The banks of the Rhine are crowned by magnificent castle after castle and by breathtaking, vine-terraced hills that provide the livelihood for many of the villages hugging the shores. In the words of French poet Victor Hugo, "The Rhine combines everything. The Rhine is swift as the Rhône, wide as the Loire, winding as the Seine . . . royal as the Danube and covered with fables and phantoms like a river in Asia."
The importance of the Rhine can hardly be overestimated. Although not the longest river in Europe (the Danube is more than twice as long), the Rhine has been the main river-trade artery between the heart of the continent and the North Sea (and Atlantic Ocean) throughout recorded history. The Rhine runs 1,230 km (764 miles) from the Bodensee (Lake Constance) west to Basel, then north through Germany, and, finally, west through the Netherlands to Rotterdam.
Vineyards, a legacy of the Romans, are an inherent part of the Rhine landscape from Wiesbaden to Bonn. The Rhine tempers the climate sufficiently for grapes to ripen this far north, and the world's finest Rieslings come from the Rheingau and from the Rhine's most important tributary, the Mosel. Thanks to the river, these wines were shipped far beyond the borders of Germany, giving rise to the wine trade that shaped the fortune of many riverside towns. Rüdesheim, Bingen, Koblenz, and Köln (Cologne) remain important commercial wine centers to this day.
The river is steeped in legend and myth. The Loreley, a jutting sheer slate cliff, was once believed to be the home of a beautiful and bewitching maiden who lured boatmen to a watery end in the swift currents. Heinrich Heine's poem Song of Loreley (1827), inspired by Clemens Brentano's Legend of Loreley (1812) and set to music in 1837 by Friedrich Silcher, has been the theme song of the landmark ever since. The Nibelungen, a legendary Burgundian people said to have lived on the banks of the Rhine, serve as subjects for Wagner's epic opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen (1852–72).
William Turner captured misty Rhine sunsets on canvas. Famous literary works, such as Goethe's Sankt-Rochus-Fest zu Bingen (The Feast of St. Roch; 1814), Lord Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (1816), and Mark Twain's A Tramp Abroad (1880), captured the spirit of Rhine Romanticism on paper, encouraging others to follow in their footsteps.