Lake Constance is such a huge expanse of water that its banks border Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Beverley Watts visits this Alpine gem
As I walk on to the terrace of the Hotel Steigenberger for a pre-dinner aperitif of Bodensee Secco, I am astonished by the glorious view.
This former monastery looks across shimmering Lake Constance to distant Alpine foothills striped with vineyards and studded with Benedictine abbeys.
The hotel, complete with cloistered courtyard, is in Germany but Lake Constance, created by the Ice Age Rhine Glacier, is also edged by Austria and Switzerland. As the Swiss remained neutral during the Second World War, the area was not bombed so retains many precious ancient buildings.
Visit baroque churches, medieval castles, Roman forts and Stone Age settlements – it’s easy to criss-cross the lake on the efficient ferries. A Seebaren Bodensee pass covers multiple boat trips and entrance to a selection of attractions cost from €74 (£63) for three days.
Based in the charming lakeside town of Constance (Konstanz), my first excursion is to Reichenau – the ‘vegetable island’ – to see the abbey church of St Maria and Markus. Two churches in one, it was founded in 8016 and has a 1235 wooden roof in the form of a Norman ship.
The herb garden (krautergarten) has been replanted as it would have looked in the ninth century and bees buzz around the nepeta in the early summer sunshine. It was here monk Walahfrid Strabo wrote Europe’s first gardening guide as a poem almost 1,200 years ago.
Reichenau is a tranquil spot and birds from Scandanavia visit the island as they migrate, soaring past the seven ancient volcanoes on the horizon.
Next day I sail to the garden city of Überlingen for an amble through the Stadtgarden. Planted next to the old city wall, it’s a gently undulating park with impressive sequoias, ginkgo and pretty tulip trees (liriodendron). So lush is the land and so numerous were the vineyards in times gone by, Überlingen’s original 1494 clock tower was constructed with wine in the mortar and had to be rebuilt.
Take a bus across the causeway to Mainau – ‘the flower island’ – a blaze of colours with 25,000 varieties on display. The icy winter climate of Northern Europe means many of the plants have to be lifted during winter and re-bedded in May.
It’s a massive annual task for the team of gardeners but the fuchsias have been blooming here since 1864.
Sniff the air as you pass the Japanese ‘kuchenbaum’ cake trees (Cercidiphyllum japonicum) for a delicious waft of candyfloss and toasted sugar.
You can’t miss the palace and adjoining chapel, erected by the Order Of Teutonic Knights, a crusading military order founded in the 12th century. Follow the nature trails to the insect garden and slip inside the Butterfly House, where a Purple Emperor or Red Admiral might just land on your nose.
In the morning it’s by boat again to Pfahlbaumuseum Uhldingen, an open-air UNESCO World Heritage
Site of pile dwellings with reconstructions of wooden thatched houses on stilts from the Neolithic Stone Age and Bronze Age. The ancient inhabitants of the region kept dry in their elevated homes, high above the spring meltwater that floods down from the mountain peaks and makes Lake Constance rise several metres.
Preserved and on view are the wooden spoons and pots used by the tribes that lived here 3,000-6,000 years ago.
Researchers have found that the lakeside dwellers loved seeds, berries and nuts but, surprisingly, didn’t dine on fish.
It’s then a quick bus ride to the magnificent Salem Monastery and Palace. Here the Cistercian monks, who arrived in 1134, did like a nice trout supper. The order also planted vines and drank 1.4 litres of wine twice a day with their meals (no wonder they were silent).
With stunning architecture and luxurious furnishings, they enjoyed a very comfortable home with a Rococo-style reception room and splendid oak staircases. Financed by their wealthy neighbours, who wanted the abbot and his men to pray for their souls, even the stables are ornately decorated with paintings on the ceiling and walls.
Those monks had it made.
Great for culture vultures
Squeeze in an extra delight with the Queen Hortense, stepdaughter of Napoleon I and mother of Napoleon III, the last Emperor of France, made her home here after Waterloo.
Great for tranquil travellers
Explore the bustling old town of Constance on foot and visit the oldest theatre in Germany, established in 1609. Dine out on pike or eel accompanied by a local wine. Forget semi-sweet Liebfraumilch, try Müller-Thurgau Trocken, a lovely dry white.
Great for spirited adventurers
Take a trip in a helium-filled Zeppelin airship (Count Ferdinand Zeppelin was born at Constance) to get the best view.
Or hop on a bike and cycle around the lake. You can start in Germany, make it to Switzerland for lunch, have dinner in Austria and even cut across to the principality of Liechtenstein.
How to get there
Inghams (01483 791 114; www.inghams.co.uk) has three nights at the five-star Steigenberger Hotel, from £659pp half board, including return flights to Zurich and resort transfers.
For more information about Lake Constance, visit constance-lake-constance.com