Peter Morrell discovers a wealth of history and heritage in a region that stretches across four countries
Bodensee, German for Lake Constance, is also the name of the region around the body of water and includes Switzerland, Austria, Liechtenstein and Germany. The area sits at a natural crossroads between the south and the east and the north and the west. This geographical junction brought to it both goods and more importantly new philosophies and ideas.
The legacy of these cultures still exist with a wealth of monasteries, palaces and gardens. I recently spent a few days in Bodensee to find out what makes it such an attractive area to visit. It is easily accessible from the UK, a short flight to Zurich and a one hour train ride directly from the airport soon delivered me to my base, the city of Konstanz in Germany. There are also limited services to Bodensee Airport at Friedrichshafen on the Lake.
Steigenberger Insel Hotel
The introduction to the religious heritage of the region started with my hotel, the Steigenberger Insel (Island) hotel. Built on an island in the lake it was originally a Dominican monastery before being secularised in 1785. It was the birthplace of Count Zeppelin of airship fame and you can still take a flight in his invention today. He converted the building into a hotel in 1875, it is beautifully appointed, has mural lined cloisters and an outdoor, lakeside terrace for drinks and dining that has the most spectacular views.
The ecclesiastical theme would keep recurring during my visit. It was certainly evident during my first excursion, to the monastic island of Reichenau, a UNESCO World Heritage site. It was here that Benedictine monks created an abbey and minster dedicated to St Mary and St Mark which is open to visitors. In the grounds of the abbey, Walahfrid Strabo planted a medicinal herb garden immortalised in his poem Liber de cultura hortorum, the garden is still there to see and sniff.
The size of the lake creates a micro-climate making the land very productive and market gardening, introduced by the monks. is still a thriving industry on the island. To try the local produce I stopped for lunch at the charming Ganter Hotel Mohren, an alternate base in the area. As well as serving delicious local food it has comfortable bedrooms.
My final stop on the island was St George’s church, rather nondescript from the outside it has eight large murals inside painted in the 10th century depicting the miracles of Jesus.
Next day was an early start to board one of the regular ferries that give you the opportunity to hop off at a number of towns around the lake. My fare was included in the BodenseeErlebniskarte, a multi-day season ticket that also offers entry to 160 attractions. The comfortable boats are large with sun decks and a restaurant. We stopped at Meersburg admiring its two castles, and vineyards which swept down to the lake from the hills. A statue at the harbour entrance of local physician Franz Mesmer thankfully did not ‘mesmerise’ us.
I arrived at Uberlingen, a charming lakeside town with a long shore-line promenade. It has a very well established municipal garden featuring a wealth of specimen plants and trees, including an impressive cacti collection. The gardens are also the source of a mineral water spring which helped make the town a popular 19th century destination. Lunch at the luxurious Bad Hotel was followed by a walk through the old town to the impressive Minster church with its highly attractive late gothic and renaissance interior.
It was them back on the water for the short ferry ride to another island in the lake, Mainau. This was a truly fascinating location with a long history. It is one of the regions most popular destinations, attracting more than a million visitors a year. Limited access by car makes it a haven of peace. The island has extensive gardens where you can wander for hours admiring the 30,000 rose bushes and 20,000 dahlias, be awestruck by the girth of the Sequoia trees, visit the butterfly house and have tea in the huge palm house.
Before being privately owned Mainau was the headquarters of the Teutonic Knights, warrior priests drawn from the nobility who protected Christian pilgrims in the Holy Land. The imposing Baroque castle was finished in 1746 and it’s complemented by the adjacent church of St Mary’s, its interior a riot of Baroque. I stayed on the island for dinner at the excellent Schwedenschenke restaurant which offered fresh, seasonal local cuisine.
Another bright and early ferry ride the following day took me to Unteruhldingen and to the UNESCO world heritage site of the Pfahlbau Museum. This is a detailed re-construction of a stone and bronze age village built on piles in the lake. The display of artefacts gave a unique insight into the lives of the inhabitants which were surprisingly sophisticated.
From there I hopped on the tourist shuttle bus for the short ride to Schloss Salem. Dating back to the 12th century this is an enormous monastery complex with an imposing Gothic church, Salem Minster. The main building was destroyed by fire in 1697 and it was replaced with a construction of Baroque splendour, even the stable block is a work of art. A guided tour of the building is available which gives you access to rooms which can only be described as breathtaking. The library and Imperial Hall are stunningly decorated.
Since secularisation in 1803 the buildings are now part private residence of the Grand Dukes of Baden, part private school (Prince Philip was a former pupil) and part open to the public.
After a short al fresco lunch at Gasthof Schwanen it was time for a wine tasting. Grape production was started by the monks who planted 1000s of acres of vines. Little wonder, as each monk had a daily allocation of 1.4 litres, although it was weak and sour. Today the descendants of the Grand Dukes have continued the tradition producing smaller quantities of very high quality wine.
In the shadow of an enormous grape press I sampled the Markgraf von Baden wines from the lakeside vineyards. These were light, fresh and aromatic, particularly notable was one made with the Muller Thurgau grape which I came to love during the trip. A taxi back to the Meersburg to Konstanz car ferry whisked me back to the Steigenberger.
My hotel was a five minute walk from the old town, so an exploratory stroll before dinner was possible. I started by the bridge over the Rhine which is kilometre zero of this great waterway. It was a warm Friday evening and lively crowds spilled out into the cobbled streets from the bars. The town’s proximity to the Swiss border ensured that it wasn’t bombed by the Allies during WWII and this has left a quaint and well preserved centre.
Walking tour over it was time for dinner at the harbour-side Restaurant Konzil, The meal on the terrace, like all food on the trip, featuring flavourful vegetables from Reichenau, locally produced meat and fresh fish from the Lake.
The restaurant is located in a building of great historical significant. In the 15th century schisms in the Catholic church had resulted in the appointment of three rival Popes. To resolve this situation the Council of Konstanz was convened between 1414 and 1418 and was held in this location. It resulted in the election of a single Pope, Martin V. The event is commemorated by the revolving statue of Imperia at the harbour entrance. This 1993 installation by Peter Lenk is of a voluptuous consort of the clergy and royalty holding a Pope and King, both naked, in her hands.
After a lavish breakfast at the Steigenberger it was a short hop across the Swiss border to Arenenberg Castle, a small chateau. It was the final home of the exiled step-daughter of Napoleon, Hortense. She extended the house and decorated it in the style of a Paris ‘salon’. It now houses the Napoleon Museum and contains many original artefacts which makes the interior both intimate and atmospheric. It has extensive views of Lake Constance and a park which includes a fountain and hermitage.
There was still much more to see like the Bregenz Festival which this year features Puccini’s Turandot performed on a floating stage but because of time constraints my cultural quest was over. What a journey it had been, I had loved the tranquility of the Lake and the gardens, the rich history which was woven into the very well preserved palaces and monasteries and the cuisine. It had all been an unforgettable and fascinating experience.
To help you get the best from the region take a look at the packages from Inghams (01483 791114; www.inghams.co.uk). For example they have 3 nights at the 5* Steigenberger Hotel, with prices starting from £659 per person on half board, including return flights to Zurich and resort transfers.
For more information about Lake Constance visit www.constance-lake-constance.com
For more about the Bodensee Region go to www.bodensee.eu