Falling down the Rhine in Switzerland

Published: Mar 31, 2013, 07:19 IST | Dhiman Chattopadhyay

Switzerland is known more for its snow-capped mountains and picturesque valleys. That's where most Indian tourists head anyway. But closer to the financial capital of Zurich lies the noisy and stunning Rhine Falls. Take a boat ride into the waterfalls, scream when the water crashes against you and take a walk around car-free medieval town of Schaffhausen as you feast on some mouth watering Swiss ice cream

I had grown up hearing tales about Switzerland as the country of yummy chocolates and breathtaking timepieces and where the super rich stashed their cash. Of course this was also the land of skiing and throwing snowballs, of towering mountains such as Jungfraujoch and Mount Titlis where rotating cable cars could ferry you to 12,000 feet and dump you in several feet of snow.

I also realised once we landed in Switzerland that about a million other Indian tourists were always roaming the country at any given point in time, in search of picture postcard spots and Indian restaurants!

So after spending three days in snowcapped Engelberg, taking the revolving cable car to the top of Mount Titlis (where the biggest restaurant amongst miles and miles of unending snow slopes is owned by an Indian) and scaling the world heritage site of Jungfraujoch (to be honest we took the funicular train to the 12,000-feet summit) — we were curious to know where all the melting Alpine snow went when summer arrived.

Water, water, everywhere
This quest led us, among other places to the Rhine Falls in Schaffhausen — a small town near Zurich and a site relatively less trodden by Indian tourists who limit themselves to Engelberg, Interlaken (where dozens of Bollywood films are shot and even a lake is named after the late Yash Chopra) and Geneva. Not that the Rhine Falls is unknown to the world. Far from it. My cousin Stefan (born to an Indian father and a German mother),who was with us on the trip, informed me that every year, more than one million people visit this place.

The Rhine Falls was formed in the last ice age, approximately 14,000 to 17,000 years ago

What’s so great about a waterfall that’s just 450 feet wide and 75 feet high, you might wonder, when you know that the Victoria Falls is over 5,000 feet wide and where the water gushes down from a height of 350 feet.

Even our good old Duandhar Falls in Jabalpur rushes down from a height of 35 feet! So hear me out first. Depending on the time of the year, between 250 and 600 cubic metres of water per second plummet to the depths from the Rhine Falls. And you can actually take a walk on the falls! A local guide told us we could walk around the basin, cross the bridge above the falls to the Laufen Castle on the other side and proceed from there to an observation platform built directly beside the water. Not for the fainthearted for sure, but information that made sure we took the bus to Schaffhausen.

Cable cars carry passengers to and from Mount Titlis which is snow-covered through the year

Unfortunately for me, the Swiss breakfast that morning had not gone down too well – not the ideal situation if you are going to get rocked around like a yo -yo in a boat and get splashed by a huge force of water every three seconds. Oh yes, did we tell you these guys have boat trips downstream of the falls that leave every few minutes. Some of these actually let you disembark at the Rheinfallfelsen, a large rock, bang in the middle of the falls.

We arrived close to the falls around 11 am. The day of the week does not really matter in a tourist town. Every day is a Sunday and wherever we looked, we could see hundreds of tourists, some queuing up for a boat ride, others far away on a rock or at the observation point getting drenched and yet others posing, clicking snaps or munching on burgers. But every other noise was overshadowed by the roar of the Rhine Falls—a scary sight of unending water crashing down in a crescendo.

We had a doctor in our team, one who believed in interesting ways to cure ailments. She suggested I taste one of Switzerland’s famous ice creams, more as a medicine to cool the stomach down. Swiss Dark Chocolate was the chosen ‘medicine’. And it worked!

Up close with the Rhine Falls
Soon we were walking closer and closer to the largest waterfall in Europe. Here’s where we overheard a tour guide telling wide-eyed tourists that the falls cannot be climbed by fish, except by eels that are able to worm their way up over the rocks. As if we were planning to nab some unruly trout for dinner!

What I found more interesting was the scoop that the Rhine Falls were formed in the last ice age, approximately 14,000 to 17,000 years ago. Wow! seventeen millennia of recycled water. Impressive. Soon we realised we had many options of viewing the falls. One could stand on the terraces and get a long view of the entire falls. A few hundred people were also slowly making their way down a stairway that would take them right up to the falls (we did this later and trust me, it’s a bit scary. The whole stairway shakes every time the water crashes. And it pretty much crashes all the time. To begin with, however, we took one of the boats that ferried us tantalisingly close to the rocks where gazillion cusecs of water thunderedaway.

If getting tossed around a bit is your idea of thrill, this one wins hands down. When we reached the giant rock in the middle of what seemed to be a whirlpool of water, the captain ordered us off! Screams, cries, whoops and gasps alternated as we all held hands and got off the rocking boat and onto the rock. One false step and we would be too close to the water for fun.

This was July and the water levels, we were told, were at their highest. No wonder the rock did not seem that large, it was partially submerged. Strangely what I remember most about those adrenaline pumping (and a bit scary) 10 minutes, was gorging on another ice cream (they were selling ice creams on the boat).

Back on dry land, we clicked more snaps before realising that all this exercise had made us hungry. Even I was hungry. The medicines had worked. Grilled steaks, cola and a bar of chocolate were our rather curious combination at lunch but the steak was awesome. Yes the Swiss also make great steaks (though I suspect this restaurant was German).

The restaurant owner urged us to stay back for the night. The waterfall,he said, is illuminated by hidden lights after dark. What a sight that must be. Sadly, we had a hotel reservation at Zurich for the night and a Rhine cruise booked for the following days to take us all the way to Cologne in Germany, our next major stop. Snow done, waterfalls done, our sights were now firmly set on one of the twin-tower Cologne Cathedral, once the world’s tallest building and a current World Heritage Site. 

Things to Know
Summer: June to September is pleasant, with usually sunny days and cool evenings. Carry jackets and pullovers even if you are travelling in summer.
Winter: October to April is when it gets chilly with December to March being bitterly cold. If you can handle the cold(often 10 degrees below freezing point) then this is a great time to explore the area. Protect yourself against icy winds though.
More adventure?
The Rhine runs through central Europe, past Germany and onto the Netherlands. So if you are game for a cruise, there are several lovely Rhine Cruises for which tickets are available online. Most of them offer great rooms, food and entertainment on board and also stop at a few ports on the way, so that tourists can experience medieval towns, castles and churches and get a taste of local cultures. 

Here are a few other things you can do in and around the Rhine Falls region
Take a ride on the Rhyfall Express
We didn’t do this one, but most people who have visited the country more than once will tell you that a trip to the Schaffhausen wouldn’t be complete without boarding the Rhyfall-Express shuttle from Burgunwiese. The carriages carry over 40 people at a time. A one-way ride along the Rhine Falls basin takes about 15 minutes from where you can start your exploration. Apparently, this is the only city train, which also takes visitors to and from the Rhine Falls.
Loop the loop at the Adventure Rope Park
The adventure rope park within walking distance of the Rhine Falls area has more 100 obstacles to overcome for adults and kids. You can move from tree to tree (monkeying around basically), or risk a 13-metre free fall onto a soft landing. From the treetops, you can also catch a breathtaking view of the Rhine Falls.
Take a walk: Schaffhausen
This is a car-free town, like many other smaller Euroepan towns. A medieval city, Schaffhausen has hidden gems for those who love history and architecture. Check out the Gothic and Baroque architectural designs. Schaffhausen also has many medieval inns that date back to 1300 AD. The fortress at Munot and Benedictine Abbey may just make you feel you have gone back in time, so perfectly preserved is history here. And yes, no fear of being run over by a car, let alone getting honked at. 

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