Chasing waterfalls

Day Three of the Four Points Walk, Saturday 4 July 2015

Bernard Levin, widely regarded as one of the greatest journalists of his generation , in his book/Channel 4 series To the end of the Rhine, calls the Rhine “Europe’s noblest river”.

The Rhine is not Europe’s longest river.

That title belongs to the Volga.

If we exclude anything east of Poland as “not really” Europe, the Danube still beats the Rhine in length.

Father Rhine’s length is 1,230 km / 764 miles, with an average discharge of about 2,900 cubic metres per second (100,000 cubic feet per second).

It is not Europe’s most beautiful river, though to be fair comparing beauties dismisses individuality and the Rhine need not feel ashamed.

The Rhine has seen more blood spilled in warfare than any other river except the Somme.

For a time, the Rhine was the most polluted stream of water in Europe.

Salmon have been sighted in places where for years a fisherman could previously catch nothing but typhoid fever.

The Rhine is a great freightway with giant barges going past in both directions underneath 120 bridges, but, unlike the Seine, most of its bridges, like barges, do not spark romantic feelings.

Victor Hugo (The Hunchback of Notre Dame / Les Miserables)was so greatly inspired by the Rhine that he gave it all the qualities of all other rivers put together:

“The Rhine is as swift as the Rhone, broad as the Loire, embanked like the Meuse, serpentine as the Seine, limpid and green as the Somme, as historic as the Tiber, royal like the Danube, mysterious as the Nile, sprinkled with gold like a river of America, crammed with fables and phantoms like a river of Asia.

The Rhine is the river of which everyone speaks and no one studies, which everyone visits and no one knows, which is seen in passing and forgotten in hurrying.

The Rhine: its ruins engage the loftiest imagination, its destiny the most thoughtful intelligence.

This admirable river catches the eye of the poet as well as the publicist, the past and the future of Europe.”

(I too am fascinated by the Rhine River.

I began a walking project, which I intend to return to, God willing, two years ago, and, to date, I have walked from Chur, the cantonal capital of Graubunden to the Rhine’s two sources, Toma Lake and Paradise Glacier.

I have walked from Konstanz to Friedrichshafen, allowing me the privilege to see the Rhine flow into and out of the Lake of Constance.

I have walked from Konstanz to Schaffhausen along part of the section of river called the High Rhine.

As these adventures pre-date this blog, for now these tales will remain bound to my personal journal and will be told another time.)

As followers of my blog may recall, July has been HOT in this part of the planet (See S(ch)witzerland: Land of Sweat).

American Independence Day in Switzerland was no exception to the infernal conditions described in the aforementioned post.

After visiting the IWC Museum and the Moser Monument/Dam site (See Probus Scafusia: Timeless river, timely man), I continued to walk along the Rhine.

Foolhardy (brave?) lads lined up impatiently behind one another and jumped off the Züricherstrasse bridge, oblivious and carefree about the height of the bridge or the depth of the Rhine below or the traffic behind them.

I could not watch them, for it reminded me of the tragedy of an ex-roommate of mine from college who, as a result of a high dive from a university diving board, is now paralysed from his neck down for the rest of his days.

I think of him everytime I see people diving off any height.

I knew that marching up to them to caution them would have resulted in nothing more than my being ridiculed for my cowardice, age and non-Swiss accent.

Best to leave them to their pleasures and let fate take its course.

Between Schaffhausen and Feuerthalen, the Rhine is wide, deep and mighty, so if the fall from the bridge didn’t kill them or the current drag them under, then they were fine without my worrywart involvement.

Did their mothers know what they were doing?

Experience does take the edge away from excitement.

Downriver from Schaffhausen, the main tourist draw to the Canton, stands Europe’s biggest waterfall, the Rhine Falls at 150 metres/450 feet wide and 23 metres/75 feet high.

In the winter months, the average waterflow is 250 cubic metres per second, while in the summer, the average waterflow is 700 cubic metres per second.

(The highest flow ever measured was 1,250 cubic metres per second in 1965 and the lowest, 95 cubic metres per second in 1921.)

Now I know that Africans and South Americans will probably think to themselves “Is that it?” when comparing them with Venezuela’s Angel Falls (979 metres / 3,212 feet high) or with South Africa’s Tugela Falls (948 metres / 3,110 feet high), but still the Rhine Falls are significant enough to be unclimbable by fish, (except by eels that are able to worm their way up over the rocks), and they attract thousands of international visitors all year round.

“The traveller can hear the Rhine Falls long before he sees them.

From some miles away there is a continuous, rolling thunder to be heard.

The Rhine Falls do not, of course, compare with Niagara or Victoria, yet they are undeniably impressive.

The Falls are split in two.

The higher side consists of a series of rock slabs descending like a staircase over which the water crashes.

It is possible to imagine a superhuman canoeist going over the Falls on that side, in effect sliding down the banisters.

On the other side, though, the drop is sheer.

Nothing could survive it.

In the middle of the fatal half, a huge jagged rock sticks up well above the water, parting the torrent, which throws itself past, as though with a greater fury at being thus checked.

It is possible to get up on the rock.

Boats, with a very skilled hand at the tiller, steer right under the cascade, which hits the water a few feet off the base of the rock.

There is thus a gap into which a slim boat can just fit, as the water crashes down barely missing the side of the boat.

At the foot of the rock a little landing stage has been built and the visitor gingerly steps gingerly ashore, soaked to the skin within a few seconds because of the spray.

Then he scrambles up the rock, which has had steps cut into it and finally arrives at the peak where a Swiss flag damply flies.

On both sides, the water hurtles by (700 cubic metres per second)and the familiar illusion in the form of a conviction that the water is still and the rock moving is not only plausible but terrifying.

One feels as though you are rushing through the boiling madness of water at the speed of a bullet.”
(Bernard Levin, To the end of the Rhine)

Tourists have been awed by the Rhine Falls for centuries.

In the 19th century, the painter J.M.W. Turner made several studies and larger paintings of the Falls, and the lyrical poet Eduard Mörike (See The vicar and the vagabond) wrote of the Falls:

Hold your heart, o traveller
Tightly in mighty hands!
Mine nearly descended
Shivering with pleasure.
Restless thundering masses thrown upon masses
Ear and eye
Whither can they save themselves in such an uproar?

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe also visited the Falls a number of times and wrote of them:

It is fantastic from the front, where one can get hold on it.
In your eyes, I see questions.
The answer has been blown by the wind.
The sky falls onto your head!

A strong desire is deep inside the human nature.
No person can take away this love – or I would return to the Rhein.
Where do ear and eye escape in such tumult?

Exciting thoughts about the strength of the fall.
A source of love should be, but your red lips must be quiet.
Always the same – Who waits for the end?

In 1840, author Mary Shelly (Frankenstein)visited the Falls while on a tour of Europe with her son and described her visit in her Rambles in Germany and Italy:

“A portion of the cataract arches over the lowest platform.
The spray fell thickly on us, as standing on it and looking up, we saw wave and rock and cloud and the clear heavens through its glittering ever-moving veil.
This was a new sight, exceeding anything I had ever before seen.
However, not to be wet through, I was obliged quickly to tear myself away.”

Of course, the Rhine Falls, as a magnet of tourism, attracts that most curious of beasties: tourists, and the region does what it can to extract all revenues possible from these docile sheep.

I, of course, can bleat with the best of them.

Hungry?

There is the Restaurant Park am Rheinfall and the Snack Bar am Rheinfallüfer (Rhine Falls shore) and Wörth Castle below the Falls.

There is Laufen Castle and the self-service Cafe Mühleradhaus (mill wheel house) above and beside the Falls.

(Don’t miss the Rhyfall Art Gallery next door to the Cafe, if art floats your boat.)

But what to do? What to do?

Well, you could take a boat cruise directly up to where the Falls come crashing down or to the little river island staircase you can climb to have the Falls rush around you on the tiniest of metal platforms uneasily shared amongst dozens of tourists with the same idea as yourself of catching the perfect photograph.

(Bring your Selfie sticks, folks!)

You could take an 80-minute boat cruise from the Falls all the way to and fro to Rheinau and see glorious Rheinau Abbey from a distance.

Visit the aforementioned Laufen Castle and pay a fortune to walk the Belvedere Way to platforms where the Falls are so close that you can almost shower in its spray.

Or ride the Panorama Lift, pram and wheelchair friendly, for a grand view over the tumult.

Or for those culturally curious there is the Historama Exhibition telling you everything you always wanted to know about the history of the Falls but didn´t know to ask.

Or take the kids to Adventure Park with its 15 courses of varying difficulty where one can climb, jump and hang to your heart’s content.

Or hop abroad the amazingly kitchy Rhyfall Express, the tourist train on rubber tires, to go visit the nearby neighbourhood of Neuhausen or even venture out to Schaffhausen itself.

Or you could try being a real Canadian and rent a canoe with your love partner and discover how difficult it really is to make love in a canoe.

(Talk about your splinters!)

It´s nighttime and you’re still here?

The good kind folks of the Falls cast all manner of coloured lights upon the roaring Falls.

And on the evening of 31 July, fireworks herald the arrival of the next day’s Switzerland Day, where the grand ol’ girl will once again lie about her age.

Less advertised are the walking paths on both sides of the Rhine leading north to Schaffhausen or south to Rheinau.

I have lived in Europe for 15 years and in Switzerland a third of this time and so I have visited the Falls at least four or five times, and yet I never find myself feeling bored with them.

Every time I take photographs with my old-fashioned non-digital camera I have to smile at the wonder and awe I feel for this mere falling-down of river water.

Working in cities and seeing civilisation, it is difficult to believe in God.

Walking in nature and seeing its wonders. it is difficult not to believe in God.

For all the wisdom that scientists bring and for all the sense that evolution makes, the very creativity and deliberate design of nature does suggest a higher power might be possible for all we behold.

Why question it?

Go with the flow.

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