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March 1996

In Search Of An Early Spring: Lake Constance reveals its quiet beauty

Quiet time at one of Germany's most loved lakes

Winter is almost over. The clouds hang low on the horizon and the highway from Zurich airport towards St.Gallen is almost empty. The skiers are in the mountains and I have the road to myself. My destination is Lake Constance, Europe's third largest lake, and my assignment is to rediscover it in a season when tropical beaches and snow-covered chalets top most travelers' lists of destinations. More than six million people visit Lake Constance each year. Most come from the three countries surrounding it: Germany, Austria and Switzerland. They start arriving in late spring and leave by early autumn. In winter, the White Fleet, which transports three million visitors and crosses 350,000 kilometers of blue-green water, has all but a few of its ships in dry dock. Most hotels are closed and seasonal workers have gone home. The lake's fertile landscape of vineyards and apple orchards has been stripped of its lush summer colors. In late winter, Lake Constance belongs to those who love it-farmers, all-year residents, and me. I turn off the highway at St. Margrethen and take a local road to the narrow peninsula called Rohrspitz. In 1900, the river that originally flowed into the lake at Rheinspitz was channeled into a canal to control flooding. The area between the "Old" Rhine and the "New" Rhine is called the Rhine Delta and lies on the Austrian-Swiss border. It is now a bird sanctuary and nature park with foot paths and bicycle trails. The water is crystal-clear as it laps the sandy beach. The boats that dot the horizon in summer are gone and the birds have returned. Black-headed gulls, mallards, shovelers and wild geese swim slowly across the mirror-like surface. The flat land is covered with reeds that have turned golden yellow in the winter. They bend in the light breeze and fill the silence with their rustling. It is late afternoon by the time I reach Lindau, an island on the German side of Lake Constance. My room opens onto a terrace overlooking the harbor. This is Lindau as I had hoped to see it. I order a bottle of Weißherbst and watch the light fade. To my right the view is framed by the marble lion erected by Bavarian King Ludwig I in 1856,and to my left by a lighthouse built in the same year. In the distance, the Swiss Alps form the backdrop. I take another sip of the mild pale rosé, actually a white wine from red grapes grown in the region, and reluctantly close the French doors to the terrace. Lindau traces its history to Roman times, but burst into bloom in the 15th century. Most of the neat half-timbered or painted houses date from this period. It is already dark when I go out to explore the town. The bells of St. Stephan announce vespers and a young couple walks arm in arm down the narrow street. Along Maximilianstraße, Lindau's main street, old patrician houses cast yellow light from their paned windows. The next morning, I get up early to take the ferry to Konstanz, then drive to the privately owned island of Mainau. Often called the Blumeninsel, or Floral Island, the 45-hectare estate is the property of Count Lennart Bernadotte. With its superb park and gardens, the island is one of the most visited places on Lake Constance, averaging two million visitors annually. The view from the Baroque castle-home to the count, countess and their five children-is breathtaking. Crocuses sprinkle color among the flower beds and primulas glow from planters and flower boxes. In the Palmenhaus, birds are singing and I have to resist the temptation to pick one of the ripe oranges that hang justwithin reach. One of the most interesting and least-visited areas of Lake Constance is the 63-square-kilometer peninsula known as Höri, which juts into the Zeller See part of the lake. At the beginning of the century, artists and writers began to discover its idyllic villages and rural calm. Hermann Hesse built a house there and soon other German intellectuals followed him. During the Third Reich, banned artists such as Otto Dix moved to Höri, and it became a refuge for artists and writers trying to escape the Nazi regime. Switzerland lies one kilometer across the water. "Many had hoped to escape to Switzerland, which they could see across the Untersee," explains Roberte Holly-Logeais, the last pupil of Otto Dix, "but Switzerland wouldn't let them in." Holly-Logeais, who became Dix's student after the war, is one of the last remaining links to the famous colony. Most of the artists -Otto Dix, Walter Herzger, Gertrude von Harlessem, Erich Heckel, Max Ackermann -are dead. The Höri Museum there has a collection of their works. I walk past their brilliant canvases and try to imagine the bitterness and frustration they endured. I get into my car and drive across the Rhine into Switzerland. Stein am Rhein, an almost intact Gothic-Renaissance town, is built on the bottleneck of the lower-or Untersee-branch of the lake, where the Rhine flows out. The center of the town remains much as it was in 1500. There is no sign of the more than one million tourists who visit each year. I walk through the nearly empty streets and feel myself drawn into the past. The narrow, crooked, half-timbered houses with their dormer windows remind me of childhood fairy tales. The Benedictine Cloister of St. Georg is closed, but the friendly caretaker lets me into the courtyard where steps lead down to the water. There I enjoy the last hour of light and watch a flock of swans swim by. I know I will return-not in the summer, when tourists flood the area-but off-season, when I can enjoy the luxury of solitude and introspection. WORTH A DETOUR The Lake Constance area is rich in historical treasures. Entire towns such as Gottlieben, Stein am Rhein and Meersburg are perfectly preserved, each with a Baroque church and many museums. Here are some of my favorites. Pfahlbauten; -A reconstructed village shows examples of New Stone Age and Bronze Age dwellings on Lake Constance. The museum contains actual finds excavated in the area. Seepromenade 6, Unteruhldingen, tel. (07556) 85 43. Open April through October, 8:00-19:00. Birnau; -The Bodensee's most beautiful Baroque church, set among the monastery vineyards overlooking Lake Constance, belongs to the Cistercian order. Open daily from 8:00 onward. Mainau; -The Floral Island has paths and walkways, spectacular views, gardens, concerts, lectures and three restaurants. For guided tours, call (07531) 30 32 52. For general information, call (07531) 303 32 48. Napoleon Museum-; Schloß Arenberg was the home of Napoleon's step-daughter; later it became the summer residence of Louis Bonaparte and his wife Eugénie. The astounding interior contains original furnishings, art and memorabilia. Located two kilometers from Ermatingen; open 9:00-18:00, except from October to April, when it closes at 16:00. Call (07264) 18 66. Halbinsel Mettnau; -The breeding place of many rare species of birds. Parts of the marsh are restricted to protect local wildlife. Guided excursions can be arranged by calling (07531) 535 50. Rheindelta-; The 2,000 hectares of natural marsh between Fussach, Austria, and Altenrhein, Switzerland are a breeding place for 300 varieties of birds; the area is especially interesting in spring and autumn.

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