The Rhine River in Basel

Basel is the last Swiss city on the Rhine, and is about 380 kilometers downstream from the source of the Rhine in the Swiss Alps.

Below Basel the Rhine leaves Switzerland, flowing north, and for the next 170 kilometers it forms the border between France and Germany. The distance along the Rhine from Basel to Mainz is about four hundred kilometers (most of which I have cycled at one time or another during the past fifty-eight years), passing by or through Strasbourg and Mannheim.

The Rhine River in Basel

From Mainz the Rhine flows in a generally northwesterly direction through Germany and the Netherlands for a distance of 535 ½ kilometers (that’s the figure given in my cycling guidebook) before reaching Rotterdam and the North Sea.

Aside from being nice to look at and cycle along, the Rhine River is also an important transport route, because it is navigable for large river barges all the way up to Basel, well over nine hundred kilometers from the North Sea.

View of the Rhine through the trees in Basel

But the Rhine was not always navigable up to Basel. Until the nineteenth century, the Rhine between Basel and Worms was a maze of meandering channels, islands and swamps, and was too shallow for any sort of serious shipping. A hydraulic engineer named Johann Gottfried Tulla (1770-1828) developed plans to straighten and deepen the Rhine, and under his direction work on the project was begun in 1817. The project continued long after Tulla’s death, and was finally completed in 1876.

A number of years ago, the German television station SWR produced a documentary on the Rhine project, which I actually saw (although I seldom watch television otherwise) because a friend of mine, the opera singer Holger Falk, played the role of Johann Gottfried Tulla. The documentary showed the advantages of the project (shipping, local flood control, more land for agriculture and the eradication of malaria from the swamps) as well as the long-term disadvantages (sinking of the ground-water level, loss of ecological diversity and increased flooding further downstream).

The St Alban Ferry

This is one of four passenger ferries that cross the Rhine between “Kleinbasel” (Small Basel) on the right bank and “Grossbasel” (Big Basel or just plain Basel) on the left. All four of these ferry boats work the same way. The boat has no motor, but hangs on a cable and is driven by the river current only. Depending on the way the ferryman steers the rudder, the ferry moves one way or the other, so it can cross back and forth.

The prices on all the Basel ferries are 1.60 Swiss Franks for adults, 0.80 for children, buggies, bicycles and dogs. These prices are unchanged since 2004. Since the ferries operate at a loss, they are subsidized by a foundation that was set up by Basel citizens to prevent the ferries from becoming commercialized by predatory international companies.

European Union flag on the St Alban Ferry

Since Switzerland is not a member of the European Union (EU), it is a bit of a mystery why there is an EU flag flying on the ferry boat. (Perhaps a political statement? Or just a way of appealing to visitors from nearby France and Germany.)

People walking up the Rhine so they can swim back down

As in Bern, where the local people like to go swimming in the Aare River, people in Basel like to go swimming in the Rhine. Since the current is strong, there is only one way to swim, namely downstream, so people walk upstream along the riverbank and then find a place to get into the water and swim or float back down.

More people walking up the river in Basel

Although the Aare is said to be faster and colder, the Rhine is also a dangerous river, so swimming in it is only for strong and experienced swimmers, who nearly always do it in groups.

A man swimming in the Rhine River

The green thing on this man’s shoulder is, I believe, an early example of a Wickelfisch, described by its inventors as “a fish-shaped waterproof swimming bag” designed to “keep your belongings dry.” Apparently these have become very popular in Basel in recent years — so popular that the company (based in Ettingen, ten km south of Basel) has started running advertisements reminding people that since 2010 “Wickelfisch®” is a registered trademark, not a generic name for waterproof swimming bags. (In other words, they are trying to prevent ‘genericization’ of their trademark, a common problem with popular products.)

My photos in this post are from 2004. I revised the text in 2020.

See more posts on Basel, Switzerland.
See also: Swimmers in the Aare in Bern, Switzerland.

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