The Vast Bodensee Embraces the Charms of the Swiss, Swabian, Austrian, and German Cultures
The traveler arriving by rail in Kölnstanz often finds the experience disorienting. Banana and palm trees surround the train station. The azure waters of the Bodensee (known to the English-speaking world as "Lake Constance") reach to the horizon, its shores ringed by green hills and snowy mountains. A day that may have started with frost in the Black Forest, is now one of teenagers in shorts with swim trunks rolled in towels. Welcome to the German Riviera.
Germany accounts for 173 kilometers of the Bodensee's 273-km shoreline (Switzerland covers 72 km and Austria 28 km). It's the largest lake in Germany ' 69 km or 43 miles at its longest point and 14 km/9 miles at its widest. An average water temperature of 68 degrees Fahrenheit helps keep the climate temperate, if not downright balmy.
Residents are only half joking when they refer to Kölnstanz as "the Metropolis of the Bodensee." Yes, the town has only 78,000 residents, but it's surprisingly diverse, thanks in great part to the university established there in 1965. There's an active club scene with a special love for jazz and blues and a taste for local wines. Outdoor cafés stay open late, and streets stay lively under the summer moon. (Kölnstanz's active jazz and art cultures often converge at ExxTRA, a combination of café, gallery, club and wine bar. Prices are low and the setting laid-back. In the upstairs gallery modern art hangs on ancient walls. ExxTRA, Hussanstrasse 28, D-78426 Kölnstanz, tel +49/7531/23394.)
Despite all the activity and culture, it's a town of relaxation. A walk along the promenade drops blood pressure by 30 points. At sunrise, against an Alpine silhouette, fishermen steer their flat-bottomed boats toward favorite spots. Soon, sails rise as yachts play chicken with ferries and steamships. At dusk, the mountains fade to black as lights come on around the lake.
Once a wealthy trading stop, Kölnstanz is full of history and architecture. War and fire have left the town untouched, and its medieval character persists. Narrow, crooked alleys transport visitors quickly into the Middle Ages. The Old Town is still dominated by the Romanesque-Gothic basilica church, Minster of Our Lady, with remnants from its 11th-century construction. In the Upper Market, liars once had their tongues nailed to the pillory and had to pull themselves free ' hence the term "speaking with a forked tongue." Across the moat from the priests' quarters, nuns lived in a district still called "Paradise." Many buildings (like Kanzleistrasse 15) have arcades with spy holes, where residents could look secretly at passersby. At Rosgartenstrasse 4, the rococo carving of a creature ' half-fish, half-rabbit 'celebrates the "lake rabbits," as residents were known. Behind Tulengasse 1, an attached "one-holer" once emptied to the alley. Rains and frequent floods kept the streets "clean."
Many buildings hide spacious courtyards. Respect privacy but explore when appropriate. Treasures are to be found.
Kölnstanz makes a great base for day trips to the nearby islands of Mainau and Reichenau.
Mainau, the so-called "Isle of Flowers," is even more tropical than Kölnstanz. Many travelers find the 110-acre island artificial and manicured, but others are enthralled by its carefully cultivated arboretums and gardens with rare and exotic plants, its fountains and the Butterfly House. It's all the property and passion of Count and Countess Bernadotte, who live on the island in a baroque castle.
If Mainau is contrived and beautiful, Reichenau is authentic, untouched and raw. It's a rural landscape of farms and villages that feels stuck in time (the entire island is a UNESCO World Heritage Site). Three monasteries date to the 9th century, and the island's three villages have intact medieval towers to warn against marauders. Seventeenth-century buildings are considered "new." A 2 km causeway leads from the mainland past a nature sanctuary filled with flowering meadows, cattail marshes, and thousands of migrating birds. Boats arrive frequently from Kölnstanz. The Island Bus #35, which covers the villages and key sights, offers day-long, on and off privileges for €3.50.
Meersburg is the walled medieval village you dream about, with the added bonus that it's on a lake. The older, upper town clutches a bluff over the lake, and has the medieval Old Castle as well as the "new" castle, a 17th-century Baroque delight. The sunny, Mediterranean lower town, with palm trees and lakeside promenade is a place of relaxation, shopping and culinary delights.
Upper and lower towns are connected by a steep road and footpaths that lead under the castle drawbridge past many half-timber homes. Each turn reveals a new set of paths, alleys, passageways and plazas. In the evening, life moves to the lower town.
From Kölnstanz, Meersburg is a 20-minute bus ride (#1) to the ferry station outside of town, connecting there to the 30-minute boat ride.
Landing in Lindau
With the Alps on one side and castles and villages on the other, the 3.5-hour, storybook boat ride from Kölnstanz to Lindau passes quickly.
Prosperity came early to Lindau, thanks to its position on a medieval trade route. The island town is still decidedly upscale with Baroque buildings, gabled burghers' houses, half-timbered houses, and onion-dome churches. Today's affluence takes the form of galleries and studios ' and a mostly underground casino. The island's circumference is just 3.5 km (2 miles) and walks along its promenades feature ancient fortifications, a 13th-century lighthouse, turquoise waters, blue skies, and, of course, the Alps. Despite a concentration of historic sights, the town does not overpower. Its size and self-containment make it easy for mind and senses to digest.
Perhaps the best way to explore the Bodensee, is to arrive by train and travel between towns by ship. Auto travel disadvantages are heavy traffic and minimal parking. In a car one is also acutely aware of the urban sprawl that has hit even this mostly rural region. But from the water it's all far away and one can remain in denial that much longer. Ship travel offers a sense of adventure and romance. Waves and wind can kick up a fury, and fog can sock in with surprising speed. Plus there's a certain excitement about disembarking, suitcase in hand, in a new location.
Five lines run 34 boats among the cities of the three countries. Fares are reasonable: as low as -4 from Kölnstanz to Meersburg to €9.80 from Kölnstanz to Lindau. German Rail Passes offer a 50% discount on ships operated by Bodensee Schiffsbetriebe and the Eurailpass discounts various Austrian and Swiss boats. The Bodensee Erlebniskarte ' a discount card ' offers free passage on all Lake Constance boats, admission to Mainau, various cable cars and lifts in Austria and Switzerland and all bus lines, as well as free or reduced entrance fees at many attractions. It's available at tourist offices for €47 for three days or €60 for seven days.
The Hotel-Petershof is modern but with character, 31 spacious rooms spread over four floors. It's across the Rhine from the Old Town, not in the greatest neighborhood and not impressive from the outside. But the staff attitude, room quality, and great prices make it a strong value. Each room has a CD player and a VCR with some 200 free videos (many in English).
Daily Rates: Singles €68-76, doubles €111, garage parking €5.50
Rating: Quality 14/20 Value 16/20
Hotel Villa Barleben am See
Just a short drive across "Lake Rhine" from the Old Town, this 19th-century former summer residence has been converted to a seven-room hotel. Set amid Jugendstil villas, it retains a stately, Victorian appearance and the feel of a private home, with rooms that summon memories of July visits to a wealthy aunt. Amid parquet floors, antiques, cozy nooks, and old steamer trunks, guests receive a high level of personal attention. The best rooms face south to the lake (some have small balconies). Relax on the covered terrace, in the sprawling private gardens, or take a walk along the promenade.
Contact: Hotel Villa Barleben am See, Seestrasse 15, D-78464 Kölnstanz, tel +49 07531 942 330, fax +49 7531 669 73, web www.hotel-barleben.de
Daily Rates: Singles -€95-115, doubles €135-155
Rating: Quality 16/20 Value 17/20
Guests arrive at the five-star Steigenberger Inselhotel (Island Hotel) by crossing a small bridge to a private island where the hotel has stood for nearly 900 years. Past the foyer lies a glassed-in hotel courtyard, once the cloister of a 13th-century Dominican monastery. The monastery church still exists, albeit as a function room, and the original Gothic frescoes are among the oldest in Europe. Count Zeppelin was born here. A fine double is Number 322 with two windows and a lakefront balcony.
Daily Rates: Singles €107-169, doubles €179-251, suites €189-363
Rating: Quality 17/20 Value 15/20
Located high above the Mainau, a short distance from town amid hilltop farmlands, the Volapük is an excellent choice for auto travelers who want easy access to sights around the city. From Room 41, the hotel's largest, guests can look across the lake to Meersburg. Rooms are plain but neat, with the usual amenities. For trivia buffs, Volapük is an artificial language ' a precursor to Esperanto ' invented in the 19th century by a local pastor.
Daily Rates: Singles €57-90, doubles €82-108
Rating: Quality 14/20 Value 15/20
This charming country estate has a private beach directly on the Bodensee. There is also an herb garden, orchard, a small pond with lily pads and a brook lined with reeds and willows. It's a tranquil escape. The main building with rustic restaurant (hotel guests only) is a half-timber house more than 300 years old, while most guest lodging and facilities are in more modern structures. Guest rooms are spacious, and warmly decorated, some with terrace or balcony with lake view.
Daily Rates: Singles €110-150, doubles €164-240, suites €210-250. Prices include breakfast and dinner.
Rating: Quality 15/20 Value 14/20
Hotel Zum Bären
Meersburg history doesn't stop at Zum Bären's door. It follows guests across the 1605 Renaissance portal (look for the five carved angels), through the richly furnished lobby and even to their rooms. For a few extra euros per night, guests can choose rooms with antique furniture. For a few more, they get a corner room with an oriel window. The building dates from the 13th century and current family ownership is from 1851. Request private bath.
Contact: Hotel Zum Bären, Marktplatz 11, D-88709 Meersburg, tel +49/7532/432244, fax 43220, web www.meersburg.de/baeren
Daily Rates: Singles €46, doubles, €86-102
Rating: Quality 13/20 Value 15/20
The default destination for many Lindau-bound Americans is the luxurious and top-notch Bayerischer Hof, which charges as much as €289 for a room with lake view. Fight convention and head to the Lindauer Hof, a charming family-owned hotel set in a former 17th-century granary. Though you'll drop a star (from five to four), you'll save as much as 50 %. On the other hand, if you want to spend some money, ask for Number 404, a large, L-shaped room with an upstairs living room and view to the Mangturm (tower), the harbor and across to the lake to the Austrian and Swiss Alps. Even the bathroom has a throne with a view. Room 402 is another spacious top-floor room with a large terrace via French doors, and a view to the harbor and mountains.
Daily Rates: Singles €72-85, doubles €135-189
Rating: Quality 16/20 Value 15/20
Hotel Goldenes Lamm
When the Hotel Goldenes Lamm opened during the Middle Ages, it was at the western end of the island. Thanks to centuries of island expansion, it is now more central but still doesn't lack for views. Number 28, a large room with sitting and writing areas, looks over the 14th-century Thieves' Tower. Number 37's view is of St. Peter's Church (11th-century, frescoes by Hans Holbein the Elder). It's a simple but more than adequate historic hotel with room rates about 40% less than those on the waterfront. Request private bath.
Contact: Hotel Goldenes Lamm, Paradiesplatz/Schaafgasse 3, 88131 Lindau, tel +49/8382/5732, fax 6254
Daily Rates: Singles €41-51, doubles €72-102. Breakfast is €8
Rating: Quality 12/20 Value 14/20
Bodensee restaurants take advantage of fresh, local resources, especially lake fish ' whitefish, perch, pike, trout, char and eel ' served with vegetables grown on Reichenau or other nearby farms. Fruit often comes from nearby orchards and local vineyards produce "Weissherbst," a delicate rosé more gold than pink. Most of the German Bodensee falls within Baden-Württemberg (Lindau is Bavarian), and regional cuisine, such as Spätzle and Maultaschen (like ravioli) from Swabia, and venison, wild boar and pork from Baden, are popular.
Weinstube Zum Guten Hirten
A variety of local wines, coupled with inexpensive but eclectic cuisine, make this restaurant worth a stop. Try Hirten Skewer with venison, pork, lamb and a tomato-pepperoncini salsa, or perhaps the Baden sausage salad. The interior's medieval architecture is interesting but a table outdoors avoids the canned music. Most entrées are less than €10.
Contact: Weinstube Zum Guten Hirten, Zollernstrasse 8, D-78462 Kölnstanz, tel. +49/7531/27344
Rating: Quality 15/20 Value 14/20
If it grows on Reichenau, it's probably on the menu at the Löwen, a small island café that serves only fresh, local vegetables in a variety of salads, dumplings, pizzas, noodles, Spätzle dishes, stir-frys and "health plates." But it's not vegetarian and these dishes also come with meats, cheeses and sausages. The setting is modern and the welcome cheerful. Entrées range from €8-12.
Contact: Restaurant Löwen, Pirminstrasse 144, D-78479 Reichenau, tel. +49/7534/229, web www.loewen-insel-reichenau.de
Rating: Quality 14/20 Value 14/20
Fish doesn't get any fresher than at Georg's Fischerhütte, a local favorite in the ancient shadow of Reichenau's Saints Peter and Paul Church. Georg Böhler fishes each morning, and he and wife Iris prepare the catch for eager appetites throughout the lunch hour (but no later). Place your order, take a number, sit at an outdoor table, and await a generous portion of fried fish (with French fries and salad) for less than €10. The variety and serving hours depend on the day's catch. The setting, at the most remote end of the rural island, is sublime.
Contact: Georg's Fischerhütte, Fischergasse 5, D-78479 Reichenau, 49/7534/7169
Rating: Quality 14/20 Value 15/20
Stromeyer Restaurant & Bar
Outside, the Stromeyer looks like what is was, an old factory. But inside the 19th-century structure has been painstakingly restored in 1920s style, a delightful integration of Jugendstil (art nouveau) and industrial chic. Teardrop lamps and an old factory clock suspend from the ceiling over hardwood and marble floors. Chairs are original bistro seats from the 20s and 30s. Be sure to sit under the vaulted windows. Cushioned benches run the length of the waterfront wall with a view to the Rhine as it flows from Lake Constance. Swans roll over the wakes as boats parade by. The lunch buffet features dishes such as pork roast with bread dumplings, trout in rémoulade sauce, chicken livers in Madeira sauce, and saltimbocca with gnocchi ' as well as rows of pastas, salads and desserts. Not bad for €8.50. There are seasonal entrées from -7 for spaghetti carbonara to €23 for young venison with wild mushrooms. Taxi fare is about €6 from downtown.
Rating: Quality 15/20 Value 16/20
The Stork's Nest is "a bit of Alsace in Constance " and the decor of this intimate and relaxed bistro features a growing collection of storks in various poses. Specialties like Flammenkuchen ' that delectable cross between a crêpe and a pancake ' are popular with various combinations of cheese, bacon and onions. Bibeleskäs'a kind of cottage cheese with herbs and pan-fried potatoes ' is surprisingly tasty, as is la choucroute aux poisons, a boiled sauerkraut-and-fish concoction that tastes better than it sounds. More familiar dishes are goose liver with Port wine jelly, quiche Lorraine and coq au Riesling with dumplings. French and Alsatian wines and regional beers round out the meal. (Save room for the crème brulée.) Service at the family-run restaurant is warm and cordial, with a French/German linguistic mix: "Bitte schön, monsieur. Merci!" Main dishes are in the €7-12 range.
Contact: Restaurant Storikenescht, Doebelstrasse 3, D-78946 Kölnstanz, tel +49/7531/919047
Rating: Quality 16/20 Value 16/20
Weinstube zum Bengel
The Weinstube zum Bengel lies in Meersburg's lower town between the waterfront and the quiet "main street" (actually, its the only street). The best seats are on the outside terrace with a view to the upper town. It's extremely friendly and informal. Fish lovers should order the "Carina" platter, an array of salmon, trout and other local species. Lighter appetites will enjoy the "supper board" with bread, cheese and meat, or perhaps the sausage salad. Service is fast, if needed, but it's best to linger in the evening. As the sun sets and lights beam across the castle, servers light candles on each table. It's time to celebrate with "Bodensee Sekt," the local sparkling wine. Dinner will be €10-12, tops.
Contact: Weinstube zum Bengel, Unterstadtstrasse 30, D-88709 Meersburg, tel +49 07532 6060, fax 7785.
Rating: Quality: 14/20, Value 15/20