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Rhine River: A Waterway of History and Mystery

April 27, 1986|FRANK RILEY | Riley is travel columnist for Los Angeles magazine and a regular contributor to this section

KONIGSWINTER, West Germany — Julius Caesar wouldn't be surprised by all that's happening along the Rhine this year. Neither would Mark Twain, Victor Hugo, Goethe, Lord Byron and many others who have written about the river that flows through the heart of Europe from the Alps to the North Sea.

Expressing feelings shared by generations of travelers, Victor Hugo wrote in 1838:

"The Rhine combines everything . . . winding as the Seine . . . historic as the Tiber . . . royal as the Danube . . . mysterious as the Nile . . . sparkled with gold like a river of America . . . covered with phantoms and fables like a river of Asia. . . ."

The payoff of special promotional efforts is the likelihood that a growing percentage of U.S. visitors who come to Europe will be attracted by the sense of serenity associated with cruising by the Rhine castles and vineyards, and with driving, walking or bicycling the river roads and pathways.

Before my wife and I left Los Angeles to see what was happening along the Rhine, we received three phone calls from readers asking about this waterway of history and legend.

Fortunate Coincidence

Rhine tourism interests have also intensified promotional campaigns throughout Europe, and from Japan to South America and Africa.

By a fortunate coincidence of history, 1986 is the 160th anniversary year of KD German Rhine Line cruises. Promotions for it were under way in the United States and around the world before the gathering impact of events began to reduce the number of travelers planning to visit Europe this summer.

Historical photos and drawings were assembled to re-create earliest eras of Rhine travel, long before steamers began regular passenger service on the river between Cologne and Mainz. During the past year the KD white fleet of 22 ships carried about 1.5 million passengers.

For this anniversary year with its lower fuel prices, fares below those of 1981 are being offered by KD Rhine Line cruises. The first-class fare for a four-day, 600-mile cruise from Basle and the Swiss Alps through ever-changing scenery into France, Germany and Holland, to Rotterdam on the North Sea, starts at $609 per person, two to a cabin.

Cruise Season Extended

The cruise season has been extended this year through October, with a schedule of more than 400 sailings that include the old Roman wine country along the Moselle River.

Three new cruises will visit five countries in six days, putting out into the North Sea to reach Antwerp, Belgium, diamond-cutting capital of the world, a city rich in Flemish heritage and medieval guild houses, where Rubens painted for the last 25 years of his life.

As another special for 1986, KD Rhine Line passengers will be able to get a four-day GermanRail pass for $100, allowing two days of first-class rail travel before and after a cruise. A similar pass for second-class rail travel is $70.

Incentive for Travel

The airlines are joining in the Rhine cruise promotional efforts. Since closing the sale of its Pacific division to United Airlines in February, Pan Am has expanded its transatlantic services and has joined with the KD Line to feature the cruises as an incentive for travel to Europe this summer.

Lufthansa, Swissair and KLM airlines are highlighting Rhine cruise departure ports in Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands.

Communities and castles along the Rhine will be having special events. For the first summer in years there will be a "Rhine in Flames" celebration starting Saturday beneath the forested crests and vineyards of the Seven Mountains between Linz and Bonn, one of the most scenic and historic stretches of the river.

The flames will be a cause for celebration. More than 2,000 small bonfires will light river-front promenades in salute to the wines and ships that helped set the course of European history. Each town will be a merriment of music, dancing and sipping. This will create a mood for the Oberdollendorf Wine Blossom Festival during June.

Werner Schaefke, director of the Cologne Municipal Museum, a scholar and author whose books include the best-selling German language guide to the Rhine, puts 1986 into perspective with presentations spanning "2,000 years of wine, art and tourism along the Rhine."

His tourism perspective begins 200,000 years before Christ, when hunters visited the Rhineland and decided to stay. The wild grape probably grew here in prehistoric times.

The Greeks took wine drinking to southern France and the Romans advanced it to the Rhine and the Moselle. When Caesar ordered a bridge built across the Rhine in 53 BC, he was building what became a wine road more important than a military highway. The Romans stayed 400 years and brought Christianity as well as wine to the Rhine.

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