The name of the river comes from Middle High German Rin, which can be traced back to its Proto-Indo-European root reie- meaning “to flow” or “to run.” The Celts called the river Renos; the Romans called it Rhenus. Today, many Germans add a respectful “Father” to the name of their country’s longest and most important river.
History and Culture Along the River
At the end of World War I, the Rhineland was subject to the Treaty of Versailles, which stated that the Rhine Valley would be occupied by the allies until 1935 and then become a demilitarized zone. This treaty caused much resentment in Germany and was thought to be one of the factors leading to Hitler’s rise to power. During World War II the river presented a formidable natural obstacle to the invasion of Germany by the western allies. The failed September 1944 battle known as “Operation Market Garden” had the capture of the bridge at Arnhem as a central focus, as well as the bridges at Nijmegen over the Waal tributary of the river. The bridge at Remagen became famous when U.S. forces were able to capture it intact after the Germans failed to demolish it.
The Rhine River has often been immortalized in story and song. The Nibelungenlied, an epic poem in Middle High German, tells the saga of Siegfried, who killed a dragon on the Drachenfels (“dragon’s rock”) near Bonn at the river. The Nibelungenlied also talks of the Burgundians and their court at Wörms at the Rhine River, and of Kriemhild’s golden treasure which is thrown into the river by Hagen. The first opera of Wagner’s Ring cycle, Das Rheingold, was inspired by the Nibelungenlied; its action opens and ends underneath the Rhine River, where three Rheinmaidens swim and protect a golden treasure. The Lorelei, a 400-foot rock on the Rhine’s eastern bank, marks a narrow spot on the river with treacherous currents and is associated with legends about sailors being lured to their doom.
A Rhine River cruise is highlighted by numerous castles and castle ruins; vineyards, wine villages and orchards; and picturesque islands in the river. In addition to enjoying beautiful vineyard views along the cruise, many river cruise visitors take pleasure in sampling the region’s justly famous wines. The Rhine Gorge—the stretch between Bingen and Bonn also known as the “romantic Rhine”—is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Traveling on a river cruise is the ideal way to experience the Rhine’s natural beauty, rich culture and fascinating history.