The Rhine River begins its 766-mile journey in the snow-capped mountains of Switzerland and flows north to empty into the North Sea in the Netherlands.
Both historically and culturally, the Rhine has been a crucial link between northern and southern Europe since Roman times. It passes through some of the prettiest landscapes in Europe, especially the section in Germany between Bingen and Bonn where it cuts through the Rhine Gorge.
This area, referred to as the Middle Rhine, reflects the most popular stereotypes of the river: castles, ruins, steep hillsides covered with vineyards, and quaint riverside villages. It has always been, but especially in the past years, a popular destination for river cruises.
However, there is another attractive section of the river unreachable by ships that offers many of the same attractions but in a more off-the-beaten path setting. Known as the High Rhine, it includes the portion of the river flowing out of Lake Constance on the German/Swiss/Austrian border and continuing in a westward direction to the city of Basel, Switzerland, where it turns north and becomes navigable to river traffic.
The reason the river in the High Rhine section is blocked to ships is the magnificent phenomenon of the Rhine Falls.
The largest waterfall in Europe (excluding Iceland), it is not the tallest at 75 feet, nor the most scenic, but without question, the most powerful. The river, moving at a speed of about 75 feet per second, creates clouds of mist, rainbows, and a roaring noise both frightening and dramatic.
The falls are easily reached by train, bus or foot from the town of Schaffhausen, Switzerland. Connoisseurs of luxury Swiss watches will recognize the name as it appears on the face of the IWC watches manufactured here.
For tourists, Schaffhausen is better known for its well-preserved, medieval Old Town. It has been a thriving and prosperous market town since the 11th century.
Wealthy merchants decorated their houses to show off their success, and the cobble-stoned Old Town is crammed with buildings painted with colorful, Renaissance-style frescoes, and decorated with ornate oriels, or bay windows. With more than 170 of these windows, Schaffhausen is known as Erkerstadt, or “City of Oriel Windows.” There are narrow alleys to explore as well as busy open squares surrounded by fountains and outdoor cafes, and a beautifully restored, 12th-century cathedral with cloisters.
For a dramatic view of the town, be prepared to climb 215 steps (I counted them) through vineyards to the Munot. This 16th-century circular fortress was built by forced labor after the religious wars of the Reformation. Views spanning across the city and up and down the Rhine Valley are a worthwhile reward for the physical effort to get here.
An enjoyable excursion from Schaffhausen is a cruise up the river to the town of Stein am Rhein. The two-hour trip covers a scenic stretch of the Rhine passing wooded landscapes, farms, hillside vineyards and river villages before arriving at the town’s dock.
From here, narrow alleys lead up to the Rathausplatz, or Town Hall Square, one of those “Wow!” travel moments. The open space is surrounded by a collection of spectacular half-timbered buildings covered in picturesque frescoes, and is justifiably considered the most beautiful town square in Switzerland.
The entire village (population 3,000) is an architectural jewel. Numerous frescoed facades featuring themes of mythology, history, nature, crafts and daily activities offer a glimpse of life in the Middle Ages. There’s a leafy, river promenade and restored cloistered Benedictine abbey to visit as well.
While Schaffhausen and Stein am Rhein share a history going back more than 1,000 years, they also made more recent history when both were bombed by the U.S. Army during World War II.
Switzerland has long maintained a position of neutrality, so this action was quite surprising. Many thought it was accidental since both towns sit on the north side of the Rhine, making it easy to assume they were in Germany. However, others claim the strikes were deliberate, a message to Swiss sources supplying munitions and acting as a banking haven for the Nazis.
Regardless of the cause, neither of the Old Towns sustained serious war damage and remain as well-preserved examples of medieval towns. n