The Sydney Morning Herald recently published my article about our epic ride around Lake Constance on Europe’s most popular cycling route, so now I can release the full story on the blog…
I’m regularly reminded that my wife is smarter than I am. She doesn’t need to do the reminding personally; usually it’s only too obvious. On this trip she’s riding an electric bike.
You still have to pedal an electric bike, but the motor gives a discreet boost when you face hills or headwinds or just want to get around a little faster. I’m doing my own boosting using the old-fashioned legs and lungs method.
Not that the circuit of Lake Constance (the “Bodensee” in German) is a difficult ride. Your kids could do it and so could your mum, even if she hasn’t been on a bike since 1963. There are a lot of other wobbly people out there, all looking as if they’re having fun.
For anyone with a few days to spend in the saddle it’s no great athletic achievement to ride the 230-kilometre loop by the water, passing through Germany, Switzerland and Austria – and nobody calls an electric cyclist a cheat. Besides, it’s good to have time and energy to enjoy the sights.
The appeal of this circum-lake-ution (sorry!) is the safe riding on cycle paths and quiet lanes, with stops for “kaffee”, “apfelstrudel” and local wine. Such stops take place in mediaeval towns dotted around the lake, with snow-covered alps as a backdrop. Small wonder it’s Europe’s most popular cycling route.
It would have been possible to arrange our own accommodation and ride independently, but we’ve sensibly left the organisation to Britain-based cycling holiday expert Freedom Treks. It has provided the bikes, maps and route information, booked us into comfortable hotels for bed and breakfast and, most importantly, arranged for our luggage to be picked up each morning and magically reappear in the foyer of the next hotel later in the day. That leaves us free to ride at our own pace, and it all ticks over as reliably as a Swiss watch.
We head from Konstanz, an attractive university town with a mediaeval history, to the island of Reichenau, UNESCO World Heritage-listed for its churches. From there we catch a ferry to Switzerland. There are no border posts, just more-expensive coffee and a new currency to contend with. A couple of hours of pedalling beside the lake take us into the spectacular Stein am Rhein.
The facade of every building is covered with frescoes and elaborate hanging signs invite us into cafes, bakeries and wine bars. We have to smile – it’s so absurdly charming and photogenic.
Next morning we roll through forests and vineyards, past orchards and strawberry farms. There are more fairytale villages out of pop-up picture books.
Our hostess in the cafe in Steckborn invites us to try her snuff machine. We thought snuff went out with powdered gentlemen’s wigs, but old habits die hard in Steckborn, it seems.
The machine is an elaborate affair. The snuff is ground, then sprinkled onto a little platform, over which one hovers one’s nose. A small hammer slams down on the platform, shooting snuff up the nostrils. The sniffer rounds off the experience by dusting his or her proboscis with the small brush. Why this is considered fun remains a mystery to us.
It’s school holiday time and the sun is shining, so we don’t have the cycle paths to ourselves. Families wobble behind papa, towing the youngest in a trailer. We glide past grimly determined couples on heavily laden touring bikes; they should have gone the electric bike, baggage transfer route.
There are groups of giggling teenagers, hearty older people straight out of retirement fund advertisements and muddy mountain bikers, returning from greater challenges in the nearby alps. Helmets are not compulsory, though many cyclists wear them.
Our German is limited and the Swiss and Austrian dialects we encounter are totally unintelligible, but it’s no problem. To my tentative “Guten tag, may I speak English with you?” the answer is invariably “Yes” and even occasionally “G’day, mate!”
Late in the day we catch another ferry, to Uberlingen. How come we’ve never heard of it? There are chestnut trees in flower around a cobbled square and a centuries-old clock tower above. Across the lake the cloud is lifting to reveal the Alps under freshly fallen snow.
This area is one of the wealthiest in Europe, so there’s money to maintain and restore the old city centres. A thriving tourist industry means towns are well supplied with museums and enhanced by public art. We particularly like Peter Lenk’s satirical sculptures in Konstanz and Meersburg; provocative depictions of pompous figures from history and literature, often naked and ridiculous.
Overhead floats a lazy Zeppelin. The originals were built in Friedrichshafen, where the Zeppelin Museum displays a reconstruction of the ill-fated Hindenburg. It crashed and exploded in Lakehurst, New Jersey in 1937, bringing the airship era to an end. In the quirky Zeppelinmuseum in Meersburg, crammed with artefacts and memorabilia, an enthusiastic custodian proudly explains the collection, albeit in German.
Also entertaining is our coffee stop in tiny Altnau. It’s Wednesday, but we have the distinct impression we’re the first customers for the week. When we pay with a 20 Swiss franc ($23) note, there’s a great moment in Swiss banking. Our serving lady shuffles to the back of the shop and slyly swings open a wall panel to reveal a very thick safe door. The precious banknote is secreted, the combination set and the panel slid shut.
Passing through Rorschach, my eye is caught by a colourful Niki de Saint Phalle sculpture outside a large glass building. Taking a punt, we wander inside. It’s free, it’s only just opened and it turns out to be the Forum Wurth, a wonderful collection of 20th-century art. Picasso, Munsch, Ernst, Arp, Liechtenstein, Chagall and Henry Moore are all represented by some of their finest works. What an unexpected bonus!
We wake on our final morning to find rain bucketing down. We’re due to ride our longest stretch of the tour, 66 kilometres from Hochst in Austria to Konstanz. We dither. Five minutes away is a station and a train that will carry us, with bikes, to Konstanz.
At breakfast we meet a group of hardy Australians fitting shower caps over their bike helmets and strapping plastic bags over their shoes. Inspired by their example, I decide to pedal on. There’ll be a hot shower at the end of the day.
My wife takes the train.
I ride in the drizzle, catching up with the soggy Aussies. “Are we having fun yet?” I ask. “Fantastic!” is the answer. They enjoyed riding to Vienna on the Danube route last year, but this has far more variety, they tell me. “A few more hills, and the mediaeval towns are gorgeous.”
Their company helps take my mind off the rain that’s found its way through my jacket. Hey, it’s Europe, and we’re playing outside. If we wanted sun every day we could have stayed home.
The rain stops. At Romanshorn the cycle path passes the train station, and waiting there is my dry wife and her electric bike, battery fully charged, ready to power ahead of me on the 30-kilometre home stretch.
She doesn’t need to say, “I told you so.” It’s only too obvious.
The writer was a guest of Freedom Treks and was assisted by Internationale Bodensee Tourismus.
THREE OTHER ADVENTURES BY LAKE CONSTANCE
Konstanz’s location on the Swiss border meant it was spared the destruction suffered by many German cities in World War II. Consequently it is one of Europe’s best-preserved mediaeval towns, with a fascinating history. The university, opened in 1966, swelled the population and added a lively student buzz. See www.konstanz-tourismus.de
The privately owned “island of flowers”, a few kilometres north of Konstanz, is one of Germany’s most-visited attractions. The castle is set in superbly landscaped gardens, kept in bloom for most of the year by 38 hard-working gardeners. See mainau.de.
Driving an hour or so south of Lake Constance allows us to add another country to the notches on our passports. One of the smallest and most prosperous countries in the world, Liechtenstein is notable for its gorgeous surrounding mountains. Those with energy left over following the Lake Constance ride will find numerous hiking and mountain-biking trails. Residence Hotel in Vaduz has deluxe rooms from 260 Swiss francs ($300) a night. See tourismus.li.
Singapore Airlines flies from Sydney to Zurich via Singapore from $2775. There are also regular connections to Zurich from London, Frankfurt and Amsterdam. Trains run from Zurich to Konstanz every half-hour and take a little more than an hour, from 14 Swiss francs ($16).
Freedom Treks offers six- or seven-night self-guided tours of Lake Constance from £395 ($655). This includes accommodation, ferries and maps. Bike hire is £63 extra, or £130 for an electric bike. Phone +44 1273 224 066, see freedomtreks.co.uk.
A three-day, seven-day or 14-day Lake Constance Experience card gives entry to most attractions and museums, and for an additional cost allows unlimited use of ferries.
First published Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne Age, 27/7/2013