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Review: The Rhine by Ben Coates

January 3, 2019


It’s almost impossible to overstate how much I enjoyed this phenomenal book. It has hooked me from the day I started reading it until this evening, when ignoring all sorts of other commitments, I sat and read until I reached the last page.

I use the word phenomenal without exaggeration as Ben Coates must have undertaken a staggering amount of research in his aim to tell the reader about the history, geography, art and human interest stories behind the hundreds of miles of Rhineland he covered in a personal adventure of cycling, hiking and boating along the length of the Rhine.

However, this is far from being a dry reference book. Ben’s humour had me chuckling frequently and laughing out loud often enough to have my partner asking to be read the offending (as in relevant) sections. His observations are astute, his self-mockery is well refined and his sense of the absurd is right up my street. Some particularly precious gems include the sections where his dog joins him on his adventures and when he (Ben, not the dog) goes cow riding. I cannot remember a book that has simultaneously taught me so much and been so entertaining. Ever.

The story begins in Amsterdam, but the journey has its real beginnings in my own home town, Rotterdam. I recognise so well that ‘I wonder where this goes’ curiosity that inspired him to start following the Rhine from its many-tentacled mouth to its source. I love this river, I live on it, and yet I feel as if I formerly knew nothing about it that couldn’t be scratched on a postcard. Now I’ve learnt about the significance of Dorestad, or Wijk bij Duurstede, as it is now known; these days a relatively modest satellite of Utrecht of which I’d barely heard, but historically the trading equivalent of the Port of Rotterdam. I’ve learnt what really happened at Arnhem in Operation Market Garden, why Bonn never felt comfortable with its capital of Germany mantle and how poor Strasbourg and the people of the Alsace have been passed from pillar to post as European leaders squabbled over whether the border really ran along the Rhine or not. I’ve read about characters I recognise, about customs I don’t, and about places I want to visit, such as Lichtenstein and Lake Toma (Tomasee) the beautiful source of the Rhine.

Altogether, this is a fascinating, funny, informative, wise and compelling book. Ben Coates writes beautifully with marvellous imagery and a great gift for witty metaphor, so it’s a pleasure to read as well. As a political speech writer, lobbyist, journalist and aid worker, Ben has a great facility for presenting a comprehensible overview of political events and change that makes the book thought-provoking too. I cannot recommend The Rhine highly enough for anyone who is interested in both personal travelogue and history and, well, just about everything. In fact I don’t just recommend it; I would urge everyone with a smidgin of interest in both Europe’s past and its future to read it. It is a wonderful book about the river, its life and its towns, but it’s much much more than that. I’ve learnt so much, I’m now wondering what Ben’s next adventures will teach me.

A link to the book is here

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  1. High praise indeed, Val! I’ve found several great new books from reading your reviews, and this is one I will have to add to my list. Thanks!

    • It combines all my interests in one, Steph. For me, it was a real winner…rivers, boats, history, travel, not to mention the dog 🙂

  2. Fran Macilvey permalink

    Thank you, indeed, for such a great review! On my reading list, as it sounds right up my street, or my stream… 🙂

  3. An inspiring review. Thank you Val.

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