Mythic Waters: The Rhine Falls at Schaffhausen
The reputations of some of Europe’s most-visited sights are built on myths, but the stories are always interesting. We have lost count of the number of times we have read that the rail route across Lapland to the Norwegian port of Narvik is the northernmost in the world. It is not, but it is nonetheless a wonderful journey.
And last month, we were standing by the side of the Rhine Falls at Schaffhausen in Switzerland and heard a guide tell her flock of attentive followers that they were gazing at Europe’s highest waterfall. Now the falls at Schaffhausen are very pretty indeed, but this is no mighty Niagara – even at times of high water. If you want high waterfalls, northern Europe has them aplenty including several that are higher than any on the North American mainland.
We also heard the travel guide advise her group that this is where the author Conan Doyle staged a fictional tussle between Sherlock Holmes and the evil Professor Moriarty. Actually that episode was not at the Rhine Falls at all, but at Reichenbach Falls though the idea that the Rhine Falls figured in Holmes’ life still pops up frequently.
Size doesn’t matter
At a height of just 23 metres (about 75 feet) the Rhine Falls at Schaffhausen break no records, yet they developed in the late 18th and early 19th centuries into a milestone on the itinerary of early tourists. Goethe, Rousseau and Byron all made the statutory stop at Schaffhausen to see the River Rhine tumble over the gently arcuate cascade that effectively separates the River Rhine into two quite distinct navigable waterways: the upper part of the Rhine above the falls (including Lake Constance) and the lower Rhine below the falls that eventually flows north through western Germany and the Netherlands to drain indefinably through a medley of Dutch deltas into the North Sea.
A tourism icon
Schaffhausen’s merchants were canny folk, resisting every overture by engineers who suggested methods of circumventing this modest natural barrier to navigation. “No way,” they protested at each ingenious new plan, anxious to protect the good living they made from having to shift cargo between ships on the two sections of the Rhine river.
So yes, you can see waterfalls in Europe that are more than 30 times higher than those at Schaffhausen, but that’s to miss the point. Centuries of commerce and centuries of travel history have conspired to construct the Rhine Falls as a hydrological icon, as the veritable epitome of a European waterfall. It’s a wonderful spot, so let’s just go with the flow, marvel at the myths, and agree that Schaffhausen certainly deserves a visit.