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The Vast Bodensee Embraces the Charms of the Swiss, Swabian, Austrian, and German Cultures


The traveler arriving by rail in Kölnstanz often finds the experience disorienting. Banana and palm trees surround the train station. The azure waters of the Bodensee (known to the English-speaking world as "Lake Constance") reach to the horizon, its shores ringed by green hills and snowy mountains. A day that may have started with frost in the Black Forest, is now one of teenagers in shorts with swim trunks rolled in towels. Welcome to the German Riviera.

Germany accounts for 173 kilometers of the Bodensee's 273-km shoreline (Switzerland covers 72 km and Austria 28 km). It's the largest lake in Germany ' 69 km or 43 miles at its longest point and 14 km/9 miles at its widest. An average water temperature of 68 degrees Fahrenheit helps keep the climate temperate, if not downright balmy.

Residents are only half joking when they refer to Kölnstanz as "the Metropolis of the Bodensee." Yes, the town has only 78,000 residents, but it's surprisingly diverse, thanks in great part to the university established there in 1965. There's an active club scene with a special love for jazz and blues and a taste for local wines. Outdoor cafés stay open late, and streets stay lively under the summer moon. (Kölnstanz's active jazz and art cultures often converge at ExxTRA, a combination of café, gallery, club and wine bar. Prices are low and the setting laid-back. In the upstairs gallery modern art hangs on ancient walls. ExxTRA, Hussanstrasse 28, D-78426 Kölnstanz, tel +49/7531/23394.)

Despite all the activity and culture, it's a town of relaxation. A walk along the promenade drops blood pressure by 30 points. At sunrise, against an Alpine silhouette, fishermen steer their flat-bottomed boats toward favorite spots. Soon, sails rise as yachts play chicken with ferries and steamships. At dusk, the mountains fade to black as lights come on around the lake.

Once a wealthy trading stop, Kölnstanz is full of history and architecture. War and fire have left the town untouched, and its medieval character persists. Narrow, crooked alleys transport visitors quickly into the Middle Ages. The Old Town is still dominated by the Romanesque-Gothic basilica church, Minster of Our Lady, with remnants from its 11th-century construction. In the Upper Market, liars once had their tongues nailed to the pillory and had to pull themselves free ' hence the term "speaking with a forked tongue." Across the moat from the priests' quarters, nuns lived in a district still called "Paradise." Many buildings (like Kanzleistrasse 15) have arcades with spy holes, where residents could look secretly at passersby. At Rosgartenstrasse 4, the rococo carving of a creature ' half-fish, half-rabbit 'celebrates the "lake rabbits," as residents were known. Behind Tulengasse 1, an attached "one-holer" once emptied to the alley. Rains and frequent floods kept the streets "clean."
Many buildings hide spacious courtyards. Respect privacy but explore when appropriate. Treasures are to be found.

Island Hopping

Kölnstanz makes a great base for day trips to the nearby islands of Mainau and Reichenau.

Mainau, the so-called "Isle of Flowers," is even more tropical than Kölnstanz. Many travelers find the 110-acre island artificial and manicured, but others are enthralled by its carefully cultivated arboretums and gardens with rare and exotic plants, its fountains and the Butterfly House. It's all the property and passion of Count and Countess Bernadotte, who live on the island in a baroque castle.

The €11 entrance is half-price after 4pm and free after 7pm. Although the property closes at 8pm, a one-hour walk through the grounds will suffice for many. (Most tour buses leave by then as well.) To stretch the hours, make reservations and dine at the castle's Swedish Tavern, open until 10pm (tel. +49/7531/303/156, fax 167, email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.). The island is about 20 minutes by bus or boat from Kölnstanz. A causeway leads to onsite parking.

If Mainau is contrived and beautiful, Reichenau is authentic, untouched and raw. It's a rural landscape of farms and villages that feels stuck in time (the entire island is a UNESCO World Heritage Site). Three monasteries date to the 9th century, and the island's three villages have intact medieval towers to warn against marauders. Seventeenth-century buildings are considered "new." A 2 km causeway leads from the mainland past a nature sanctuary filled with flowering meadows, cattail marshes, and thousands of migrating birds. Boats arrive frequently from Kölnstanz. The Island Bus #35, which covers the villages and key sights, offers day-long, on and off privileges for €3.50.