As a giant body of water with a balmy dry climate, the Bodensee, or Lake Constance, has long been Germany’s Riviera. It hugs the country’s southwest border with Austria and Switzerland where the Alps rear up, creating a fine backdrop. Most German towns along the lake dot the north shore and include the idyllic island-town of Lindau, the transport hub of Friedrichshafen and the archetypal medieval lakeside settlement Meersburg. The upbeat city of Konstanz on its southern shore is the most cosmopolitan place on the lake, and easily the best base with regular ferry services across the lake and to nearby islands. Given the good weather, the Bodensee region is known for outdoor activities, particularly hiking and cycling on trails that connect small lakeside towns, vineyards, orchards and beaches. Watersports are also popular, but most visitors simply sunbathe, swim and mess around in the water, which averages a pleasant 20°C in the summer, providing a respite from the humidity. Summer is the most popular holiday season, but popularity brings congested roads and booked-up hotels, making spring a better time to visit, when fruit trees blossom; autumn, meanwhile, is prime time for those interested in the wine harvest.
Overlooking the lake’s widest point and with the longest promenade of any Bodensee town, FRIEDRICHSHAFEN, 22km west of Lindau, has the feel of a seaside resort. But the place leads a double life, being the lake’s only industrial town. It was bombed to smithereens during World War II thanks to its aviation industry, one which nevertheless also made it the setting for one of the world’s most intriguing aeronautical events: it was here that Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin manufactured and launched his cigar-shaped airships. On July 2, 1900, his first LZ1 drifted over the lake and three decades later, Friedrichshafen became a hub for long-distance international travel. Airships made scheduled flights to Stockholm, Rome, Cairo and Leningrad; a Zeppelin buzzed to New York every three weeks; and the truly rich could leave Friedrichshafen to step off at Rio de Janeiro after twelve days in the clouds.
If ever there was a man before his time it was Bohemian religious reformer, Jan Hus. He made his name attacking ecclesiastical abuses, and starting a Hussite religious movement that was similar to the Protestantism which emerged a century later. Excommunicated in 1410, Hus continued to preach throughout Bohemia, vocally supporting the religious writings of Englishman John Wycliffe, calling for church reform and protesting against the sale of indulgences. His following quickly grew into substantial numbers, which led to his invitation to the Council of Konstanz in 1414 to explain his position. This came with a promise of a safe passage home, but in the event the councillors decided to defy his imperial protection, incarcerate him, place him on trial and burn him at the stake for heresy. This helped make Hus the same sort of national figurehead for Czechs as Martin Luther is for Germans.
Straddling the Swiss border on the southern side of the lake, the likeable university town of KONSTANZ came out of the war almost unscathed – it was deemed too close to neutral Switzerland to be bombed – ensuring its Altstadt is well preserved. Though with Roman origins, it’s largely medieval, dating back to when the town thrived as a free imperial city, gaining fame particularly between 1414 and 1418 when the Council of Konstanz met here to heal the Great Schism in the Catholic Church in a restructuring that replaced three popes with one. Altstadt sightseeing aside, Konstanz also makes a good base for day-trips to nearby islands, particularly Mainau and Reichenau. With one in seven of its population students, Konstanz is a bustling town, and the restaurant and bar scene unusually lively in this otherwise staid region.
The town’s biggest annual festival is Seenachtsfest in August when the lake mirrors a firework bonanza.
In the late nineteenth century Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, a maverick with an impressive walrus moustache and military honours, turned his attention – and most of his wealth – to airships. His pioneering LZ1 drifted above the Bodensee in 1900, to great enthusiasm and jubilation. Later the Zeppelins acquired their first real use as World War I bombers and scouts.
In 1928 the pride of the fleet, Graf Zeppelin, hummed across the Atlantic in four days, fifteen hours and forty-four minutes; a year later she circumnavigated the globe in just twelve days’ air-time: the golden age of luxurious airships had arrived. Once times improved to well under two days, a scheduled service to New York was set up, with passengers paying around 1200 Reichsmarks for a return ticket – around seven months’ the average wage of the time.
No matter that she had made 590 flights, 114 of them ocean-going, the Graf Zeppelin’s days were numbered as soon as the 245m sister-ship Hindenburg erupted into a fireball in New Jersey on May 6, 1937, killing 36 passengers and crew (61 survived). Later analysis suggests that a static spark from earthed mooring-lines ignited the varnish on the linen skin causing a blaze which quickly spread to the airship’s hydrogen tanks. Ironically the airship had been designed for inert and non-combustible helium, but the US had refused permission to use this fuel.
The disaster, along with progress elsewhere in the aviation industry, put Zeppelins out of favour for a long time, although there has been a good deal of research and development since and they’re now often seen over the Bodensee. These airships are non-rigid, filled with helium, and run by the Deutsches-Zeppelin-Reederei (from €200/30min; t07541 590 00, wzeppelinflug.de). These ships are only a tenth the size of the originals and climb to 2000m to take twelve well-heeled passengers for jaunts above the Bodensee.