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Reflections on the Bodensee : Part German, Part Swiss and Rimmed With Medieval Towns, Antique Hotels and Bucolic Countryside, the Bodensee Is a Vast Inland ‘Sea’ Virtually Undiscovered by Americans

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The Bodensee, also known as Lake Constance, has been described as Europe’s inland sea, and this impression is particularly strong at night when a gusting southeast wind from the Alps churns up the waters and a heavy mist obscures the opposite shore. Forty-six miles long and an hour northeast of Zurich, the Bodensee is an immense, moody lake with a checkered past and a placid, prosperous present.

All around its perimeter are undulating landscapes of orchards, vineyards, forest and marshland, punctuated by imposing castles, monasteries and ancient towns. Every few miles the coastline changes character, both physically and politically. The southern shore belongs to Switzerland, the northern shore to Germany and a tiny segment of the eastern shore to Austria. Circling the lake on the impeccably maintained roads involves passing through customs checkpoints at least three times.

A friend and I made the circuit in a gleaming, claret-colored Mercedes 190, picked up at Zurich’s Kloten airport. We had reserved a full-size Renault 25 before we left the States and gotten a special rate for cars reserved ahead of time--about $550 for the week, with unlimited mileage, a fee that would have more than doubled if we had waited to rent the car in Zurich.

At the rental counter, the genial young agent said that a Mercedes 190, a car above our category and expectations, had been returned early, and asked if we would prefer that to our Renault, for the same price. Within 20 minutes, ensconced in our Mercedes, we were cruising up Highway N1, heading for Gottlieben, Switzerland, our first stop, and a week of exploring the banks of the Bodensee.

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These days there is no problem waltzing across the borders from one country to the next, but during World War II all the borders were closed, and this small, intimate, cohesive region was like a house divided. Families were separated, courtships and friendships interrupted. The waters themselves became the only conduit for escape, and there are many stories of German refugees swimming across the lake, ducking Nazi patrol boats to attain safe haven, however briefly, in Switzerland.

The bleak war years are a haunting memory half a century old now, and the lake district has long since resumed its role as a popular, centrally located European resort. Although this area was once an international crossroads on the north-south and east-west trade routes of the Holy Roman Empire--and later enjoyed a brief flowering of French tourism when Queen Hortense and her son, Napoleon III, resided here in the mid-19th Century--today’s visitors are 95% German-speaking. For Americans, as well as for most of the non-Alemannic world, the Bodensee, with its rich lode of baroque churches, medieval towns and antique hotels, remains virtually unknown.

The lakeside region where Hortense de Beauharnais Bonaparte settled in 1820, on the far western portion of the Swiss coast, is one of the culturally richest and most scenic areas of the Bodensee, and would make a fine starting point for anyone visiting the area for the first time. Here the lake is squeezed into a smaller pocket of water called the Untersee, or Lower Lake, by a large peninsula of German land, which also creates a second pocket of water called the Uberlingenerzee--Uberlingen Lake--to the north. The Untersee, stretching west, becomes narrower and narrower until it becomes the Rhine river, once again. (The Bodensee is actually a huge basin of Rhine water, filled by the river from an inlet at the east end of the lake, between the Austrian town of Bregenz and the Swiss town of Rheineck, and emptying through the Untersee.)

Hortense, the wife of Napoleon’s brother Louis, who became the King of Holland, was captivated by the beauty and calm of a run-down chateau called the Schloss Arenenberg, high on a hill and surrounded by vineyards above the village of Ermatingen. The chateau is today the Napoleon Museum, the perfectly preserved and impeccably maintained home of Napoleon III, who lived there first with his mother and later with his wife, the Empress Eugenie, who redecorated some of the interior.

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Ermatingen is one of several pretty lakeside towns on the banks of the Untersee, each a cluster of antique gabled houses with lavishly frescoed facades. The most striking of this medieval string of hamlets is the picture-book Swiss town of Stein am Rhein, which looks like the setting of a fairy-tale. Elaborate frescoes portraying battles, legends and love affairs cover the facades of many houses, some of whose foundations actually descend into the Rhine. The houses are further distinguished by oriel windows--intricately carved, loggia-style extensions of the facades capped with their own tiny roofs. Many cafes ring the town’s Rathausplatz, or Town Hall Square, where you can sit and absorb the amazing architectural artistry of this quaint town dating back almost a thousand years.

The lake ends and the Rhine begins just east of Stein am Rhein, but if you visit this old bourg just before lunch or late in the afternoon, and you fancy a meal that is both superb and pricey, consider heading just a few more miles west afterward to Schaffhausen and an extraordinary restaurant called the Fischerzunft. Owned by Swiss chef Andre Jaeger and his Chinese wife, Doreen, the Fischerzunft is a handsomely restored former fisherman’s guild house built on the banks of the Rhine in the 14th Century. Jaeger’s unique dishes, a sophisticated blend of Asian and nouvelle French cuisine, are hardly representative of regional cooking, but they are an exquisite aberration not to be missed if you are anywhere in the vicinity.

For a more modest and traditional meal, a pleasant choice is the Seehotel Schiff in the town of Mannenbach, between Ermatingen and Stein am Rhein. Modern and pristine, the Schiff, owned by the Union Bank of Switzerland and operated as an extension of its posh management training center in the nearby Castle Wolfsberg, serves breakfast, lunch and dinner in a blond-wood dining room with water views. The menu offers fresh fish from the lake--perch and whitefish--crisply sauteed, wiener schnitzel and homemade noodles, crisp mixed-greens salads and freshly baked pastries. The Schiff has 18 businesslike, paneled hotel rooms, but a more memorable choice for an overnight would be one of the area’s small, antique hostelries.

Among these is the old Hotel Krone in the tiny hamlet of Gottlieben, a community full of pretty houses, two other antique hotels--the Drachenburg and the Waaghus--and virtually no commercial center. The Krone is set just steps from the water. Built at the end of the 17th Century and renovated over the last six years by owners George and Ingeborg Schraner-Michaeli, the 24 cheerful rooms have pastel-hued floral bedspreads and curtains, airy down duvets and modern tiled bathrooms equipped with deep porcelain tubs and powerful hair dryers. In warm weather, lunch and dinner are served outside on the waterside terrace, brightened by tubs of red geraniums. From the Krone you can explore all the towns to the Untersee and the Rhine, moving west, as well as the handsome city of Konstanz, a German enclave almost entirely within Switzerland, to the east (and the town which gave the Bodensee its alternative, English name). Because of its remarkable location, niched next to the Swiss shoreline, Konstanz was spared the devastating Allied bombing that leveled parts of many other German cities at the end of the war. The Old Town of Konstanz is a time capsule of 14th- and 15th-Century houses and buildings dominated by a beautifully frescoed Rathaus, or Town Hall, once the guild house of linen weavers and remodeled in the Florentine Renaissance style at the end of the 16th Century.

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In good weather, save time for a stroll over the Rheinbrucke, the Rhine Bridge, and along the broad, mansion-lined Promenade following the curve of the Seestrasse. Set off on its own small island, just before the Rhine Bridge, is the dramatic, luxurious Steigenberger Inselhotel, a large, resort-style establishment that was once a Dominican monastery, founded in 1235. The magnificent central cloisters are worth a visit in themselves. The Insel, with its private swimming club, gracious cocktail terrace and refined Old World rooms is a choice place to stay when you are primed for a “grand hotel” experience.

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To the west of Konstanz, in the center of the Untersee, is the small German island of Reichenau, which, during the Middle Ages was one of Europe’s most important spiritual centers. Accessible by excursion boat (many departures from Konstanz harbor), the island’s main attractions are three of the oldest churches in Germany, including a Romanesque basilica in the village of Niederzell.

Attached to Konstanz on its eastern flank like a Siamese twin is the smaller and less appealing Swiss city of Kreuzlingen. Like Konstanz, Kreuzlingen (named for a piece of the cross brought back to the region from the Crusades in the 10th Century) is a point of embarkation for the lake and river steamers that cruise the waters of the Bodensee and the Rhine. As a destination in itself, Kreuzlingen offers little apart from St. Ulrich’s, an impressive baroque basilica. Most of the Bodensee’s Swiss coast, in fact, is somewhat of a disappointment after the cultural depth and physical appeal of Konstanz and the shores of the Untersee.

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The best plan is to drive southeast along the lake, past the towns of Romanshorn and Arbon, and head directly for historic St. Gallen, about 10 miles inland from the lake but worth the detour. If the hour is appropriate, stop for a light lunch at the Hotel Bad Horn in the little fishing village of Horn, just after Arbon, then head to Rorschach where you will see signs indicating turns for St. Gallen. Fifteen minutes later you will enter one of the least-known, formerly great old cities of Europe.

St. Gallen was founded in 612 by Gallus, an itinerant Irish monk who tripped into a briar patch near where the city now stands and took it as a sign from God to stay. By the 10th Century St. Gallen’s monastery rivaled Reichenau as one of Europe’s most important intellectual and spiritual centers. St. Gallen was also known, from the Middle Ages on, for its textiles--first for the linens woven in the monastery workrooms, which were prized throughout Europe, and later, in the 18th and 19th centuries for its embroidered cottons and lace. St. Gallen is still one of the most important--some say the most important--embroidery centers in the world.

If one has only one sight to see in St. Gallen, however, it must be the remarkable Stiftsbibliotek, or Abbey Library, in the center of the Old Town. A baroque masterwork, the Abbey Library was completed in 1767 within the enclave of the former monastery. The inlaid wood shelves of walnut and cherry, buttressed by gleaming wood columns with gilded capitals hold 130,000 rare antiquarian volumes. Visitors to the library must don huge felt slippers over their shoes before they are allowed to traverse the room’s precious wood parquet floors, inlaid with tall, stylized starbursts.

To give St. Gallen its due, a full day is really necessary. If you want to stay overnight, the best hotel in town is the Einstein, a contemporary, first class establishment lodged in a former embroidery factory. A number of small restaurants offer traditional Swiss fare in the antique buildings of the Old Town. An alternative for a festive, but not inexpensive meal is a 15-minute drive out of town in the village of Lommerswill at Thuri’s Blumenau, newly opened in a pretty, old village house.

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Continuing on around the lake (from St. Gallen follow signs for St. Margrethen), the road leads to the Austrian border, through the town of Bregenz and then almost immediately to the German border.

Soon after leaving Bregenz, and Austria, which you can finesse in about 25 minutes, the lake drive leads directly to the German shore and lovely Lindau, an ancient walled city self-contained on a small island just offshore and accessible by two bridges. Once a rich, imperial town in the Middle Ages, Lindau today is a wealthy resort area with lingering Gothic and baroque character. Here you could settle in for two or three stressless days at the finest place in town, the esteemed Hotel Bad Schachen. An elegant dowager that has been freshened and refurbished without losing its Old World class, the Bad Schachen is a beautifully equipped, castle-like complex on the shore opposite the town of Lindau proper, with 130 rooms and suites, most with balconies overlooking the lake. The Bad Schachen’s swimming pavilion, built in 1929 for bathing in the lake, was enhanced with a large outdoor swimming pool in 1964.

The terrace breakfast buffet at the Bad Schachen is sumptuous. The long buffet table is laid with yogurts, fresh berries, cereals, butters, homemade jams, trays of assorted cold meats, cheeses, baskets of pastries and rolls, cutting boards holding fresh loaves of multi-grain country breads, and a chicken-shaped straw basket within which nestle a brood of warm hard-boiled eggs. After this fulfilling breakfast, you can arrange at the front desk to rent a speed boat with a driver, who may look more like Gabby Hayes than Don Johnson but who knows the lake intimately.

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Beyond Lindau, moving west along the German coast, is the industrial town of Friedrichshafen, where Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin had his giant airships built in harborside hangars.

Meersburg, about half an hour further on, is yet another remarkable, skillfully restored and maintained medieval town perched high above the lake and surrounded by vineyards almost as old as the town. Parts of the town itself are believed to date back to the 7th-Century Merovingian king, Dagobert. Despite an influx of bus tourists from time to time in the summer months, and the inevitable, ugly souvenir shops that bloom in their wake, Meersburg deserves a 24-hour visit, particularly since the opening, in the spring of 1991, of a tiny, beguiling hotel called the Drei Stuben, created from a restored 17th-Century townhouse by Brigitte Drewing, the wife of a wealthy local businessman. Every detail at the Drei Stuben is top of the line, from the Rosenthal China in the dining room to a state-of-the-art Sony “Dream Machine” clock radio at each bedside. The hotel’s restaurant has been leased to a brilliant 27-year-old chef named Stefan Marquard, a representative of the German culinary avant-garde, and a gastronomic luminary in the making. For an entirely different sort of dining experience, this one in an atmospheric old tavern that serves up high-quality regional fare, reserve a table at chef Michael Benz’s Winzerstube Zum Becher, set in one of Meersburg’s oldest houses, built in 1605.

A car ferry runs from Meersburg to Konstanz, which is one way to complete a circuit of the Bodensee. The alternative is to press on around the northwestern tip of the lake, where the water narrows into the Uberlingensee. If you opt for the drive, stop for a look at Salem, Germany’s most elite boarding school where Prince Philip was educated. Then it’s on through the towns of Uberlingen, Sipplingen, Bodman (whose harbor hosts a splendid regatta of antique sailboats every four years), Dingelsdorf and finally, just before Konstanz, to the bridge that leads onto Germany’s highly touted floral paradise, the island of Mainau.

Mainau, with 110 acres of cultivated gardens and a cream-colored 18th-Century palace, is the home of 85-year-old Count Lennart Bernadotte, his 50-year-old second wife, Countess Sonja, and their five young children. In 1932 the Swedish-born Count Bernadotte, the uncle of Sweden’s King Carl-Gustav, inherited what was then an overgrown, run-down island from his grandmother, Victoria, the daughter of the Grand-Duke Friederich I of Baden who later became the Queen of Sweden.

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A former student of forestry and agriculture, the Count slowly transformed the tangled, unkept acres into a world-renowned botanical wonder open year-round to the public. And public it is. From morning to evening the place is choked with tourists, particularly in July and August, more than 3 million a year. Ranks of tour buses jam the parking lot and 2,000 to 3,000 people a day wait hungrily for tables at one of the island’s four restaurants. This is not necessarily a reason to avoid this unique operation, only a caveat to arrive as soon after the 7 a.m. opening hour as possible.

Mainau, with its crowds and its enterprising publicity office, is an anomaly on the Bodensee. For the most part, the lake is a region that time, politics and progress have left behind. “From the perspectives of Berne, Bonn and Vienna, the capitals of the three countries bordering the lake,” says Ernst Muhlemann, a member of the Swiss Parliament and director of the Union Bank of Switzerland’s Management Center in Castle Wolfsberg, “the Bodensee district is considered the end of the world.” But this he says with a smile, since he knows how nice the end of the world can be.

GUIDEBOOK

Staying by the Sea

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Getting there: Swissair flies nonstop from LAX to Zurich; lowest round-trip restricted fare now to the middle of June, about $940. TWA, Delta and American offer connecting flights to Zurich for the same fare. We booked a rental car through National Car Rental’s (telephone 800-227-3876) associate, Europcar; National’s best deal is the “Advance Saver” plan, requiring 14-day advance booking and payment before U.S. departure. Current weekly rates under the plan are $175 for a mid-size car with unlimited mileage, $531 for a full-size car. Other American companies offer similar deals on rental cars reserved from the United States.

Where to stay:

Hotel Bad Schachen, D-88131 Lindau, Germany; from the U.S, tel. 011-49-8382-5011. Doubles about $224.

Hotel Drei Stuben, Kirschstrasse 7, 88709 Meersburg, Germany; tel. 011-49-7532-80090. Doubles about $124-$147.

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Einstein Hotel, Berneggstrasse 2, CH-9001 St. Gallen, Switzerland; tel. 011-41-71-20-00-33. Doubles about $180-$225.

Hotel Krone, Seestrasse 11, CH-8274 Gottlieben, Switzerland; tel. 011-41- 72-69-23-23. Water-view doubles about $130-$158.

Steigenberger Inselhotel, Auf der Insel 1, 78462 Konstanz, Germany; tel. 011-49-7531-1250; water-view double $200.

For more information: Swiss National Tourist Office, 222 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Suite 1570, El Segundo 90245, tel. (310) 335-5980; German National Tourist Office, 11766 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 750, Los Angeles 90025, tel. (310) 575-9799; Austrian National Tourist Office, 11601 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 2480, Los Angeles 90025, tel. (310) 477-3332.

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