, northern Germany , an old Roman fortress town and still very much shaped that way.

Entering rural Dutch flatlands punctuated by windmills, waterways and dykes the cycling infrasture in the Netherlands is the joy you would expect. Apart from its cycling culture, Holland is the country that knows the most about water management with land reclamation evident everywhere. The Dutch are called in for many water related geographical challenges worldwide and increasingly countries may need their expertise if sea levels significantly rise. With a fair wind (or no wind) it’s possible to cycle across this densely packed country in a day according to local serious road cyclists I spoke to (though we took two).

One of the few appreciable hills in Holland, near Arnhem, much of which is surrounded by some beautiful forest.
Drive through windmill at Wijk bij Duurstede, a particularly sprawling aquatic region.
Dutch scenes in the Arnhem region.
Kinderdijk, a World UNESCO Heritage site, below sea level with the greatest density of windmills in Holland.
Entering Rotterdam over the tall almost vertigo inducing Erasmusbrug bridge which connects the north and south of the city.
Beyond Rotterdam, the final stretches of the Rhine with rain clouds fast approaching.
Cycling to the mouth of the Rhine, trying to race the clouds against a strong headwind of the strength that can slow you down by half.

Luckily we just beat the rain to sit in a cafe in Hook Van holland in the warm glow of our completed journey and await our night ferry back to Harwich UK.

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