Is this Europe's greatest river? An ode to the Rhine, an intriguing patchwork of identities

In the summer of 1814, 17-year-old Mary Godwin went on holiday with her lover, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. The couple travelled by boat along the Rhine from Switzerland towards the Netherlands, and although the weather was unusually bleak, the scenery was glorious.

In Gernsheim, a pretty town south of Koblenz, they enjoyed a walk along the Rhine’s banks towards a distant castle. Talking to a local, Mary learned the legend associated with the building: an alchemist called Johann Conrad Dippel was born there in the 1670s and became notorious for allegedly digging up bodies from local cemeteries and injecting their blood into other corpses, hoping to bring them back to life.

The technique didn’t work, of course, but Mary enjoyed the story and it – together with the dramatic local scenery – inspired a tall tale of her own. A few years later, married to Percy and now called Mary Shelley, she published Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.

Mary Shelley wasn’t the first visitor to be inspired by the Rhine and wouldn’t be the last. Wagner, Rembrandt, Beethoven, Heine, Byron, Thackeray and even Le Carré all produced great works inspired by its brooding banks. Today, it’s still easy to see what stirred them. Winding its way some 760 miles (1,200km) from the Alps to the North Sea, the Rhine remains one of the world’s greatest rivers.

As I cycled, swam, walked and boated my way along the river last year, I found it littered with cavernous cathedrals and busy cities, lush vineyards and thunderous waterfalls, glittering skyscrapers and Gladiator-style coliseums. There are surely few places in Europe more scenic than the canyons around Koblenz, where the forests are emerald-green and a castle slumbers on nearly every hill.

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Under the Romans, the river served as the edge of empire; more recently, France and Germany have fought over it

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Historically, the Rhine wasn’t always so peaceful. Under the Romans, the river served as the edge of empire; more recently, France and Germany have fought over it like squabbling siblings. In the Forties, the battles for Arnhem’s bridges killed thousands, and in the Eighties the hills were riddled with Cold War bunkers. Today, the Rhine is at peace but still forms the border between France and Germany, Germany and Switzerland, Switzerland and Liechtenstein, and Austria and Switzerland. One can cross a few bridges and visit three countries in half an hour.

Viewed longitudinally, however, the Rhine has also been a powerful uniting force. The port near the river mouth at Rotterdam is by far the largest in Europe, and river trade has tied small towns together. As a result, people who live along the river often share a similar outlook. Rhinelanders are open and laid-back but also rather conservative; with a love of hard work and straight talk.

In other ways, though, the region remains an intriguing patchwork of identities, with clear differences between the German Rhineland, the French Alsace and the Swiss lowlands. Even in the heart of the EU, local rivalries can be fierce. The Dutch, for example, maintain a conflicted attitude towards their German neighbours, whom they respect for their economic prowess but tease for their dour reputation.

For visitors, it’s partly these divergences that make the area such a great place to explore. In a single day, one might spend a morning touring one of the world’s best galleries, lunch at a raucous German carnival, an afternoon climbing through forests, and an evening eating fondue on a snow-capped mountain. The Rhine is still, as Victor Hugo said, “spangled with gold… and abounding with phantoms and fables”.

The Rhine: Following Europe’s greatest river from Amsterdam to the Alps by Ben Coates is published by Hodder & Stoughton (RRP £12.99). To order your copy for £10.99 plus p&p, call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk

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