Love in a foreign country. It can happen in so many ways. There’s the obvious wham-bam type: adoration comes fast, followed by a proclamation to the world! Then there’s the slow, creeping onset of affection m that neither one of you sees coming. It was the former that I was witnessing on a bridge in the Austrian town of Bregenz. I watched as a couple took out a red padlock, which was engraved in gold with their names and two interlinked hearts, and clamped it securely around the railings. “It’s to show our unbreakable love,” the woman explained when they caught me staring.
With that they kissed and threw the key into the fast-flowing river below. At the same time, in this exact spot, another relationship was beginning to blossom, between me and my hired bicycle – though, being the second kind of love, I didn’t know it yet. Earlier that morning I’d picked the bike up from town, ready to start a week-long adventure circling Central Europe’s third-largest lake. So far we were getting off to a quarrelsome start, mainly because, as I watched the loved-up couple, I was emptying my pockets and panniers, desperately trying to find my own key – to the bike lock.
Like a clasped padlock, I’d always been closed to the idea of a cycling trip. But once I’d learned that a journey around Lake Constance meant crossing country borders almost daily, offered endless cafe stops, came with a multitude of escape routes (courtesy of efficient public transport), and that someone else would transfer my luggage, I began to feel more open. Before long, I found myself setting off on the first 41km of my 214km journey…
DAY 1 – Distance to cycle: 41km
Ice cream count: 0
Lake Constance. An over-inflated bulge in the River Rhine, here, Switzerland, Germany and Austria meet in a glorious mix of verdant vineyards, baroque churches, medieval castles and bench-lined promenades. It’s 273km in circumference, and with the official Bodensee Radweg trail covering 214km of that, there’s really only one way to tackle it: on two wheels. “You never know what will happen,” said the lady at the hire firm as I jumped on my bike. Immediately the saddle slipped, my over-stuffed panniers caused me to wobble and I proceeded to knock the bike over as I leapt off and tried to put it on its stand. Making my way out of Bregenz, I decided I disliked my seven-geared companion.
The small Austrian town was off to a sleepy start. Most of the coffee shops were still closed as sunlight started to hit the wooden-beamed buildings of the old Upper Town, which sat dreamily among the foothills of the Alps. These cobbled streets date from the 13th century, though further back the area was a Roman camp, patrolled by centurions; today only dog-wralkers and roller-skaters were doing the rounds, enjoying the sunshine. As I pedalled, I passed the floating stage that gets rebuilt anew’ every two years for the summer festival. The green and orange dragons flanking its edges seemed to watch me with their giant eyes.
Following the trail was a dream. Navigationally there’s just one rule – keep the lake to your right. And despite my rocky start I began to settle into the saddle. I made my way under trees and over bridges covered with love locks; I stopped to take a walk, locked up my bike and – for what wasn’t to be the first time that day -briefly lost the key. At some point I made my transition into Switzerland. There was no fanfare; no passport office, no duty free. Only the greetings subtly changed, from “Gruss Gott” to “Gruezi”. Despite my initial reluctance to pedal I was pleasantly surprised at how good I felt. Kilometres seemed to melt by with each turn of the spokes, my mind being distracted by cuckoo-clock houses, outdoor art and glimpses of the sparkling lake. By the time I arrived at my hotel in Arbon I felt like I could have cycled through the night. However, the promise of beer and spatzle (noodles) made me reassess my enthusiasm.
DAY 2 – Distance to cycle: 67km
Ice cream count: 2
The next day was to be less gentle. Between me and a comfortable bed was over 60km of trail and my legs were a little heavy from the previous day. The air was hot and the sun glaring as I finally repacked my panniers (after having to look for my bike lock key – again). I set off, racing alongside a train that I could have taken to cut out 20km. Giant Swiss flags lined the streets and ferries emerged onto the lake at the harbour town of Romanshorn. The churches came thick and fast – tall white ones with elegant spires and friendly clock faces, then ivy-coated giants that looked like they’d been topped by giant witches’ hats. The German border was coming up, but I wouldn’t be crossing it yet.
Leaving the hectic traffic at Kreuzlingen, the route headed inland. Suddenly I was surrounded by farmland, allotments and barns. I slurped down an ice cream in the small village of Gottlieben, with its odd collection of dome-shaped turrets, oriental dragons and dark wooden shutters, before weaving my wheels through fields of wheat. An ugly grey and graffitied concrete bunker came into view, then I emerged back by the lake at Ermatingen. Children were jumping into the water, which certainly looked like a good idea – but then so did another ice cream (or two).
I trundled on and soon I could see the slopes on the opposite shore, dotted with churches and wooden huts. A downhill swoop brought me back to the water and to the town of Stein am Rhein; my hotel was within reach. Stein am Rhein is one of those towns you can spend hours ambling around with no particular purpose. Encased within the remains of medieval walls, each building has some interesting oddity. There are gilded frescos depicting real events and myths (created to boast of the residents’ affluence), an imposing former monastery (now a church), tantalising wooden doors leading into hidden alleyways and small bronze statues of cats. That night I sipped a beer and watched the sun set while crazy children leapt off the bridge into the water below. Though I kept my feet on the ground I could feel myself beginning to fall for this part of the world.