Travel: A constant window on the past

The German town of Konstanz mixes medieval austerity with a modern sensuality.
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The Independent Culture
Forget the stultifying gentrification implied by its Hotel du Lac image. Forget, too, sedate afternoon perambulations along the lakeshore to imbibe the brisk air wafting down from the distant Alps. Instead, take in its voluptuous women. For Konstanz (long-known to the English as Constance), the far-south German city located cheek by jowl against the Swiss border, is an altogether more stimulating place than its stiff Germanic image might suggest.

Konstanz is sculpturally challenged by voluptuous women. Well, to be precise, by two such women. One of them is easily spotted at the city's lakeside harbour. The other is more difficult to find. She's on the opposite side of town to the harbour, in the pedestrianised central reservation of the busy Untere Laube road. Both of them get a mention - quite a lengthy one - in the town's tourist-trail leaflet, shoehorned in among write-ups on vast numbers of buildings which date from the Middle Ages or even earlier. For me, punch-drunk from reading about "rare Renaissance doors, windows from the Gothic period" and centuries-old buildings, Peter Lenk's irreverent sculptures came not only as a relief. They are an absolute delight.

His particularly sensual female figure, a slowly revolving, cream-coloured, stone-look statue 25 feet high is called "Imperia". She has decorated the entrance to Konstanz harbour since she was erected in 1993. A gorgeous figure, seductively exposing one very shapely leg (replete with ankle chain) and a large proportion of her sizeable breasts, what message she gives to unsuspecting tourists arriving here by boat across Lake Constance I cannot possibly imagine.

Over on the Untere Laube on the west side of town, the plethora of stone figures are further examples of Peter Lenk's scurrilous tradition.

Centred around a set of fountains, the 30 characters represent a satirical look at modern society. Corpulent old men recline with their obese legs immersed in fountain water, whiling away their time; infants with dummies turn car steering wheels; a Cupid with traditional bow and arrow plus less traditional flying goggles; even the Pope (perhaps not the present one) falling out of a coach with three buxom wenches, ready for a night on the town - while above him are the heavenly hosts (wearing gas masks for some reason still unclear to me).

Plus the voluptuous woman, this one with more make-up and smaller than harbour-front Imperia.

You have to admire the citizens of Konstanz for their artistic bravura. Not that one expects it here. The clusters of medieval buildings, the narrow, cobbled back streets and the clean and tidy Lutheran image of this most southern of German towns don't lead you to expect such challenges to convention. Perhaps it is also why on the wall of the 14th-century Lanzenhof building opposite, a crucifix faces the Lenk fountains. A suggestion of forgiveness perhaps?

The more conventional sights of the city are all in the tourist-trail leaflet. The trail begins at the railway station, as good a place as any, I suppose. Slavishly following it would take several hours. I managed about a third, picking out what seemed like the most interesting bits.

Probably the most impressive structure is the Konzil or council building by the harbour. Grey rendered and rather dull and barn-like externally, it was built as a grain store way back in 1388. Today, it is used as a meeting and conference centre. Inside, the huge solid oak pillars supporting the equally massive oak ceiling and roof timbers can't fail to impress. And, I was told, they are the originals.

The main conference room is the very place in which, for three long days in November 1417, the Catholic church's then 53 cardinals, all in their brilliant scarlet robes, sat in a huddle to fix the election of Pope Martin V, the only Pope ever elected on German soil.

From the Konzil building, it's a shortish walk through the town's public gardens on the lakeshore, and along the bank of the Rhine flowing into Lake Constance, to the historic Niederburg district of the city.

The oldest part of Konstanz, with part-timbered houses from the 14th and 15th centuries, is, according to the town trail "a maze of narrow medieval lanes, many of them still cobbled". I found it a tad disappointing. True, there are quite a lot of houses dating from the late Middle Ages, but much renovated and altered.

Niederburg leads one to Konstanz's massive, pale-grey stone, Romanesque cathedral which, for the next few years at least, will be undergoing exterior renovation. If you have the time and the energy, climb the steps inside the 250ft spire. From the very top on a clear day, you might spot Bregenz in Austria, which is nearly 30 miles away.

If traipsing around historic buildings and streets isn't to your liking, try a boat trip on Lake Constance. Two thirds of its shore is in Germany, the rest in Austria or Switzerland. A regular ferry plies to the picturesque German village of Meersburg. It costs just DM2.40 (77p).

From there you can pick up ferries to other lakeside towns. On a warm day, with distant views of the snow-capped eastern Swiss and Austrian Alps touching the clouds, it's well worth a trip. And you get a close- up of imperious Imperia's well-endowed figure for free.

Fact File

Getting there: by air, the most convenient gateway is Zurich, across the border in Switzerland. British Airways (0345 222111) and Swissair (0171-434 7300) fly from Heathrow; BA also flies from Gatwick, Newcastle and Southampton. Starting prices are around pounds 125 return. There are four direct trains a day from Zurich airport to Konstanz, taking 65 minutes.

German National Tourist Office, 65 Curzon Street, London W1Y 5NE (0891 600100)