Monday, October 22, 2007

Bodensee and Rheinfallen

The Bodensee, also known as Lake Constance, is located along the southern border of Germany, basically where Germany, Austria, and Switzerland converge. This lake is fairly large, about the size of Lake Pend Oreille in North Idaho, so it seems like a small sea in its own right. On clear days, the snowcapped mountains of the Swiss Alps loom over the lake to the south, so it can be quite beautiful. Small towns, monasteries, castles, and vineyards surround the lake so that this region is known for scenic beauty as well as for historic attractions.

The Bodensee is actually a part of the Rhine River that begins in the Swiss Alps near the St. Gotthard tunnel on the route between Zürich and Milan and then winds its way north towards Germany and then enters the Bodensee near Begrenz, Austria. The river exits the lake near Konstanz before it begins its long northward trek along the German-French border before entering the North Sea near Rotterdam in the Netherlands. Although the Rhine River in general suggests deep green swirling water, industrial activity, and heavy shipping, especially downriver near Mannheim, Dusseldorf, and Rotterdam, the upper Rhine near the Bodensee is more of a wide but fast flowing shallow river of clear water, swirling rapids, and the dark shapes of fish hovering near the surface. The Rheinfallen near Schaffenhausen seems to divide the more scenic and recreational upper Rhine River from the lower commercial transport corridor that resembles a freeway for river barges. The color of the Bodensee also has this clean light blue alpine quality, even though it certainly has been impacted by the thousands of tourists and vacationers from the densely populated surrounding regions.

The most prominent city on the Bodensee is Konstanz, a rather small but quaint city on the western part of the lake near the Swiss border. This city has Roman origins, largely a fortress on the lake as a means of providing security for the Rhine-Danubian frontier that marked the northeastern boundary of the Roman Empire for four centuries. During the Middle Ages, Constance became a trading center for transalpine traffic between Italy and northern Europe. It was also a pilgrimage center of sorts, especially for pilgrims on their way to Rome. Today Konstanz still has several churches, all of Carolingian or even late Roman origin, although they have been rebuilt in the Gothic or Baroque tradition over the centuries. However the Münster at Konstanz had a Romanesque crypt from the eleventh or twelfth century, with its low vaults and thick pillars supported round arches. Konstanz is also a modern tourist area along side the lake with a shopping plaza, bicycle paths, gambling casinos, and an aquarium. The waterfront of Konstanz is a large marina for yachts and a terminal for numerous ferries and excursion boats that connect Konstanz with other cities around the lake.

After an afternoon of exploring Konstanz, I decided to take one of those vessels across the lake to nearby Meersburg. I was hoping to get a good view of the lake and the Alps from the north, but unfortunately a heavy bank of clouds had moved in from the west, blotting out any possible view of the mountains.

Meersburg was a pleasant surprise, a small city built on a steep slope overlooking the lake with a late medieval castle as its primary landmark. The vessel docked near the marina, hotels and restaurants along the lakeshore of the lower city. Steep stone steps connected the lower city to the more historic upper city where the castle is. After wandering about narrow cobblestone streets past the usual German town scene of ice cream cafes, pubs, and fountains surrounding a wide market plaza, I went to the castle perched high on a bluff overlooking the lake. The castle itself was actually a well preserved late medieval structure with furniture, blacksmith halls, a stable, dining halls, and black candle chandeliers.

After a quick dinner in Meersburg, I returned to Konstanz on the ferry as a threatening bank of clouds gradually moved in from the south. As I walked about the waterfront, taking pictures, the threatening clouds became an intense rain squall which transformed the marina, the lakefront plazas, and outdoor restaurants into a monsoon scene. People dining outside suddenly made a dash for the indoors, sometimes leaving glasses of beer and plates of food on their table to be thoroughly drenched by the downpour. I hovered under a tree, hoping that the downpour would end soon, but at the same time I knew I couldn’t stay there forever because I had a train to catch. The problem with June and July is that the sun is still out after ten o’clock, and usually the last train of the day left around ten o’clock.

After I was caught in the downpour, I decided that it was time to head for home, because I was drenched and I didn’t have any clothes to change into. I headed over to the train station only to realize that the last train to Stuttgart had already left. Therefore I decided to head across the Swiss border to Schaffenhausen, near the Rheinfallen. I boarded an aging red regional train that was stifling hot, but that felt good to me in my soaking wet clothes. Schaffenhausen is a nice but expensive town on the Rhine River. Because I couldn’t find a hotel for a price that I was willing to pay, I just decided to stay out all night. First I hiked up to a massive castle that overlooked the city and wandered into a fancy party with bright chandeliers and people in tuxedoes and exquisite dresses. Then I walked through town along the river, admiring the clear water that passed right through the city. Then I found a disco near the university campus and paid two euros to spend a couple hours dancing with a bunch of Swiss college students. The scene was a bit tamer than other discos without the close contact or the extremely short skirts, and it entertained me until about two in the morning.

At that time, I decided to hike to the Rheinfallen. First I followed a paved path along the river leading out of town. The water ran swiftly over a shallow bed of rocks, reminding me of rivers in the Cascades or the Rocky Mountains. The I had to cross the river on a footpath on the side of a railroad bridge. No trains passed while I walked across. Then I walked through the courtyard of a castle that had been refurbished into a hotel on a bluff overlooking the swift flowing river. After I passed through the castle, I then headed down steep trail to the waterfall, which was a massive cascade of water that flowed over a series of rocks into a deep pool with choppy waves. There was a platform near the trail where I stood watching the huge volume of water roaring below me. What if the platform just broke off and slipped into the fast flowing river? I stood there mesmerized as the chilly spray dampened my clothes. I stood next to the waterfall in the early morning light as the sun gradually rose, illuminating the roaring river and the dark shapes of trees and tall rocks in the middle of the river. Then I curled up on a park bench and fell asleep as I listened to the roaring water.

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