The Complete Guide To: Lake Constance

With shores in three countries, this Central European waterway boasts Bronze Age dwellings, baroque churches - and is home to the Zeppelin, says Margaret Campbell


WHERE IS IT, AND WHAT IS IT?

Bordered by three countries, Lake Constance occupies an extremely beautiful corner of Central Europe - and is an ideal destination for a relaxing short break or longer family holiday. The 270km shoreline is shared between Germany, Austria and Switzerland. The lake is essentially a bulge in the Rhine - mirroring Lake Geneva, an expansion of the Rhône, at the other end of Switzerland.

The Rhine descends from the Swiss Alps to the area where the three countries converge, and spreads out to create a wide delta. For a distance of 46km it broadens out to a maximum width of 14km, then recovers its fluvial identity at the border of Germany and Switzerland for the long journey to the North Sea.

More than half of the shoreline of Lake Constance is in Germany. There are three distinct areas. The German stretch on the north shore, between Bregenz in Austria and the town of Konstanz and the Swiss border, is known as Obersee; Uberlingen, the north-western arm; and Untersee, the "lower lake" in the south-west. The views from the German shore across to the Swiss Alps are stunning.

The lake is a centre for water sports, while its shores are home to swathes of vineyards and intriguing towns. The area is rich in castles, baroque churches, exquisite town squares and curious museums, while the hinterland is dotted with pretty villages and child friendly attractions.

TAKE ME AROUND THE LAKE

Most British travellers arrive at the lake's only airport, Friedrichshafen in Germany, so let's start there. The airport is close enough for a brisk walk into town, or you can catch a train from the airport's own station. The tourist office (00 49 7541 300 10; www.friedrichshafen.de) is outside the Stadtbahnhof.

Friedrichshafen is less of a tourist resort than an industrial town with a promenade. Its main claim to fame is as the home of Zeppelin airships. In the late 1800s, Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, who had seen hot-air balloons used during the American Civil War, developed a rigid airship powered by gas. The first of his cigar-shaped models was launched in 1900 and passenger flights to America followed.

The Zeppelin Museum (00 49 7541 38010; www.zeppelin-museum.de), located in the striking former harbour station, outlines the airship's history and hosts a 33m reconstruction of the Hindenburg. It opens 9am-5pm daily, admission €7.50 (£5.30).

Although the Zeppelin dream ended when the 245m-long Hindenburg exploded on landing in New Jersey in 1937, in the 21st century you can still take a Zeppelin trip (now using non-inflammable gas). This year, flights are possible over the following dates: 29 June to 12 July; 2 August to 7 September; 10 to 24 September; 25 October to 5 November. Flights take anything from 30 minutes (€200/£140) to two hours (€715/£510). Contact Deutsche Zeppelin Reederei (00 49 7541 59000; www.zeppelinflug.de).

To the west of the promenade in Friedrichshafen, the domed Schlosskirche shared the wartime fate of much of the town and was badly damaged by bombing. The 17th-century baroque interior has been restored to its former glory and is open to visitors (unlike the stately home and vineyards around it, which belong to the Dukes of Wurttembürg). Boat trips to other towns around the lake are available at the harbour.

WHAT ABOUT SOMETHING MORE HISTORIC?

Well, how far back would you like to go? Unteruhldingen's open-air Pfahlbauten is a collection of reconstructed Stone and Bronze Age lake dwellings, based on prehistoric remains found in the area (00 49 7556 8543; www.pfahlbauten.de).

Meersburg is a gem. Its two castles - the 16th-century Altes Schloss and the Baroque Neues Schloss - perched on a cliff top and spreading down a steep slope to the waterside. The Altes Schloss contains Germany's oldest extant castle within its walls; the building is now a museum (00 49 75 32 440400; www.meersburg.de), open 9am-6.30pm daily, admission €6 (£4.30). The lower town is made up of a single street and a café-lined waterfront with superb views. A ferry takes you (and your car) across to Konstanz every 15 minutes in a cheaper alternative to the tour boats.

A short way west, the former Free Imperial city of Uberlingen (00 49 7551 991122; www.uberlingen.de) was once the location of southern Germany's largest corn market. It reinvented itself as a health resort in the 19th century, attracting nobility and artists. The medieval old town is still dominated by the late-gothic cathedral, and vendors at the farmers' market on Wednesday and Saturday mornings (7am-1pm) spread out their wares under its shadow.

On the hills above Uberlingen, the rococo pilgrimage church of Birnau sits in an isolated spot overlooking the lake. Its interior is elaborate and beautiful. At the eastern end of the German shore, Wasserburg's castle and 8th-century church are less dramatic but just as romantic.

MOVING SWIFTLY ON...

Continuing clockwise around the lake, a few kilometres beyond the German-Austrian border you reach Bregenz (information: 00 43 5574 49590; www.bregenz.ws). The town promotes itself as a cultural centre, with its large floating stage behind the concert hall used for spectacular operas in the annual summer festival. Each performance runs for two summers: Tosca is to be staged this year and next (00 43 5574 4076; www.bregenzerfestspiel.com).

The contemporary art gallery (00 43 5574 485 940; www.kunsthaus-bregenz.at) is housed in an ultra-modern light-reflecting cube: a major exhibition on Objects and Myth begins on 2 June. It opens 10am-6pm daily except Mondays (and to 9pm on Thursdays), admission €10 (£7).

On the hill behind the modern town, a former lookout tower now houses a small military museum, while the Pfänder cable car is a pain-free way to climb to over 1,000m (00 43 5574 421600; www.pfaenderbahn.at); returns cost €10.20 (£7.50), and the cable car operates 8am-7pm daily. Bregenz also offers easy access to mountain resorts such as Lech.

The Rhine delta, which straddles the border between Austria and Switzerland, is an area of considerable natural beauty and a refuge for wildlife.

CAN I MEET THE SWISS NAVY?

The Swiss shoreline stretches for 72km along the southern coast, on which the largest town is Kreuzlingen (00 41 71 672 3840; www.kreuzlingen-tourismus.ch) - a * * relatively young town that developed from the amalgamation of three medieval villages across the water from Konstanz. St Ulrich's basilica is worth a visit, as is the 14th-century Bernrain Chapel, once a stop on the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela.

The Seeburg park is a great place to relax, and the Lake Museum has displays on fishing and shipping history. A few kilometres inland, the Napoleon Museum in the Arenenberg Castle (00 41 71 663 3260; www.napoleonmuseum.tg.ch) was where Napoleon III spent his youth in forced exile from France. It is set in landscaped parkland overlooking the lake, open 10am-5pm daily, admission €7.50 (£5.30).

The medieval town of Stein am Rhein lies where the Rhine leaves Lake Constance to continue its course through Switzerland. Its 11th-century monastery still stands, and the town's alleys and waterfront are picture-perfect.

Closer to Austria, Arbon (00 41 71 440 1380; www.infocenter-arbon.ch) started out as a Roman fort, then became a prosperous merchant town. Its half-timbered buildings contrast with the art nouveau architecture that sprung up in the late 19th century. Today, the annual highlight is the June lake festival, culminating in a huge fireworks display, best viewed from the 3km promenade (see www.arbon.ch; this year the display is on 23 June). Later in the summer, the Swiss national holiday on 1 August is marked by fireworks displays all along the Swiss shore.

A few kilometres south of Arbon, the monastery town of St Gallen (00 41 71 227 37 37; www.st.gallen-bodensee.ch) is best known for the richly decorated library in its abbey, a World Heritage Site.

KONSTANZ: CONSTANTLY INTERESTING?

The German town that gave the lake its name has grown into a thriving university town, and is the unofficial capital of the lake region. The Swiss border runs alongside the town. The close proximity to a neutral country spared the city Allied bombing during the Second World War. Visit it for the Altstadt, the Münster and its lively shopping, or alternatively, you can use it as a base for exploring the surrounding region.

The 15th-century Council is commemorated by theinitially controversial statue of Imperia, a courtesan, at the entrance to the harbour. Erected in 1993, the curvaceous figure holds a naked Emperor and Pope in her hands.

WHY THE NAME?

In the Middle Ages the Frankish kingdom of Bodama held sway, from which is derived the modern name used by the Germans: Bodensee. However, in English it is known as Lake Constance, and most European languages use a variation of the name. The reason: in 1414 the good and the great of Europe gathered in the previously little-known town of Konstanz for a church council, convened to adjudicate between three claimants to the Papal office. Discussions lasted for four years - and the town boomed as church officials, princes, clerks and all the attendant entourages settled in. Since then, the town and lake have shared the same name.

You might also hear the expression "Swabian Sea". The southern part of Germany adjoining Lake Constance is the ancient region of Swabia. German is the language of choice around the lake and on related websites; few concessions are made to speakers of other languages.

CAN I SWIM IN LAKE CONSTANCE?

Yes, and sail, windsurf or canoe. Sand and pebble beaches are dotted round the lake, and there are summer lidos or swimming pools in Meersburg, Immenstaad, Wallhausen, Wasserburg, Bregenz and Arbon. With its 536sq km of water (20 times the area of Loch Lomond), the lake is a magnet for sailors, and there are marinas in several towns. Regattas and sailing competitions take place throughout the summer months, including the long-distance Rund Um and Match Race Germany ( www.matchrace.de).

Kressbronn is a family friendly base for water-based activities, including supervised sailing lessons for children, and a chance to prepare for the Bodensee sailing licence or canoe tours (00 49 7543 96650; www.kressbronn.de). See www.ultramarin.com for information on sailing.

HOW DO I GET THERE - AND AROUND?

German Rail/Deutsche Bahn (08702 43 53 63; www.bahn.de) sells tickets for the 11-hour journey from London Waterloo via Brussels, Cologne and Baden-Baden; the final stretch from Offenburg comprises a spectacular route through the Black Forest and ends in Konstanz (many other departures are available). A typical return fare from London is £130.

By air, the main gateway is Friedrichshafen in Germany, served daily by Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) from Stansted. If you are focusing on the Swiss side, then Zurich is a good gateway - access by rail is easy from the airport's own station to destinations along the shoreline.

Travelling around the lake is simple. The corniche road around the lake can be extremely busy in summer, especially on the German coast, so public transport is recommended. An excellent bus service is more flexible than the train, especially as the latter occasionally leaves the coastal towns to move inland (Meersburg, for example, is served by bus but not train). A network of tourist boats (the "White Fleet") links all of the main towns, and a car ferry connects Konstanz and Meersburg. The Hohentwiel steamship, a renovated steamship, is a more romantic alternative ( www.hohentwiel.com).

Rail is particularly useful for international jumps - Lindau and Bregenz are only a few minutes apart by rail. For those with the time and leg-power, by far the best way to travel is by bicycle: a flat and well sign-posted cycle path runs for 300km around the lake: see www.bodensee-radweg.com.

Once in the area, think about buying a Bodensee Erlebniskarte: valid for three, seven or 13 days and available in tourist offices and boat-tour ticket offices, this card gives free or reduced entry to over 150 attractions round the lake. Three versions are on offer, depending on whether travel on the Bodensee Shipping Company's boats is included. See www.bodensee-tourismus.com for details: follow the link to an English explanation.

WHERE WILL I STAY?

Accommodation comes in all sizes around the lake, from five-star luxury to simple rooms in private homes (pensions). Start your search at www.bodenseehotels.com, which covers all three countries.

In Meersburg, the Gasthof von Baren (11 Marktplatz, 00 49 75 324 3220), an inn which has been run by the same family for generations, is a friendly and welcoming base for exploring the German coastline and beyond; double rooms from €82 (£58) including breakfast.

In Friedrichshafen, the SEEhotel (Bahnhofplatz 2, 00 49 7541 3030; www.seehotelfn.com) is modern, centrally located and relaxing; double rooms from €164 (£116) including breakfast.

For something different, try the hotel yacht Emily, berthed at Horn in Switzerland (00 41 71 841 55 11; www.badhorn.ch). Campsites abound on both shores: contact the Lake Constance tourist office for a full list. Call 00 49 75 31 90 94 90 or visit www.bodensee-tourismus.com.

WHAT WILL I EAT?

Almost 200 professional fishermen work on the lake, and fish is on the menu of just about every restaurant. Try kretzer (perch), zander (pike-perch), trout or a platter of various types, accompanied by fine local wine, both red and white. Other regional specialities include maultaschen (pasta parcels filled with sausage meat and served with onions), Kässesätzle (cheese spätzle noodles) or Wurstsalat (sausage meat salad).

ISLAND LIFE

Three very different islands have as much allure as the coastline. At the north-eastern end, the Bavarian town of Lindau (00 49 83 32 260 030; www.lindau.de), linked to the mainland by rail and road bridges, was once a wealthy city-state, and its streets are lined with impressive houses. Try to come here during the July festival: www.stadtfest-lindau.de.

A few miles north of Konstanz, and linked to the mainland by a causeway, is Mainau, the 45-hectare Flower Island. You could spend an entire day wandering around its manicured parklands, butterfly house, Palm House and miniature zoo (00 49 75 31 30 30; www.mainau.de).

Reichnau, the largest of the three islands, has a long ecclesiastical history and is a World Heritage site. The tourist office is on 00 49 75 349 2070; www.reichenau.de.

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