Switzerland, Austria, Germany: The Three Faces of Lake Constance
By Kent E. St. John
Senior Travel Editor
One lake and three countries, all different yet all share a shore. Zipping between Switzerland, Austria and Germany is a breeze when done using Europe’s third largest lake as a focal point.
The flags of each nation billow as passenger ferries ply busy routes past villages and castles hugging the curves of Lake Constance (Bodensee in German). The Rhine flows in and the Rhine flows out.
While there is commonality among the three countries, the appeal is in the differences. Twenty miles traveled in the area will unveil cultural differences that make each country unique.
All offer some outdoor sights and adventure as well as recreational offerings that will add memories to the mind for all time. Biking was a particular theme throughout our journey.
While all three countries have many small villages, I felt that the principle cities best represent the area.
Far below our perch on Pfander, the local mountain, spreads the city of Bregenz, capital of the Austria’s Vorarlberg region. The blue of Lake Constance blends perfectly with the compact city at its shores.
Also noticeable is the huge blue eye that is the stage for the Bregenz Festival, featuring world-renowned opera. The staging built over the lake is in itself a fascinating place to visit.
Nearby is the bulbous, Baroque Martstrum (St. Martin’s Tower) center of the medieval section of the city. The city dates back some 200 years and its pleasant setting has ensured a steady flow of locals and visitors alike.
While many people, myself included, have come to see Puccini’s Tosca at the festival, it is clear that the area has much more to offer, especially hiking, biking and climbing.
A quick eight-mile bike ride to Landau just over the border in Germany is a perfect way to spend a warm summer afternoon. The town is actually on its own island and is a medieval gem.
As in the other cities on the banks of Lake Constance, sailing and pleasure cruising are part of a relaxing visit. Bregenz adds to the pleasure with the Kunsthaus, an architectural gem located near the marina. All in all Bregenz could be called the cultural beacon of Lake Constance.
St. Gallen, Switzerland
While not directly on the lake, St. Gallen is a short train ride away in a breathtaking valley. Here history is king and the city displays it well.
Above the door to the St. Gallen Abby library is a quote in Greek that says it all: “This place is a pharmacy for the soul.”
The library is stunning in design and has one of the world’s best collections of books dating back to the eighth century. Even today you can use your passport as a library card to read through the collection. The ancient books are very much like the Book of Kells in Dublin.
That would make sense as St. Gallen’s founder was an itinerant Irish monk named Gallus. The story goes that he headed into the wilderness to find a wild and dangerous place. He stumbled into a thorn bush and was approached by a huge bear that apparently communicated with him.
He was convinced that God wanted him to stay, and a small chapel was built. For centuries afterwards the abbey of St. Gallen was the Barnes & Nobles of Medieval Europe. The Abby Library is the oldest in Switzerland and is a UNESCO site as is the rest of the entire abbey precinct.
Peddling on the Swiss Banks
We took an eleven-mile pedal from the Swiss town of Romanshorn along the Lake’s Swiss shoreline on bikes with battery-powered motors.
These things are amazing because when you need a little power, you push a switch. They are not motorbikes because you have to keep pedaling; the extra energy just adds an advantage. Very cool!
We ended up at a place that specializes in farmstays called Feierlenhof that provided a great glimpse into the farm life here in Switzerland, and the food was great. The mix of high tech-bikes and farm living was a perfect insight into the complex Swiss style.
Konstanz, Germany: Imperia Tells a Story
“The sultry lady has caused some raised eyebrows guarding the harbor at Konstanz,”, said our guide Ralf in the German city of Konstanz. She is named Imperia and holds a naked Pope and Emperor in her hands, symbolizing the power of women over men.
It is also symbolic of the Council of Konstanz in 1414-1418, which ended the Western Schism, a period during which there were two and sometimes three popes at one time.
The work was unveiled late at night in 1993 and was designed by artist Peter Fenk with the support of sponsors. The town council and the church were not amused, but the citizens of Konstanz embraced Imperia with relish. Such is the sense of humor displayed in this ancient university city.
Due to the allies’ fears of accidentally bombing Switzerland during WWII, the city retains much of its medieval center complete with half-timbered buildings and narrow streets. If a larger city is to your liking, Konstanz makes for a fine base.
Set on a vine-covered hillside is the visually stunning town of Meersburg; well know to Germans but relatively unknown to US travelers. The main streets are devoid of cars, and wine and food stalls fit in small niches.
This little gem even has two castles; the older one is privately owned but tours are available. It seems fitting that the Grimm brothers wrote some of their stories while living in the castle!
Just a short ferry away is the magical island of Mainau. The island has millions of plants and trees to study, a Disney World of botany.
This small island was once owned by the Teutonic Knights and then passed to the family of Grand Duke Friedrich I of Baden. His daughter Victoria was once the Queen of Sweden. This island has been known as the Swedish Island ever since.
Lake Constance is mesmerizing; the word fits perfectly as Franz Anton Mesmer was once a resident of Meersburg. The word is derived from his name as the founder of the theory of animal magnetism.
While it is easy to pick one spot as a base, the cultural differences almost demand that you stay in several places. A car isn’t necessary as the trains and ferries run frequently and are a pleasure to take.
Spring and summer are the perfect time to visit, but even in winter the lake keeps temperatures moderate. Fish is the favored dish and the local wines are nothing short of perfect.
Check out these websites for the nuts and bolts of Europe’s water wonderland.
Watch travel videos about Germany
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Kent St John
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