Thursday, May 10, 2007

15 April: Bountiful Bodensee

Spring is in full force here in Stuttgart: Our horse chestnut tree is leafing out, the cherry tree in the back yard is in full bloom, and over the past few days the woods have literally burst into brilliant green splendor. We ate dinner on our balcony for the first time two days ago. We have no idea how long this streak of gorgeous weather will last, so I insisted that we go for another outing today. Fortunately Uli and Markus didn’t stay too late last night, so we got up at a reasonable hour, had breakfast, and headed out in the SLK around 11:30. Our destination today was the Bodensee (Lake Constance). We figured it was high time we visit this famous lake, beloved by Germans for its boating, cheerful villages, gorgeous orchards, and alpine views. We ran into no traffic on the Autobahn and caught our first glimpse of the lake (left) only 90 minutes after leaving Stuttgart. We drove eastward along the north shore for a ways until we got to Meersburg (literally “sea castle”), described by Fodor’s as one of the “most romantic old towns on the German shore of the lake.”

We parked a good ways from the center of town in a visitor parking lot and helped a comically stereotypical American couple in shorts and fannie packs decipher the parking meter. While we were standing there, two German women in an ancient RV drove into the parking lot, totally oblivious of the gate over the entrance bearing a big sign warning that the height limit was 2 m. Their RV had a roof-mounted storage unit on top and altogether it must have been a good foot higher than the gate. Somehow they managed to scrape their way through without tearing down the gate, although they did some serious damage to their roof unit. They slammed on the brakes, got out, surveyed the damage, turned around, and tried to push their way back out. I’m not sure how they eventually got out again, but we saw them drive by us a few minutes later as we were walking into town. I guess this just goes to show that not all Germans are good drivers, and two women chatting in a car together is generally not a good thing in any country.

It was about a 10-minute walk into town, and we spent some time exploring the crooked streets lined with colorful half-timbered houses. We walked out onto the broad balcony of the salmon-pink Neues Schloss (left), which overlooks the lower town and has magnificent views of the Bodensee. While we were standing there, a long, fat dirigible drifted by overhead, and I remembered reading that the original Zeppelin factory was located in nearby Friedrichshafen. John was fascinated by this so we are obviously going to have to make a trip to the Zeppelin museum one of these days (where you can walk through a partial reconstruction of the Hindenberg).

We decided to have lunch at Weinstube Der Löwe, sitting outside in the shade on the peaceful little Marktplatz (right). I had asparagus quiche with smoked salmon (delicious but a meager portion) and John had the Schweinsteak special – pork medallions topped with sliced apples and melted cheese with mashed potato cakes. I got a small caraf of a local Müller-Thurgau for 4,90 Euro and John had a ½-liter Kristalweizen for 3,10 Euro. We shared chocolate mousse for dessert. Total bill – 40 Euro.

It was getting on in the afternoon after our leisurely lunch, so we headed down to the lakeshore and strolled along the esplanade (right), which is lined with dozens of cafés and restaurants. We walked out to the dock, watched a ferry from Austria sail away, and then came back via a busy shopping street (below) that was full of people out for a Sunday walk. If this is mid-April, I can only imagine how mobbed this place must be in the summertime. We stopped at a little novelty shop to buy a tin sign that caught my eye. It says Vorsicht: Kampfe-Katze! (“Beware: Attack Cat!”). You have to know our cat to understand.

We made our way back up to the Altes Schloss (below) and paid the 8 Euro entry fee, which included a guided tour of Dagobert’s Tower, the oldest part of the castle. The original Meersburg claims to be Germany’s oldest inhabited castle, having been built in 628 by Dagobert, king of the Franks. We had a few minutes to kill before the tower tour, so we explored the 7th century rooms at the base of the castle, then waited for the tour on the landing of the baroque staircase, which is decorated with an impressive collection of medieval hunting weapons.

A series of famous royal families have occupied Meersburg over the course of its 1400-year history, starting with the Merovingians and followed by the Carolingians, the Guelphs, and the Hohenstaufen. The prince-bishops of Constance took it over in 1526, and occupied it until they moved to the Neues Schloss in the mid-18th century. The castle went to the state of Baden in 1803 following secularization, at which point it might have been torn down if not for the interest of a German scholar named Baron Joseph von Lassberg, who turned it into a home for poets and artists, including the Brothers Grimm and the Baron’s sister-in-law, Annette von Droste-Hülshoof, considered Germany’s most famous poetess. The castle is still privately owned by an old German family, but much of it is open to the public.

A very nice woman guided us and three other German visitors through several rooms of the castle and up into the tower, with its massive nine-foot-thick walls. I said “We don’t have those in America!” (Our guide asked us before the
tour if we spoke German. We said yes, but English would be better for us. She joked, “Well, German is better for me!” and ended up giving the tour in German, but spoke very slowly and clearly and directed most of her attention at me and John. At one point she complimented us on our German and we explained that we are living in Stuttgart. We seem to encounter a lot of people who are surprised to meet Americans who can speak German.) We climbed a series of narrow staircases up to the topmost floor of Dagobert’s Tower and enjoyed the views of the town (right) and lake (below) out the narrow windows. At the end of the tour we visited the dungeon, which houses a small collection of medieval torture devices, where we watched a short film describing in great detail the persecution of accused witches and the various manners in which they were “tried” – and usually killed in the process.

After the tour, we walked through over thirty rooms of the castle, including the kitchen, the warden’s bedchamber, the main living rooms, and the Hall of Arms, which is decorated with 16th and 17th-century suits of armor, spears, and swords, and a rare set of jousting equipment. We passed through the elevated garden, which has lovely views of the Bodensee and, in the distance, the Alps, and then visited a series of pleasingly-furnished rooms that were once occupied by the poet Droste-Hülshoff, who died here in 1848.

Next we passed through the armory and a long fortified passageway along the battlements, where you could almost picture the castle’s soldiers pouring boiling pitch onto their assailants far below. The Hall of Knights (visible through doorway at right) was decorated with some mangy deerhides and an elk foot drinking cup. Wine was said so have flowed freely from the “Fountain of Christ” during great feasts for the people of Meersburg. We entered another dungeon room, where you can look through the “hole of fear” into the Hungerturm (literally “hunger tower”), a 9-meter deep chamber where prisoners were left to starve. Several more rooms housed various tournament helmets and other heraldric items; the 17th-century Chapel of the Prince-Bishop is decorated with the coats-of-arms of every owner of the castle – and there were many! Finally, we visited the small stable, where we could see the entrance to a subterranean passage that leads down to the lake. When the castle was under siege for fourteen weeks in the 14th century, provisions were secreted to the castle from the lake through this passage.

Upon completing our tour, we took in the views of the lake one last time (the Alps having now become more visible through the haze) and then walked back up through the town and headed back to the car. We drove home the way we had come, on the Autobahn, with the top down – perhaps not the most fuel-efficient means of locomotion, but certainly an exhilarating experience!

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