Breakfast in Switzerland, afternoon ski in Germany and dinner in Austria? Easily done. Jostling for space around the banks of Lake Constance, three countries (four, if you include the principality of Liechtenstein) rub shoulder to shoulder. This scenic watery expanse, fed by the Rhine, is a magnet for watersports fanatics in summer. But as the colder months creep in, Lake Constance is ripe for exploration with twinkly alpine vistas and Baroque timbered towns that play host to weird and wonderful festivals.
Nestled in the northern foot of the Alps, Lake Constance is the gateway to this legendary mountain range, making it a lesser-known – though no less picturesque – hotspot for those seeking adrenaline-fuelled action on the slopes. On the Austrian border, the Gothic town of Lindau offers plenty of pistes primed for snowboarding and skiing. For some knee-trembling views, get your head in the clouds on a cable car to the dizzying peak of Säntis in Switzerland. Here you can snowshoe-hike the cableway south of St Gallen.
A bit of Bavaria. A soupçon of Swiss. Given the generous array of countries bordering Lake Constance, its towns and villages have got plenty going on culturally and architecturally. They all look infinitely more beguiling under a liberal dusting of snow and can be explored in a day or two. Drive around the lake perimeter and call in at the Swiss town of St Gallen. With a lovingly restored monastery and a dazzlingly ornate library – one of the world’s most beautiful – it’s all Medieval majesty with a reassuring scattering of elegant, cosmopolitan eateries like Lokremise; a bar-restaurant-arts-space housed in an old railway depot.
Lakeside Austrian town Bregenz is an arts epicentre thanks to its world-famous floating theatre stage, the Festspielhaus and its Kunsthaus gallery. In summer, the artfully-designed floating stage plays host to opera. Even in winter you’ll find edgy-cool artists’ work showcased at the gallery. While it’s too cold to take to the lake for some watersports fun, wrap up warm and hop on the ferry linking the German towns of Konstanz and Meersburg. There are a handful of stylish hotels to stay at around Lake Constance, Konstanz’s five-star Steigenburger Inselhotel is one of the best and occupies a former Dominican monastery on its own private island, making for a luxurious historic retreat.
New Orleans has Mardi Gras. London has Notting Hill. Lake Constance has Fasnacht. This centuries-old carnival is celebrated in February to mark the close of winter with a series of eye-popping costume parades. One of Lake Constance’s best kept secrets, the spectacle of giant ogres and witches, beasts from local mythology and folklore snaking their way through cobbled streets as the sounds of whips crack into the night is a feast for the senses. Over the course of Fasnacht, local towns like the ultra-quaint Überlingen host their own smaller processions, with the week-long fiesta reaching a crescendo in Konstanz with an almighty daytime parade.
No country does atmospheric seasonal vibes quite like Germany and with the aroma of gingerbread and ghlüwein filling the air, its Christmas markets are a perennial tourist draw. Eschewing the crazy crowds of Frankfurt or Berlin and opting for Lake Constance’s intimate winter wonderlands offers a resolutely more authentic Christmas experience. Gorge on bratwurst, soak up the oompah band sounds and shop for handmade crafts and gifts at lakeside markets at Freidrichshafen, St Gallen, Voralberg and Lindau.
Winter warmers don’t come much alluring than local signature dish, kässpätzle; an unctuous, stick-to-your-ribs plate of pasta-style noodles slathered in gooey melted cheese. In each country surrounding Lake Constance kässpätzle is served with its own regional twist. Then of course there’s the raclette, fondue and hot chestnuts… Driving around the lake, you’ll spot endless rows of vines growing right up to the shoreline. Needless to say, wine and grappa is a big deal in the region. Think full-bodied Spätburgunder reds and lively Weißburgunder whites.
WORDS: Ellen Grace Jones