Whether you call it Lake Constance or, as the Germans do, the Bodensee, the lake's most charming harbor is the Bavarian town of Lindau.
By Claudia Fischer & Roger Holliday
Perhaps there should be a warning sign at all the entrances guarding the island town of Lindau on Lake Constance: "Beware All Ye Who Enter Here In Foul Weather"!
For Lindau, like so many other lakeside resorts can be a cold and depressing place when the barometer heads south.
We've done Lucerne, Locarno, and Lugano in both good and bad weather. All are superb when the sun shines but pretty awful in the rain. Lindau in vile weather is no exception. Lake resorts we have concluded are not the place to be in intemperate weather and a micro-Insel the size of Lindau, population 25,000, with somewhat limited inside attractions or shop-ops, is a definite no no in the wet wet.
(Tip: Watch the local weather forecasts very carefully before heading for any lake resorts.)
Seaside towns, however, don't seem to affect us that way at all. In fact there's something romantic about slashing rain and crashing waves, about soggy seagulls and soggy sailors, when you're down beside the seashore.
It was with this in mind that we recently approached Lindau for a second look, all memories of our first rain-tainted visit having been well and truly washed away by time and tide.
This time, thank heaven, the Gods were firmly on our side. Brilliant sunshine and pleasant temperatures greeted our train, allowing us to see Lindau in the only way it should ever be seen. Sublime. Sunny. Lively. And postcard pretty.
There are actually three methods of approaching the island.
- By ferry: easily the most romantic. With the view from the lake of Lindau's harbor and promenade stamped "simply exquisite".
- By train: the most convenient. Lindau has direct rail connections with major Eurocities like Basel, Stuttgart, Prague and Vienna...and the Bahnhof is right at the foot of the main street, a short hop away from most of the waterfront hotels.
- By car: the least efficient. Because Old Lindau, for all practical purposes, is one big Fussganger zone where cars are not welcome and best left on the mainland. A causeway makes the island/mainland connection.
For first timers, however, the only way to arrive in Lindau is graciously...by water. Not only does one get the finest fish-eye view of the lakes prettiest and most dramatic harbor, as the ferry glides between the sculpted Bavarian Lion and the New Lighthouse, but the three-hour crossing from Constance, stopping at Meersburg, Mainau and Friedrichshafen, lets one properly experience and understand the importance of this idyllic stretch of water.
As Europe's third-largest lake 14 kms (9 miles) across the 65 kms (41 miles) long Lake Constance is not just a haven for Wasserfreunden and holiday-makers of every stripe and sail. It also gives the space-deprived Germans (not to mention the Austrians and the Swiss who share the shoreline), their own distinctly green and pleasant Mediterranean-style playground.
Add some of those fabulous Alpine vistas, hilly surrounds with forests, meadows and orchards in abundance, and countless picturesque resorts hugging the lake, and it's quite easy to understand the Germans affection for the pristine lake they call the Bodensee...and Lindau, its most precious jewel.
But popularity has its downsides. And the tiny island can be all hustle and bustle on a summery weekend when the daytrippers, the resorters and the locals collide.
It was like that the afternoon we arrived. The waterfront promenade was thick with strollers enjoying the harbor action and the stunning backdrop of snow covered mountains. Every seat at every table of every outdoor café was also taken. Besezt. Voll. For Germans take their afternoon kaffee und kuchen breaks very seriously.
The best way to escape the crowds the strollers and the munchers is to leave the harbor til later in the day when most of the visitors have gone home and take instead a leisurely two-hour stroll around the rest of this medieval island 9th century or thereabouts replete with narrow lanes and half timbered houses, old town squares, ancient churches and some very impressive and grand villas.
For Lindau in the middle ages was a prosperous, bustling trading post with lots of cross-lake traffic and trade. There were big warehouses on the waters edge filled with all manner of merchandise, and town squares filled with gabled villas and mansions built by rich merchants.
With the advent of the railway in the 1850s, all this cross-lake business came to an abrupt halt. The trains brought tourists instead of traders. Waterfront warehouses became hotels. The merchants cleared out for more profitable climes. And the island became a holiday haven.
Remnants of that cross-lake trade must still be operating, apparently, because we spent a good 20 minutes at a wine store waiting while a gentleman from Switzerland, newly-arrived by yacht, picked up an enormous order of wines and liqueurs that he was spiriting quietly back across the pond.
The best little pocket guide to Lindau we found comes from the tourist office across from the train station. A bit rough in the translation department, it still does a good job of covering the towns key sights, some 25 of them, as well as providing souvenir pictures, a town map and a short history of the island.
It will tell you, for example, that the eye-popping, step-gabled building just behind the harbor in the Reichplatz is the Altes Rathaus, vintage 1422. And that the walls are covered with paintings of coats of arms of all the towns on Lake Constance. Inside, the Town Hall doubles as the city's library and can be visited.
Further up the street stands another important remnant of earlier times, the Haus zum Cavazzan, built in the 1700s. With a splendidly frescoed façade and massive mansard roof, it is considered the finest patrician residence on Lake Constance. It houses a local history museum and there's also a fantastic collection of antique musical instruments from music boxes to barrel organs.
The oldest church in town is St. Peters, circa 1000, reputed to be the oldest building on the entire lake, with rare frescoes from Hans Holbein the Elder, and, currently, a rather interesting war memorial.
Two other churches stand side by side in the Market Place. Protestant St. Stephens first built in 1180, later reconstructed in Baroque style and the 12th century Catholic Collegiate Church, rebuilt in the Baroque style after the great city fire of 1728. Both have impressive interiors.
Between them stands an ancient linden tree after which Lindau was named. But of all the sights in the Altstadt, it is perhaps the Maximilianstrasse that best evokes the spirit of Lindau past. Lined with beautifully restored half-timbered guild houses, it is easy to think that you're slap dab back in the middle ages.
This is where the slaughter house once stood. And the meat market. And where the town bakers made their breads, and sold them off stone slabs. The coats of arms of all these medieval butchers, bakers and candlestick makers are painted on the building façades adding further splashes of color to the already handsome architecture.
Of course, Lindau is not all waterfront and medieval history. There's a modern casino that opens daily at three. Coats and ties, please. There is a twice-yearly art auction, staged by a local artist, and countless other opportunities to indulge in both cultural and sporting activities like attending the famous Bregenz Operatic and Music Festival which takes place just across the lake from mid-July to mid-August.
Or, for the more athletically inclined, take the #7 bus to the suburb of Hoyren and walk up Mt. Hoyrenberg for some extraordinary views across the lake to the alps.
There are also bikes to be rented from the train station for $8 a day. And paddleboats from a dock next to Lindau's rail bridge.
Best of all, Lindau makes a wonderful base from which to explore the region by both rail and water. Excursions into Austria and Switzerland are a snap and even tiny Liechtenstein is easy to get to via a combination of train and bus. Ferry rides on the lake (see box, page 5) offer lots of possibilities: quaint villages, grand botanical gardens and lovely scenery.
- Lindau is served by five to seven ferries per day, according to the season.
- Guidebook available in English for a nominal charge from the tourist office: Little Guide of Lindau on Lake Constance.
- Guided walking tours in English depart daily from the tourist office, in season.
Altitude: 395 meters/1296 feet
- Basel 206 km/129 miles
- Bregenz 10 km/6.25 miles
- Munich 180 km/113 miles
Rail Connections: Direct rail connections: Regular rail service on Basel-Singen-Lindau line and Lindau, Buchloe-Munich with frequent connections in all directions.