Bounded by Switzerland, Germany and Austria, Lake Constance is necklaced with holiday temptations.
How much do you know about Lake Constance? Europe’s third largest lake beckons like a scenic bulge in the Rhine River, swooned over for its castles, bike trails and ravishing alpine scenery. The lake is actually part of the Rhine, whose waters, flowing north from the Swiss Alps, are trapped in this ancient glacial basin before continuing their long passage to the sea.
Bounded by Switzerland, Germany and Austria this multi-national body of water is also known by its old German name of Bodensee and it’s blessed with a necklace of enchanting towns and leisurely attractions. On my latest swing through Europe, I was curious to sample a few nights on the shores of Lake Constance and she didn’t disappoint. A superb base is on the eastern side of the sprawling lake, in Bregenz, which is the capital of the Austrian state of Vorarlberg.
Once the Roman town of Brigantium, Bregenz is a multi-layered tale of two towns, the historic upper town and the lakefront lower town which is the more modern, buzzing shopping and hospitality district. An effortlessly stress-free vibe suffuses Bregenz, pitch-perfect for leisurely exploration.
I met up with Walter Gohli for a guided walk of Bregenz, who kept me captivated for several hours as he breezed me through the city’s long and illustrious history, while revealing hidden treasures. We started in the self-titled Cultural Mile, which Walter dryly noted is actually only two hundred metres long. Home to clutch of creative storehouses in Kornmarktplatz, the Kornmarkthaus Theatre takes its name from the city’s legacy as a major player in the corn trade.
In the 16th century, climate change meant it was no longer possible to grown corn south of Bregenz, so the city became a corn-growing powerhouse. The exquisite Kornmesser Inn, built in 1720, was previously the residence of the market boss. Next to that is the splendidly ornate St. Nepomuk Chapel, an 18th-century Rococo jewel, beloved for its oval design.
Then there’s the Vorarlberg Museum which was founded in 1857 to preserve the state’s rich cultural heritage, which does a sterling job with its collection of exhibits spanning the Stone Age and Roman rule, through to the Gothic and Renaissance period. But the most daring addition to the cultural crown is Kuntshaus Bregenz, the town’s most contemporary structure. It’s basically a steel skeleton cloaked in a layer of floating translucent glass.
Famed for its rotating exhibits of international contemporary art, I checked out the current temporary blockbuster, showcasing works from Jordan Wolfson. Acclaimed for his powerful and unsettling works, across a range of formats, I struggled with his Virtual Reality work Real Violence, which sees you watching a man being beaten to death by a baseball-bat wielding thug on the street in New York. VR becomes RV, before your very eyes. His work is an acquired taste.
Walter and I headed to the medieval heart of Bregenz, the once fortified Upper Town which occupies the site of the Celtic and Roman town of Brigantium. It’s a wonderful area to explore on foot, as many of the streets have preserved their old-world character, with remnants of the old 13th-century town walls still standing. It’s the peace and serenity up here that really sweeps you up.
Highlights include the Baroque blockbuster, St. Martin’s Tower, built in 1601 and boasting the largest onion-shaped roof in Europe. I admired the 14th century frescoes adorning the chapel. They must have been crafted by an Italian, because their 3D artistic effect hadn’t been mastered at the time, north of the Alps. The Old Town Hall is the city’s largest half-timbered house, built in 1662 and serving at the admin centre for Bregenz for nearly 300 years.
Got a head for heights? Rising above the city like a protector, Bregenz is very proud of Pfänder. Reaching the summit of this one thousand metre high mountain can be easily accomplished on the six-minute ride aboard the Pfänderbahn cable car, unless you want to opt for a virtuous two-hour trek up the slopes. Pfänder is a must-visit for the enormous views over Lake Constance and the Alps. On a clear day, some 240 mountain peaks are visible, making it one of Austria’s most prized lookout points.
Back down by the water, I loved taking aimless strolls around the picturesque lakefront promenade, edged with attractive al fresco eateries, vintage piers and blazing flowerbeds. Bregenz comes with the bonus of facing the north west, which means stupendous sunsets, on the shores of Lake Constance. Grab an ice cream and stroll along to the prime viewing spot, the Sunset Steps – known as Molo to the locals.
Heading west on the promenade, I checked out the rustic heritage gem of “Mili”, the military bathhouse. Built on stilts above the lake in 1825, this is the oldest public bath on Lake Constance, originally developed as a training facility for military cadets. You’ll also want to check out the world’s largest floating stage, which plays host to the Bregenz Festival in summer.
Millions of dollars are spent on the incredibly elaborate stage design for each production and this year it was Puccini’s Madame Butterfly that took centre stage. The setting featured in James Bond’s “Quantum of Solace”, with 007 chasing the villains across the floating stage. https://visitbregenz.com
The beautiful harbour is the home port for Vorarlberg Lines and their fabulous fleet of lake steamers ferrying people across to many neighbouring destinations dotted around the placid lake. I took a short jaunt over to the southern tip of Germany, where the radiant little island of Lindau always gets the cameras clicking. This was a hugely prosperous merchant town along the trade route from Italy, connected to the mainland by a bridge. The island’s showpiece is its magnificent harbour entrance, guarded by an impressive sandstone Bavarian lion and a gorgeous lighthouse. Both were installed in the 1850s.
Stop by the tourist office just off the harbour and grab a map to navigate the cobblestone streets, admiring the decorative gables, half-timbered houses and seductive shopping scene in the old town. The 15th-century Altes Rathaus (Old Town Hall) is a knock-out, with an exterior cheerfully decorated with motifs, spanning everything from the Ten Commandments to a sundial.
Another Lindau signature is the Diebsturm (Thieves Tower), which was constructed in 1380 as the former prison and watch tower. And you’ll find there’s no shortage of biergartens to enjoy some great wiener schnitzel and Bavarian lager. If you spot some Zeppelin airships in the skies, fear not – the lager hasn’t gone to your head. They’re a regular sight.
Just west of Lindau is the town of Friedrichshafen, proudly home to those cigar-shaped airships. It was here that Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, a maverick with an impressive walrus moustache and military honours, turned his attention to airships. In 1928 the pride of the fleet, Graf Zeppelin, hummed across the Atlantic in four days. A year later she circumnavigated the globe in just twelve days. But it was her sister-ship, Hindenburg, that erupted into a fireball in New Jersey in 1937, killing off the love-affair for travel by airship.
Check out the Zeppelin Museum, where you can stroll through a reconstruction of the passenger section of the Hindenburg. But if you do want to take a flight in one, they still fly in Friedrichshafen. The airships are only a tenth the size of the originals and climb to 2000m, taking twelve well-heeled passengers for one-hour jaunts above Lake Constance.
Where to stay? In the heart of Kornmarkt Platz, Messmer Hotel is a beacon of Bregenz hospitality, with a backstory reaching back four hundred years. All manner of historical figures have passed through its doors, including Alois Negrelli, the great engineer and architect of the Suez Canal. He lived in the hotel from 1829 to 1832. Comfortable accommodations, an excellent buffet breakfast and convivial wine bar are all part of the package. Wherever you are roaming in Europe, bag a great deal on Booking.com. No matter what your budget or accommodation preferences may be, score a great-value stay with total flexibility and convenience, at www.booking.com
Grab a ticket to ride the wonders of the European railway network with a Eurail Pass. On popular rail routes, it pays to make a seat reservation in advance. Lock in your rail plans ahead of your trip, by booking tickets or a rail pass to suit with Eurail direct. The mobile pass is the way to go. The Eurail app is an excellent initiative, packed with helpful information and benefits, notifying you of any network disruption and enabling you to check timetables, lock in bookings and seat reservations on the go, via your mobile. www.eurail.com