Europe's industrial juggernaut, laid-back? That’s not exactly what comes to mind. But go over to Lake Constance and you’ll find that they do know how to take it easy.
Europe’s largest and strongest economy is better known as an industrial juggernaut churning out sleek machinery, constantly pushing the limits of technology and engineering. Its people have had a history of tenacity since medieval times, through wars, plagues, industrialisation, political overhaul, and even in football. But pop down to a tiny corner in its southern border, Lake Constance, and you’ll be charmed by its “sit back, relax and enjoy life” character.
Lake Constance is Central Europe’s third largest lake with Germany, Austria and Switzerland sharing it. On the Swiss side, the Swiss Alps dip into the lake, whilst on the German side, vineyards, orchards and meadows line the shore. Austria occupies a tiny portion of less than 10km in shoreline.
Out of this glacial lake flows one of Western Europe’s most important rivers, the Rhine. I chose to visit the German side as I discovered during my pre-trip research that accommodation was 50% cheaper than the Swiss side.
The most popular towns at Bodensee (the German name for Lake Constance) are Konstanz and Lindau. The former is the largest town, having had the honor of hosting the likes of Roman emperors, bishops and medieval traders. The latter is one of three islands on the lake. If, like me, you prefer to be away from the crowds, then Lindau is the better choice. However, as I wanted to take it really easy, I chose to stay at a little village called Nonnenhorn, 7km from Lindau.
A few decades ago, Nonnenhorn was just a little farming village, with family-owned vineyards and orchards. In recent times, it has seen a number of its old farmhouses turned into guesthouses as tourists seek local experiences. In many ways, it is more fun than staying in a standard hotel.
For one, the guesthouse has wonderful character as they are family-run. Clement was our host at Gastehaus Hornstein. Cheerful and energetic, he surprised me with his British accent English. “Picked it up when I was travelling through England for a number of months,” he explained, with a grin.
According to the young chap, his grandfather was running the farm before his father changed part of it into a guesthouse. They still have their vineyard, a little winery producing their own brand of wine, and a pear orchard at the back of the guesthouse.
On lazy summer weekend afternoons, food is served in the shaded garden. Everyone in the hamlet seemed to converge here, drinking, munching and chattering away, lending an atmosphere of gaiety and relaxation. What a contrast to the mad weekend crowds in our malls!
During summer, daylight doesn’t fade till after 9.30pm. This makes it extremely pleasant for an after-dinner stroll. And a wonderful stroll at that since the village is dotted with 100-year-old country houses with lovely open gardens to admire. The more luxurious villas have private lakefront beaches.
There are also some areas designated as public beaches and one evening, we headed impromptu to one of these for a picnic dinner, my first ever. Open-air BBQ dinner, dinner on five-foot ways, pasar malam dinner, Ramly burger stand-up dinner, but never picnic dinner.
The best part, as my darling wife noted, was no mosquitoes! Ah, imagine how much enjoyment we would have outdoors if there were no mosquitoes, and that we didn’t get all sticky and balmy. That would certainly bring us out to the parks. Here, by Lake Constance, you can watch people sunbathing, eating, sleeping, chatting, swimming, or doing nothing, until the sun sets.
Most accommodations, be it hotels or guesthouses, participate in the municipal tourism programme. That means you get a gastekarte (guest card) that allows you free use of the public transport and other community activities, such as swimming pool, miniature golf, and whatever else the community has to offer. We didn’t know about this until, thankfully, the ever helpful Clement informed us. As a result, the kids had a great time at the local pool which fronts Bodensee.
You can swim in the lake but it looked rather deep and you have to contend with water weeds wrapping around your legs. So we gave that a miss. While swimming, my kids shouted and pointed at the sky, “A hot air balloon!” Lo and behold, it wasn’t a hot air balloon but a zeppelin – a real-life operating zeppelin floating silently above us! I had only read about it and seen pictures of it in my history book.
I didn’t even know it still existed after a catastrophic accident. On a flight across the Atlantic to America, it crashed while landing and burst into flames, killing all 36 onboard. Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin invented the airship at Friedrichshafen by Lake Constance in 1900. Today, the Zeppelin Museum is located in the same town.
Nearby, one can take a trip on a real 12-passenger zeppelin, like the very one I saw floating above me. However, it’ll cost you a whopping ‚200 (RM900) for 30 minutes and ‚745 (RM3,350) for 120 minutes! “Er, not today, kids.”
Lindau Im Bodensee
The next day, we took the train with our gastekarte and rode into Lindau, saving on the expensive car park fee. In travel brochures, Lindau (Lindau im Bodensee in full, as there is another Lindau town in Germany) is touted as a green paradise, a Mediterranean corner of Bavaria, a feel-good island and Germany’s Garden of Eden. Well, I think those are a bit over-the-top descriptions for this little island of 1km by 600m.
What would aptly fit it is an atmospheric and laid-back island. Its three main draws are its picturesque harbour, pastel-coloured old town and lakefront gardens. Having seen many harbours before, I still felt that Lindau had that little something special.
Its small port with bobbing sailboats moored against a colourful backdrop of old buildings makes it very quaint. It also has double-sided water-breakers with a very narrow passage for boats and ferries. From certain angles, it looks as if the harbour has no exit. At one end of the water-breaker stands the new lighthouse. At the other sits a Bavarian lion, the symbol of Germany’s Bavaria state (this is where the BMW gets its name – Bavaria Motor Works or Auto Bavaria).
The Swiss Alps in the distance and the glistening lake serve as wonderful serene backdrops. Back on the harbour side is an interesting yellow rectangular tower with W-patterned tile roof. This is the Mangturm (Old Lighthouse) erected at the end of the 12th century. More than just a pretty harbour, Lindau’s port is also an important ferry point. From here, you can catch a ferry to most of the larger towns along the shores of Lake Constance, including those in Switzerland and Austria.
A short five minute walk from the harbour will take you to the Alstadt (Old Town). In Germany, most of the alstadt in cities such as Frankfurt, Cologne and Munich have been reconstructed. Germany’s infrastructure was largely destroyed towards the end of World War II.
Thankfully, Lindau was spared the devastation of war. What you see in the old town is what was originally there since the 13th to 16th centuries.
The local council has done a great job in keeping the cobbled stone streets vehicle-free and encouraging al fresco dining, both giving an easy pace feel. The masterpiece is the Altes Rathaus (Old Town Hall). Intricate frescoes of angels, royal court scene and code of arms decorate the external wall. Besides strolling in leisurely fashion and checking out the stores, one mustn’t forget to enjoy some local cakes – particularly the chocolate cheese crumble, black forest cake, and apple pastries.
There are many other things to do in and around Lake Constance. Pfahlbauten is a Unesco World Heritage site showcasing prehistoric pile dwellings. Archaeologists have discover over 100 such dwellings around the Alps, dating from the Stone and Bronze Ages (4,000 BC to 850 BC).
What you’ll see here is a complete reconstruction of what researchers believe to be a good representation of the prehistoric lives of farmers, fishermen and craftsmen who lived by the lake edge. At a quick glance, they look like the stilt houses that still stand in Malaysia.
Alternatively, hop on to a ferry and enjoy a tranquil and scenic voyage, lasting anywhere from 30 minutes to seven hours, depending on your destination. You can explore a castle on Mainau Island, visit a monastery on Reichenau Island, sip Pinot noir at Meersburg, and catch a show at Bregenz’s theatre (the world’s largest lake stage).
I bade farewell to Clement and told him to take it easy. Everyone’s laid-back except him. “I will,” he assures me, “after I’ve made enough pocket money to enjoy.” This may well encapsulate the German psyche – to work hard, then lie back, and enjoy.