Tri-City Herald, Sunday, February 6, 2005

Lake Constance is Germany's Favorite Playground

©2005 Valerie Kreutzer

Organ Grinder at Lake Constance If you keep travelling south in Germany, you’ll eventually arrive at the shores of Lake Constance or Bodensee in German.

Nestled against the snow-capped Alps, surrounded by medieval towns and Baroque churches, Lake Constance has a 162-mile circumference and shares borders with Austria and Switzerland.  Its longest shoreline is German and Central Europe’s most popular vacation spot.

Fall is a good time to visit, I discovered on a recent six-day trip.  Tourists had left, sunny and mild weather continued, and the scent of harvested apples sweetened the air.

“Take some,” invited a sign on a heaped basket at our guesthouse in Immenstaad.  Small, yellow with rosy cheeks, Bodensee apples are almost as famous as the wine that has grown here for over a thousand years.  This fall’s new wine, called Suser, was hawked everywhere in combination with regionally popular Zwiebelkuchen (onion pie).

Herr Merk, our landlord, served generous hot slices with a glass of cloudy Suser on the brink of fermentation.  He added political opinions to the fare, all the while imbibing vintage varieties as the evening wore on.  In his cozy tavern Herr Merk enjoyed holding forth among the regulars, including Heidi and Hans, my sister and her husband.  They’ve known Herr Merk and his grumbles ever since making knots at a nearby sailing school where they later moored their boat.  “The Bodensee is my second home,” said my brother-in-law who navigated the lake’s grayish-green waters for several decades. 

Heidi and Hans took me under their wings as we explored the cultural and historic heritage of the region.  Our first stop was the open-air museum of Unteruhldingen where reconstructed pile dwellings take us back 5,500 years into the Stone Age.

The cluster of houses was built after wooden pilings were discovered at low tides.   Archeologists also found stone tools, toys, jewelry and remnants of clothing that give us glimpses into the daily life of our pre-historic ancestors.  A young curator explained how they sharpened stones to fell trees, how they ground wheat, baked bread, fished, domesticated animals, and cultivated the land. 

Taking a mental leap into the Middle Ages, we drove next to Meersburg, a town of half-timbered houses and castles, squeezed between vineyards and the lake.  The old fortress dating back to the 7th century was the seat of kings and bishops, and turned artists’ colony in the 19th century when Germany’s greatest poetess, Annette von Droste-Huelshoff, resided there.  The castle’s moat, dungeon, and subterranean tunnel tell tales of life in medieval times.  In the knights’ hall it’s easy to imagine minstrels singing their laments of unrequited love, while damsels—the original “wall flowers”—sat on stone benches by the window awaiting their turn to dance.

We climbed the castle’s tower for a splendid view, got the shivers in the torture chamber, and gaped through the hole of a 27-foot deep dungeon where prisoners had scratched despair with fingernails into the wall.

Needing a break from gruesome flashbacks we headed next to lovely Lindau, an island connected to the main land by two bridges.  Lindau is Germany’s most southern town, its Happy End, as an ad proclaimed.  In the Middle Ages the town was an important trading center for goods traveling over the treacherous Alps to and from Italy.  To this day, Lindau has maintained an aura of wealth and luxury and the shops along Maximilianstrasse, offer exquisite goods with hefty price tags.  In one of them I bought a set of linen towels for a wedding present.  A sign promised “they last longer than some marriages.”  I know that my friends will use them for high maintenance.

On our way to Lindau we skipped Friedrichshafen, made famous by Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin who assembled the first airship here.  Luxurious Zeppelins circled the globe and crossed the Atlantic many times, until the largest crashed in Lakehurst, New Jersey, in 1937.  If my mind were better bent on science and technology we would, of course, have stopped at Friedrichhafen’s famous Zeppelin Museum.  In passing I’d just like you to know that the Goodyear blimp is a descendent of the Zeppelin that made its maiden voyage in 1900 over the Bodensee. 

Back in Lindau, after one more Kaffee und Kuchen (coffee and cake) at an elegant lakefront restaurant, Heidi and Hans had to head home, leaving me stranded by the waters.  Fortunately, frequent and punctual ferries carry you to 40 different landings around the lake.  I took the next to the scenic Isle of Mainau, a Mediterranean paradise owned by the Bernadotte family, relatives of Sweden’s royals.

The Baroque palace and church at the island’s center sit on 115 acres of arboretums and gardens that showcase seasonal flowers, including 20,000 dahlias in 200 varieties spread like a carpet along the water’s edge.  In another part of the park paraded giant floral sculptures in the shape of birds and ducks.  I followed some children as they ran towards tinny sounds from a barrel organ, a hand-painted instrument with tiny figures turning with the tunes.  The organ grinder remained taciturn, even when the children dropped Euros into his black pouch.

Directly opposite of Mainau, on the other end of the lake, is Bregenz, the capital of the Austrian State of Vorarlberg.  A cable car takes you to the Pfaender (3,200 ft), the most famous vantage point over Lake Constance.  From here you have a commanding view of the city and the entrance of the Rhine River that provides 70 percent of the lake’s water.  On this sunny day the lake was dotted with hundreds of small sailboats, but the Swiss Alps remained shrouded, despite the promise that you’ll see them “on clear days.”    

For a taste of Switzerland I took the train to the Cantonese capital St. Gallen, only six miles inland. What amazed me immediately—in addition to the Starbucks at the station—was Swiss cleanliness.  There wasn’t a scrap of paper or a stray cigarette butt in the street, as if little fairies had come at midnight to sweep them all.  The town’s main attraction, the Benedictine Abbey, looked as if it had just been unwrapped from the late Baroque period.  I entered the famous library on felt slippers and did my part polishing the inlaid floor. 

On this glorious Sunday morning I was the library’s only visitor for a while, to the surprise of the guard who made sure that I didn’t abscond with any of the 9th or 13th century treasures.  “Usually we squeeze 125 visitors into the hall,” she said.  People were probably out hiking and sailing, leaving me to admire one of the most beautiful Rococo halls, with 660,000 books and 2,400 manuscripts stacked to the ceiling on shelves that are connected by curved galleries.  This is a lending library, I learned.  You can sit in an adjacent room and pour over books and manuscripts with their exquisite hand-written lettering and illustrations.  At the height of Benedictine activity, between the 9th and the 11th century, some 80 monks were bending over parchment, copying epics, the bible, and Gregorian chants.  Two thousand farms clustered around the monastery in support of its activities.

Today, St. Gallen is an important trade-fair city, but immaculate half-timbered houses with geraniums pouring out of every window are reminders of a proud patrician heritage.

Constance, a short train ride from St. Gallen, sports a different icon of its past.  Imperia, a 27-foot statue of a scantily-clad woman weighing 18 tons, rules the harbor and slowly turns on a pedestal so we can admire her voluptuous figure from all angles.

Imperia symbolizes the power of hundreds of courtesans who followed the male participants to the famous Council of Constance, 1414-18.  At that time, Europe had three popes, and the council tried to unite and reform a divided church.  One of its guests was the reformer and rector of the University of Prague, Jan Hus.  Despite assurances from King Sigismund that he’d receive free passage, Hus was arrested and burned alive.  The Council’s other claim to fame was the election of Pope Martin V who was to outdo his three competitors.

The slowly turning Imperia holds the naked dwarf-like figures of King Sigismund and Pope Martin V in her outstretched hands.  When she was installed ten years ago, her image upset many upright citizens but by now scandalous history has become a matter of civic pride.  “Isn’t she great,” grinned an older woman who had watched me snapping pictures.

Constance survived the war intact, due to its proximity to Switzerland.  In fact, the border runs through the town’s neighborhoods and the Swiss and German train stations sit side-by-side.  The town has a new university and students enliven the pub and restaurant scene.  The market in the old town is a good place for people watching, including children who love to ride an iron horse with eight hooves.

The Muenster is but a stone’s throw from here.  When I entered, the organist practiced at full throttle.  Sitting in the pew I contemplated 900 years of architectural and church history.  Here Jan Hus had stood to be condemned; a hundred years later, the followers of Swiss Protestant Reformer Ulrich Zwingli ransacked the cathedral’s sanctuary.

Now it’s all peaceful and quiet, except for Bach and Bruckner from the organ.  When the music turned too modern and atonal, I decided to head for the nearest pub.