GERMANY: Lake Constance, easy living in Germany
Still underrated elsewhere, Lake Constance is considered by the Germans to be their very own “Riviera”… To discover this rare, protected site, I recommend taking the inshore road to make the most of the many vistas over the lake and chain of the Alps.
A two-hour drive from Stuttgart, Germany’s largest lake (39 miles long, nigh on 9 miles wide and 827 ft deep) is also the biggest reservoir of drinking water in Europe! Rising where the Rhine takes a rest after crossing the Alps, it serves as a natural border with Switzerland to the south and Austria to the east.
Its vast horizons and mild climate make the Bodensee (named after the old imperial palace of Bodman) a place where you can recharge your batteries, and it also boasts a host of family activities: with swimming, cruises, bike rides and visits to historical sites, there is something for everyone! The same goes for accommodation: from campsite to 5-star hotel via B&Bs, all needs are catered for.
Nicknamed the “Island of Flowers” on account of its lush vegetation, this 45 ha island situated on the lake’s westernmost arm (Überlinger See) was developed by the Grand Dukes of Baden. The park – its main attraction – has belonged to the Bernadotte family since 1853.
Allow at least two hours to explore this paradise, whose gardens – containing 200 species of rhododendron – surround the Baroque church and castle. Cross the Italian rose garden and you will come out on a terrace that overlooks the lake and affords a view of the Alps in the distance.
The butterfly house is also a magical place where, day and night, there is 80% humidity and the temperature is 26°C: the jungle here is tropical (hibiscus, cactus, orchids, palm trees, etc) and thousands of butterflies fly freely in the steam from a pond where turtles, Tanganyika perch and zebra fish live side by side…
Situated on the other arm of the lake (Gnadensee), the fertile island of Reichenau is today an immense 430 ha garden mainly devoted to market gardening (organic farming is very widespread here).
It was here, in 724, that Saint Pirmin founded Germany’s first Benedictine abbey, which was one of the main centres of western culture. Indeed, the monks of Reichenau did not content themselves with cultivating vines and orchards, they were also first-rate illuminators and artists, and eminent doctors, mathematicians, astronomers, poets and transcribers. The abbey’s treasures notably include the “Relic of the Holy Blood of Christ” and the Reliquary of Saint Mark the Evangelist. Reichenau Island is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Skirting the lake in the direction of Switzerland, you will cross the Höri peninsula, famous for its numerous cycle paths. The great German author Hermann Hesse (1877-1962), winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946, lived here from 1904 to 1911. His house, in the municipality of Gaienhofen, has been open to the public since 1993.
Nearby is the village of Hemmenhofen, where you will find the house where expressionist painter Otto Dix (1891-1969) was born; this ex-serviceman was one of the most radical denouncers of the horrors of the war. Allergic to any notion of heroism, he was labelled a “degenerate artist” by the Nazi regime.
Now it’s time to enter Switzerland and discover one of the most important historical sites of Lake Constance: Arenenberg Castle in Salenstein (6 miles west of Kreuzlingen, canton of Thurgau).
This little castle, surrounded by gardens and a beautiful park, stands on a terrace dominating the lake’s western basin (Untersee). It was here, in 1817, that Hortense de Beauharnais (daughter of Empress Joséphine and wife of Louis Bonaparte, one of Napoleon I’s brothers) and her son Charles Louis Napoleon, then aged 9, came to find refuge after the Empire collapsed. Charles Louis (the future Napoleon III), spent all his summers here until 1837.
The castle has preserved objets d’art and furniture from the period, as illustrated by Hortense’s salon, the library, bedrooms and boudoir, which contain souvenirs of the imperial family. In 1906, Eugénie gave the castle to the canton of Thurgau.
Constance and the surrounding area
The town of Constance is a German enclave situated on the Swiss shore of the lake. I recommend spending the afternoon here in order to make the most of its perfectly preserved mediaeval centre where, from 1414 to 1418, a council met to decide between three candidates for the title of pope (Gregory XII, John XXIII and Benedict XIII… In the end it was an outsider, Martin V, who won the day). The charm of Constance is mainly due to its seaside-resort atmosphere, with its little marina, casino and Art Nouveau villas.
Next I recommend taking the ferry for Meersburg, a former residence of the prince-bishops and a picturesque village surrounded by vineyards and orchards.
Just over 12 miles to the east, still on the shores of the lake, the pretty town of Friedrichshafen is no other than the world birthplace of aviation, since it was here that the famous airships of Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, born in Constance (1838-1917), were made.
Besides a visit to the Zeppelin museum located in the old harbour station, you can also board a Zeppelin, construction having resumed at Friedrichshafen: at 75 m long and with 12 seats, it can reach speeds of 78 mph. The flight over Lake Constance lasts an hour…
Photo credits: © Emmanuel Tresmontant/Michelin