You Gotta Know These Western European Rivers
- Rhine: The Rhine begins in the Swiss Alps, passes through Lake Constance (in German, the Bodensee), flows west along the German-Swiss border, then turns north to form part of the German-French border. The river then flows north and joins with the Meuse and Scheldt to enter the North Sea at a delta in the Netherlands. Cities along its course include Basel, Strasbourg, Mainz, Bonn, Cologne, and Rotterdam, and tributaries include the Main, Mosel, and Ruhr. The Rhine has played a strategic role in most German conflicts since the time of the Gallic Wars, but was not established as an international waterway until the Rhine Commission of 1815. German myth tells of the Lorelei, a nymph who lured sailors on the Rhine to their deaths.
- Seine: Though only the second-longest river in France (behind the Loire), the Seine is of key importance, as it flows through Paris. Starting on the Plateau de Langres near Dijon, the Seine weaves northwest for 485 miles to enter the English Channel near Le Havre. Along the way, it passes through Troyes, Fontainebleau, and Rouen. The Seine is France’s chief transport waterway, along with its tributaries the Marne and Oise.
- Tagus (or Tajo or Tejo): The Tagus is the principal river of the Iberian Peninsula. Rising in east-central Spain, it flows west for roughly 645 miles to the Atlantic, passing through Lisbon, Portugal on the way. The cities of Toledo and Santarém are on the Tagus, and hydroelectric dams on the river produce huge artificial lakes, including the Sea of Castile.
- Rhone: One of Europe’s few major rivers to flow directly into the Mediterranean (via the Gulf of Lion), the Rhone originates in the Swiss Alps and flows into Lake Geneva. It emerges from Geneva and flows south, passes through Lyon, Avignon, and Arles, and enters the sea just west of Marseille. At Arles, the river splits into “grand” and “petit” branches that encircle the island Camargue. The river’s valley is famous for its red wine, and because it is navigable for 300 miles, the Rhone is the key access route of southern France.
- Danube: Most of the Danube is in Eastern Europe, but it begins in Germany’s Black Forest (Schwarzwald) near Freiburg, crossing Bavaria before it enters Austria. In all, it passes through (or touches the borders of) 10 nations on its 1,785-mile course ending at the Black Sea. Chief tributaries include the Drava and Sava, and it passes through four national capitals: Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest, and Belgrade. Formerly known as the Ister, the Danube was often used to define a northern border for the Roman Empire.
- Po: Italy’s longest river at 405 miles, it passes through Piedmont and Lombardy before entering the Adriatic 30 miles south of Venice. It flows through Turin and Cremona, and it passes near Milan, Padua, Pavia, and Mantua. The river has a long history of floods, and the manmade levees called argini which protect towns and crops can exacerbate the floods. Pollution, especially from Milan, is becoming a major environmental concern.
- Loire: France’s longest river, the Loire begins in the Cevennes range of southern France, flows north to the center of the country, then flows due west to the Bay of Biscay. Many notable cities are on the river, including Nevers, Orleans, Blois, Tours, and Nantes. The Loire is sometimes called the “last wild river in Western Europe,” and many proposed dams on the river have not been built because of opposition to the flooding of land and to interference with Atlantic salmon. The Loire Valley is particularly known for its vineyards and for its châteaux, a collection of over 300 castles dating to the 16th and 17th centuries.
- Shannon: At 230 miles, the Shannon is Ireland’s longest river. It flows from Lough Allen, and Loughs Ree and Derg are also on its course. At Limerick, the river widens into its namesake estuary and runs for 50 more miles before it enters the Atlantic. Peat bogs and marshes line the river for much of its course, and the Shannon is considered a dividing line between Ireland’s more cultivated east and wild west. A chief tributary is the Suck River. The Shannon does not pass through Dublin, although the Liffey does.
- Oder: Along with the Neisse, the Oder forms the Germany-Poland border, as dictated at the Potsdam Conference in July and August of 1945. One of the largest rivers to enter the Baltic, it has been a major transport route for centuries. Ostrava in the Czech Republic and Breslau in Poland are on the river. Near its mouth is Stettin, which Churchill used as the northern terminus of his “Iron Curtain” (Trieste, in the South, is an Adriatic port not near a major river). At the mouth of the Oder are Usedom Island, Swinemuende, and Peenemuende, which were primary test sites for the German V-2 rocket in the 1940s.
- Elbe (or Labe): Rising in the Krkonose Mountains of the Sudetenland in the Czech Republic, the river flows near Prague, then enters eastern Germany and flows northwest to the North Sea. It receives the Vltava (or Moldau), the Saale, and the Havel/Spree, and the many large cities on its course include Dresden, Dessau, Magdeburg, Wittenberg, and Hamburg. Like the Oder, the Elbe has been a key transportation route for many centuries.
- Thames: Running from Thames Head near Cirencester to an estuary near Southend in Essex, the Thames is the principal river of England and flows through central London. The Houses of Parliament and the London Eye overlook the Thames, as does Big Ben. Flowing through Reading, Oxford, and Swindon, the Thames is prevented from flooding London by its namesake Barrier near the Isle of Dogs. Though it is the longest river entirely in England, the Thames trails the Severn (which also flows into Wales) as the longest river in the United Kingdom.
This article was contributed by former NAQT writer Raj Dhuwalia.