There are many places that become victims of their own popularity. We think of them as ‘tourist traps’, as places visited by the unimaginative and unadventurous. They are places accessed by turnstiles and thus ‘consumed’. They are cliches. They are not worth our time. They are to be avoided, and we judge all those who visit them…
We all know places for which the above might apply. And there is a certain truth in the idea that any place – and especially a place that is not human-made but a part of the landscape – suffers from being turned into a destination. But there are reasons why these places become popular in the first place, why they draw the crowds that need to be controlled by fences and entrance-tickets, that require space for coaches and cars and motorcycles, refreshment stands and souvenir shops.
You can find the Rhine Falls in Switzerland, not far from the German border. It is the most powerful waterfall in Europe and has been a popular tourist destination since it was made the subject of poems and other artworks by the Romantics in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Turner painted it. Mörike waxed lyrical. By the time Mary Shelley arrived in 1840 there were viewing platforms for those drawn to its power, and it would not be long before Thomas Cook was urging visitors to spend time with the majesty of the falls.
The railway, crossing the river just above the falls, would bring those travellers to Schaffhausen in ever increasing numbers. They would take boat trips and stay overnight close to the river. With the coming of the automobile, car parks were built to accommodate the visitors stopping on their way to and from the Alps, or simply coming to see the falls in their own right. Steps were cut into the cliffs and viewing platforms built out over the water. By the first decades of the 21st century, more than 1.5 million visitors came to the Rhine Falls each year. Reason enough, perhaps, to stay away.
Were we sceptical as we pulled into the car park behind Schloss Laufen, where the main visitors’ complex can be found? A little. Could it really be all that? We joined the queue with numerous other families, couples and a group of Dutch motorbike riders, sweating in their leathers. This was nothing, we were told at the counter. The pandemic had severely reduced the numbers, and they’d only just reopened again to visitors. It might feel busy, we were being told, but there was probably no better time to have come to experience it.
And experience it we did.
It is hard, after the fact, to do justice to how the Rhine Falls feel when you get up close. At 23 metres high it is impressive but not overwhelming, but it is not so much the height as the force of the water as it runs over and down between the rocky outcrop at the centre of the river. It is loud – a continuous roar – and despite the solidity of the cliffs and the concrete structures upon which you stand, you can feel the energy in your very bones.
We stood for an age on that platform, mesmerised by the sight, sound and feel of the waterfall as it roared on beside us, and the sightseeing boats navigating the pool below rocked and rolled on the turbulent white water. All the scepticism and cynicism was washed away by the power of the Rhine Falls. It was possible to understand why so many had been taken in by this sight; why it had inspired so many poems and paintings, and why it continued to attract so many visitors to come and stand before it.
William Wordsworth made a couple of trips to the Rhine Falls. The first time he was a little underwhelmed. Perhaps, he wrote, he had expected too much. And perhaps we’d been the opposite. We had expected too little. Wordsworth would later be inspired enough by the ‘Fall of the Rhine’ to put this Ice Age wonder in a poem:
The waters of the Rhine; but on they go,
Fretting and whitening, keener and more keen;
Till madness seizes on the whole wide flood,
Turned to a fearful thing whose nostrils breathe
Blasts of tempestuous smoke,—wherewith he tries
To hide himself, but only magnifies;
And doth in more conspicuous torment writhe,
Deafening the region in his ireful mood.
We stood for a little while longer, deafened by its mood and shrouded in its tempestuous smoke. There were others there, but it didn’t matter. Only the falls commanded attention. Everything else simply slipped out of view.
Photographs: Katrin Schönig
Words: Paul Scraton