12 days of Christmas: day 6

On our trip down memory lane this year we stayed in Meersburg on Lake Konstanz. I took this photo at dusk, as the light was fading, of Burg Meersburg, Germany’s oldest inhabited castle. Its central tower was first built during 7th century, though the original structure is no longer visible. Burg Meersburg is known as the old castle, in reference to the neighbouring 18th century New Castle.

Back in the early 90s, we’d lived in Hegne overlooking the lake and Meersburg, a ferry ride across the lake had been one of our favourite places for a Sunday afternoon stroll, complete with Kaffee und Kuchen (coffee and cake).

History of Mainau

We’ll shortly be home from our #adventuredownunder and I’ll be boring you all rigid with many more details about our holiday. Meanwhile, as they say on all the best cookery shows: « Here’s one I prepared earlier! »

On our recent trip down memory lane to Lake Konstanz, we revisited the island of Mainau which has an interesting provenance going all the way back to prehistoric times. A settlement of six houses was excavated on the south bank of the island which dates back to the Neolithic period. The island was then ruled  – like pretty much everywhere else in Europe – by the Romans and thereafter the Alemanni Dukes and Teutonic Order of knights. Evidence of their rule which lasted around 500 years remains visible today with the island’s Baroque castle and church.

Their rule was broken for two years during the Thirty Years War (1618-48) when the Swedes took control in 1647-9 leaving behind the so-called “Swedish cross,” cast in bronze in Constance in 1577, which today greets visitors to Mainau.

There followed a period of uncertainty and decline for the island where it changed hands many times until it was acquired by Grand Duke Frederick I of Baden who is seen very much as the founder of the park. He not only set up his summer residence here, but began to create order on the island to redesign it and plant rare exotic trees and plants, which he brought back from his travels. Significant parts of the Mainau park, such as the arboretum, Italian rose garden and orangery go back to this time, as well as the first glass houses for exotic plants, and the first iron bridge connecting it to the mainland.

After the Grand Duke’s death in 1907, the island was inherited by his son who bequeathed it to his sister Viktoria, Queen of Sweden, which is how the island of Mainau became the property of the Swedish royal family in 1928. After the death of Queen Viktoria, the island went to her son Prince Wilhelm of Sweden in 1930, who transferred the management of the inheritance to his son Lennart in 1932, who was just 23 at the time.

In the same year, Lennart Bernadotte moved back from Sweden to Mainau, after he lost all titles and claims to inheritance to the Swedish royal family, on account of his marriage to commoner Karin Nissvand. He made the island into a new residence for him and his family and little by little began to convert the neglected island into a park again.

Mainau was opened to visitors and in the years before WWII, it profited significantly from state managed tourism, the “Kraft durch Freude” (Strength through Joy) travels, which brought thousands of visitors to the island. Lennart Bernadotte left the island before the outbreak of war, leaving caretakers to manage the island which was turned into a rest home for officers and industrialists during the war.

Shortly before the end of the war, the German Foreign Office gave the island to French collaborators, who rallied around the head of the extreme right wing “Parti Populaire Français” (PPF), Jacques Doriot. From the south of Germany, the group planned to drive the Gaullists and communists out of France, which is why Doriot proclaimed a French liberation committee on the island of Mainau at the beginning of 1945. However, this German – French collaboration ended in February 1945, with the death of Doriot, in a low flying aeroplane bomb attack near to Mengen. As a result, his followers fled Mainau.

On 26 April 1945, a new era began for Konstanz and the surrounding area: the region became part of the French occupation zone. Mid-May 1945, the islands of Mainau and Reichenau were selected for the accommodation and recovery of French prisoners liberated from the Dachau concentration camp. A total of several thousand prisoners were brought to Lake Konstanz to recover. In September 1945, the French occupation concluded and Lennart Bernadotte returned in January 1946 to a deteriorated facility and a mostly empty castle. A long conflict arose with the French authorities regarding compensation for damages and the replacement of missing furnishings. However, it wasn’t long before Mainau was soon open to visitors again.

Initially the castle and park offered rehabilitation for young people after the destruction of the war within the framework of the Christian Young People’s Association, under Swedish management. By the end of 1968, aound 20,000 participants from 40 countries had attended events at Mainau. It was now time to resurrect the former gardens, some of which went back to the time of the Teutonic Order.

As mentioned above, it was Grand Duke Frederick I of Baden who had started to develop Mainau as a flower and plant paradise. His overall concept had been to open up the island with paths, alleys and viewing spots, which he gradually implemented, together with his court gardeners, before his death in 1907. In so doing, he created the basis for the current design of Mainau.

The park inside the island, the arboretum with tree stock that is now 100 to 150 years old, was created at the time of Frederick I, who brought numerous exotic trees with him from his travels. The Italian rose garden on the south side of the castle also goes back to the time of the Grand Duke who had a flower garden created in the Italian style in 1860.

That’s not the only part of the island with some provenance. As far back as the time of the Teutonic Order, wine had been grown on Mainau. Though the vineyard laid out on the south west slope of the island, near the “Swedish tower”, comes from the time of Frederick I. Over time vineyard walls were built, the soil was replaced, grape varieties were experimented with and an excellent Lake Konstanz wine flourished here.

After the death of Frederick I, at the request of his widow, nothing in the park and garden was changed. Therefore in 1932, Lennart Bernadotte took over a park overgrown with local vegetation, in which initially more had to be dug up than planted. Based on the foundations established by Frederick I, Lennart Bernadotte gradually developed today’s “Flower Island of Mainau”, which was to be his life’s work.

Initially, the previous arboretum was cleared of wild growth, and lines of sight of the lake were exposed. Then the basic structures of the original park were restored, and further designs were initiated.

Post-war, from 1950 onwards, the development of the island continued full steam ahead. By 1955, a year of rolling flower exhibitions had been established with the orchid show, spring bulbs, rhododendrons, roses, summer flowers, citrus collection and the respective collections of fuchsias and dahlias.

Gradually, the historical buildings were also fully renovated and in 1968 a large palm house was built to replace the former winter greenhouses. Today, the park and garden of Mainau attract approx. 1.2 million visitors per annum. 25 hectares of the total 45-hectare island are showcase areas and the park is continually being further developed.

In 2003, the island of Mainau was awarded protected status while the castle, church, harbour, the Italian rose garden, parts of the arboretum and fortification walls are under the highest level of protection and conservation. Meanwhile, the sensitive further development of the island is being continued by the Bernadotte family.

Postcard from Lake Konstanz III

Aside from the cities of Meersburg and Konstanz, there are three islands on the lake well worth a visit or, in our case, a revisit.


The 110-acre garden island of Mainau is renowned for its carpets of flowers and greenhouses. It has nearly 10,000 rose bushes, lots of different types of gardens, thousands of butterflies, a 13th-century baroque palace, plenty of restaurants, a petting zoo and a magnificent arboretum. Plus, as you wander around the gardens, you get tantalising glimpses of the lake.

It is an unquestionably beautiful place and one of the most visited sites in the area, with over two million visitors every year. It’s the place my late mother – a keen gardener – always wanted to visit when she came to stay. She, my father, and their friends, spent many a happy hour wandering through its gardens.

On the Thursday, we took the boat directly from Meersburg to Mainau. Given the time of year, we expected the island to be ablaze with colour, and we weren’t disappointed. We’d missed the spring bulbs but the rhododendruns were still in full bloom.


To the west of Konstanz, and directly opposite where we once lived in Hegne, is Reichenau. Declared a UNESCO world Heritage Site in 2000 because of its monastery, the Abbey of Reichenau. The abbey’s minster church is dedicated to the Virgin Mary and Saint Mark. Two further churches built on the island were consecrated to Saint George, and to Saints Peter and Paul. Reichenau’s famous artworks include (in the church of St George) the Ottonian murals of miracles of Christ, unique survivals from the 10th century.

Today the island is better known for its vegetable farms which at certain times of the year smell strongly of cabbages, its annual Wine Festival and the Wollmatinger Ried which is a large nature reserve next to the island. It’s a reeded wetland used by many birds as a stopover during their annual migration.


On the other side of the lake you’ll find Lindau which has a magnificent harbour guarded by a Bavarian (it’s in Bayern, not Baden-Wurttemburg) lion and lighthouse, in addition the town is full of medieval half-timbered and painted buildings.

We visited on Saturday when the sun shone, the market was in full-swing and the place was busy with tourists. Like many of the old towns on the lake, it’s not changed much and is instantly recognisable. We ate lunch (more asparagus) at one of favourite spots looking out over the harbour. There’s a boat from Meersburg to Lindau but it takes 21/2 hours to get there so we drove and parked in a new multi-storey car park next to the new entertainment centre, both recently built on the island but outside of the old city walls.

Any trip to the Lake of Constance should include visits to all three of these islands. In fact, it’s hard to think of anywhere around the lake not worthy of a visit, though obviously the more picturesque places like Konstanz and Meersburg are worthy of more than a cursory visit.


Postcard from Lake Konstanz II

As I explained in my first postcard, we based ourselves in Meersburg for the duration of our trip. It’s a place we’d visited frequently in the past, generally for a lakeside walk and ice cream on a sunny Sunday afternoon and, of course, to buy some of its wines.

Since we couldn’t stay at our hotel of choice in Konstanz (fully-booked!), we decided to stay on the opposite side of the lake in this one in Meersburg, a well-run hotel which has long been in family hands. Just a short stroll from a handful of restaurants and hotels where we ate our evening meals. Our hotel did have a highly recommended restaurant but it catered for carnivores, not vegans!

Meersburg has a fine and meticulously kept medieval centre surrounded by vineyards and makes a good hub for exploring destinations around the lake. It’s comprised of two distinct areas, the lower town alonside the lake (Unterstadt) and uptown (Oberstadt) where we were staying and featuring in the photos above.

As you can see from the map above, the rest of the lake is very accessible from Meerberg either by boat or with the car ferry to Petershausen, a stone’s throw from Konstanz. While we were often out and about during the day, we returned to Meersburg for dinner every evening.

Most evenings, either before or after dinner, we wandered along Meersburg’s old cobblestoned streets looking up at the historic and colourful facades which included Meersburg Castle, the oldest inhabited castle in Germany, as well as the elegant New Castle (1712-1740) right next to it, which has a fantastic terrace overlooking the lake. The latter once served as the  residential palace of the prince-bishops of Constance.

The Old Castle successfully defended Meersburg and the narrative of its self-guided tour is all about knights and weapons of war. Its Bible Gallery includes exhibits of not only bibles but of the Guttenburg press that first made printed copies. Other museums in Meersburg include the Zeppelin Museum, Meersburg Tapestry Art Museum, Droste Museum, the Town Museum and a Viticulture Museum (wine is a very important part of the culture of Meersburg).


Postcard from Lake Konstanz I

This post is about our recent visit to Konstanz, the largest city on the lake of the same name (German: Bodensee) which is Europe’s third-largest lake. It’s one of the best-preserved medieval towns in Germany because, during World War II, the Allies avoided bombing it as it was too close to neutral Kreuzlingen in Switzerland. The city features charming architecture and numerous attractions, all within sight of the water giving it a bit of a Mediterranean vibe. Indeed one could be forgiven for spending one’s time there as if one were at the beach.

We loved our time in Konstanz back in the early 90s, but haven’t visited in awhile, so a trip down memory lane was long overdue. Not unnaturally, my beloved combined our few days of vacation with a couple of client visits.

I consequently got two bites of the Konstanz cherry: the first when my beloved visited one of his clients and the second on the Sunday when we crossed over from Meersburg (where we were staying) on the passenger ferry to spend the day there, lapping up the sunshine and watching the regatta.

On our second day on the lake, we rose early to catch the car ferry for my beloved’s meeting at his former employer. These beauties followed us onto the ferry. Old timers are very popular around the lake.

Konstanz is over 1,000 years old and many of its buildings in the Old Town, known as Niederburg, have the dates of their construction elegantly marked across their facade – you’ll see this when I do a Doors post. The Old Town is criss-crossed with narrow cobblestone alleys extending north from the Münster (cathedral) all the way to the river Rhine. At its heart is the Marktstätte (market place), lined with restaurants and cafes, where one finds the Kaiserbrunnen (imperial fountain) with four former emperors, a three-headed peacock with each head regally crowned, as well as a bronze horse.

Behind the square is the Konzilgebäude (council hall) which was erected in 1388 as a warehouse. Now a concert hall, statues of locals Jan Hus and Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin stand beside it. Also close by is the beautifully frescoed 15th-century Hohenzollernhaus, 16th-century Rathaus (city hall) and Haus zum Rosgarten, once a medieval butchers’ guild and now a museum for the region.

The majestic Konstanz münster (cathedral) was the church of the diocese of Konstanz until 1821. First mentioned in 615 AD and consecrated in 1089 AD, it features Romanesque and Gothic designs while its spire pokes high into the sky and can be seen all around the city. To the side of the cathedral, you’ll see a glass pyramid which protects the Römersiedlung, the remains of Constantia Roman fort.

While my beloved was at the meeting, I meandered around the town. Little had changed though the town had expanded with a new shopping mall and the on-going renovation of more roads in the Old Town. It was fun flushing out all my old haunts, most were still flourishing. The town was pretty busy as there’s plenty of (German) Bank Holidays in the month of May though many of the visitors were obviously retirees. Indeed, the whole lake is a very popular German holiday spot.

I knew my beloved was having lunch with his client so I decided to try out a newish establishment built into the town’s old walls. It turned out to be an inspired choice. I enjoyed a prawn and shaved asparagus salad, washed down with a glass of Prosecco. I was tempted by a dress in one of my favourite shops but it rather dwarfed me, the proportions were all wrong. Quite obviously intended for a taller German.

After walking all over the Old Town, I met up with my beloved and we walked along the lakeside, one of our old and regular perambulations, checking out what had changed. One of our favourite restaurants had been updated and subsumed into the neighbouring hotel. The renovation was superb but the menu no longer tempted us. We’d eaten many a Sunday lunch on its balcony either on our own or with my parents – happy days! Obviously lakeside properties  – fantastic property porn – command a premium and there were a couple of new builds to admire but much of the lake is unchanged for all to enjoy.

We wandered back to the car feeling a wee bit footsore and decided to pay our old neighbourhood a visit. Again, not much had changed in Hegne. The cloisters had been enlarged to include a teaching facility, there was a town hall next to the fire-station and opposite our old flat which had sprouted photo-voltaic panels and a red and white striped awning. The rest of the main road was unchanged though there were more dwellings lining the hill.

More importantly, the local restaurant was still knocking out its mega-schnitzels. We had never, ever seen anyone finish one of these. Pretty much everyone, including us, left with a doggy bag. Content we drove back to our hotel in Meersburg where we enjoyed more local wines to wash down more asparagus at a neighbouring hotel.

On our Sunday trip, in glorious sunshine, we took the passenger ferry direct to Konstanz where we were welcomed by the familiar and impressive statue of Imperia. Erected only in 1993, it was initially controversial but has since become a landmark. It’s a satirical depiction of a nine-meter-tall courtesan holding a pathetic Pope Martin V and Emperor Sigismund. It grandly rotates on its pedestal and refers to a short story by Balzac, La Belle Impéria.

We had  a gentle stroll around town before lunch on the terrace of the city’s main hotel. A place where we’d enjoyed many a meal in the past. The hotel, a former cloister, has been renovated in recent years but the ambience remains warm and the lakeside views spectacular. And, yes, we had more asparagus!

40 years of Memorable Moments: Konstanz

It was only when I started to write about our recent trip to Lake Konstanz (Bodensee), I realised that I’d never really written about us living in Konstanz in the early 1990s. So I thought I’d better remedy that oversight.

My beloved was working for a very large US dental company in the UK but had forged good links with colleagues at its European HQ because he spoke fluent German, courtesy of his University sandwich year in Hamburg. He was offered and accepted a  move to Konstanz to work in its sales and marketing department in 1992.

After spending six months living in the company flat, we found a large, brand new, top-floor flat to rent which overlooked the lake in Hegne and started to make plans for our new life in Germany. Meanwhile, I was still working in London and flying to and from Konstanz each week-end, which was just a 45 minute drive from Zurich airport, while I sold our property in Chiswick, looked for a new role in Zurich and learned to drive!

It was much easier for me to fly to Zurich. The company chauffeur would drop me off at London City airport on his way home on Friday and I’d take the late evening Crossair flight to Zurich. Crossair was well-known for its ample servings of champagne (Gosset) and lovely nibbles – probably why it went bankrupt! I was part of a bunch of City regulars who flew there and back each week-end. Obviously, we had a very early start on Monday mornings but the chauffeur collected me from the airport so I was in the office by 09:00 am.

We loved living in Konstanz, particularly our spectacular view of the lake much enjoyed from our large lounge with floor to ceiling windows and adjoining balcony. Our brand spanking new flat was bright and airy, we’d installed a new kitchen of our choice and we were gradually putting our mark on the place. It had three generously sized bedrooms, one of which we used as a dining room, a massive bathroom and an enormous loft space.

I spent most week-ends and all of our holidays in and around the Lake Constance (Bodensee). In the winter months, my beloved would collect me from the airport on Friday evenings and we’d drive up into the mountains to spend the week-end skiing. During the summer months, we’d enjoy the various wine and food festivals in the towns and villages around the lake.

Our flat in Hegne was opposite the fire station which was manned by volunteers who also organised all the festivals in Hegne. Consequently, the walls of the fire station were lined with cases of wine and beer – surely a fire hazard in itself! Handily, all the festivals in Hegne took place in the parking space in front of our flat.

However, the town’s main claim to fame is its Kloster, a complex of buildings whose architectural core is the historic Hegne Castle. In addition to the monastery, this building complex also houses various educational and charitable institutions. The nuns were ever present around the village and you’d often see them on bicycles though one had a motorbike. We used to call her the “Flying Nun.”

Aside from the lake, one of the great advantages of Konstanz’s location was its proximity to Switzerland, handy to pop across for cheaper petrol and chocolate, plus Austria. To be honest, we’d have been quite happy to settle down here. It’s a beautiful spot and there’s much to enjoy around the lake all year long. My beloved had resumed playing water-polo for the local club which helped us to better integrate into the local community. In addition, there were other non-Germans also working for my beloved’s company who were only too happy to show us the ropes, not that we found it particularly difficult since we both spoke German.

Friends and family were happy to visit, particularly my parents who enjoyed their boat trips around the lake – much the best way to see everything. They had such a great time that they continued to visit the area, with their friends, long after we’d moved back to UK!

After only two years, my beloved was lured back to the UK to work as the local CEO of a major German, family-owned, dental company. Fortunately this was before I’d made the move but not before we’d sold our home in Chiswick. Meanwhile, I’d been living during the week at my youngest sister’s in Wimbledom and had to start looking for another home, albeit closer to central London, which was how we ended up in Cleveland Sq, Bayswater.

Since moving to France in 2005, we’ve only had a couple of quick visits, largely on business, to the area and a longer visit, a trip down memory lane, was much overdue. We have fond memories of our time there which we’re looking to rekindle.