A Travellerspoint blog

From the Rhône to the Rhine: Freiburg and Konstanz

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On the morning of Bastille Day we left Alsace with mixed feelings. It is always difficult to leave such a beautiful and magical region but we had the satisfaction of knowing we had left nothing on the table, figuratively or literally. For three days we had completely submerged ourselves in medieval villages, markets, and community dinners and we felt that we had distilled for ourselves the very essence of Alsace. Now that the entire country of France was shut down for a well-earned day of rest it was the perfect moment to move onward to the conclusion of our journey. In less than an hour we had crossed the German border and arrived in Freiburg im Breisgau, a mid-sized city with a well-regarded market of its own. The market takes place daily in the cobblestone square around the massive Freiburg Minster. This red sandstone cathedral was fortunate to survive the 1944 Allied bombing which destroyed many of the houses around the square.

The market was an extensive affair with excellent produce and numerous food trucks that were dispensing a large variety of sausages. We fortified ourselves with sausages, fruit, and pretzels before moving on to an exploration of the town center.

From the side streets around the square we could appreciate the cathedral's belltower in its entirety. The octagonal and intricate spire has given Freiburg Minster the reputation of being one of the most beautiful of Germany's gothic cathedrals. We walked down Kaiser Joseph Strasse, the main north-south thoroughfare in the Altsadt, to the medieval town gate Martinstor. In the early twentieth century a three story connection was built between Martinstor and a neighboring building with its own archway to match the one at the gate. Perhaps inspired by this double arch McDonald's established a franchise in the ground floor of the adjacent building. One of the most remarkable features of the gate is the prominent McDonald's sign over the second arch, a shocking sight to most visitors given the fervor with which European countries protect their historic symbols from commercial encroachment. There's no clear answer regarding how the placement of this sign was allowed. According to an unsourced paragraph in Wikipedia, the Freiburg city council had no power to refuse the sign although they were able to require that the lettering match the sandstone and plaster aesthetic of the rest of the building. ChatGPT on the other hand claims that the sign was installed for a two week period in 2009 with the approval of Freiburg's tourism office as a promotion of the city. ChatGPT believes the sign was permanently taken down at the end of the two week period despite the fact that it is obviously still there, and also has no explanation of why the defacement of a historic landmark with a fast food sign would somehow promote the attractions of the city to tourists. One thing that does seem clear is that the sign is very unpopular among the city's residents and most of its visitors as well.

Freiburg has had a reputation for independence since its founding as a free market town in the twelfth century. Over its millennium of existence the town has seen several revolts of its citizens against the feudal lords that strove to deprive them of their liberties. There was no trace of rebellion as we wandered through the quiet streets of the center of town. For a few blocks we followed the course of the Gewerbekanal, a narrow and stagnant channel fed by the nearby Dreisam River. The canal and numerous small water-filled gutters called Bächle were created in medieval times to supply water to different parts of the city and remain a beloved feature of the city. We passed several interesting boutiques and spent some time in one that was selling beautiful Japanese furnishings. After that we only had time for a quick lunch before leaving the city.

When I crafted our itinerary I didn't anticipate that my family would develop a strong antipathy to castles so I naturally included a visit to Hohenzollern as it is unquestionably one of the great castles of Germany if not all of Europe. As we left Freiburg I wondered to myself if the two hour detour would still be worthwhile or if we should just proceed directly to Konstanz. In the end I told them we would be going to one final castle and that they wouldn't regret it. The kids grumbled a bit but they could tell I was determined. Once we had driven about two thirds of the way Mei Ling and I spotted a very unusual-looking structure from the highway near the town of Rottweil. It was a tall, thin grey tower with a spiral structure that appeared to be standing in the middle of nowhere. We made an impulsive decision to try to get closer and eventually took an exit that was marked "Testturm" since I knew that "turm" was German for tower. A small road brought us to the base of the tower and I was able to do a little online research to determine we were in front of the TK Elevator Testturm, an elevator testing tower that had been constructed five years previously. The tower was a breathtaking sight, an incongruous white drill bit ascending into the heavens. The spiral structure is a fiberglass facade that reduces wind resistance and vibration. The observation deck at 232 meters is the highest in the country. Even if the tower had been open the day we visited we wouldn't have gone up to the deck. It was enough for us to enjoy the unique tower from the ground.

The last part of our drive to Hohenzollern was a pleasant meander through rolling green highways along a two-lane road. The castle announced itself at the summit of a forested hill long before we actually arrived at the parking area. There was an option to hike up the steep hill to the castle but we elected to spend the two euros apiece for the shuttle bus. The bus stopped at the foot of the castle and we walked up a spiral path to the main courtyard.

Although the existing version of Hohenzollern Castle was built in the mid nineteenth century it has escaped the scorn reserved for other modern revivals of the medieval castle aesthetic such as Drachenburg and Cochem Castle. The castle was built as a family memorial on the same site as prior medieval castles by the Hohenzollern heirs and is still privately owned by royal descendants who occasionally stay there. The courtyard is beautiful and imposing, surrounded on three sides by Gothic Revival brick buildings featuring a pleasing array of towers and spires. On the third side a staircase leads downward to an open area which is currently occupied by a cafe. The castle's lofty position provides extensive views obver the lush Swabian countryside. A guided tour was not even a consideration but we were able to walk through several showrooms in the interior of the castle at our own pace. Even the kids admitted that this castle had been a worthy exception to their rule, as long as it was the last one.

We arrived in Konstanz at around dinner time. Our Airbnb was actually in Kreuzlingen, a suburb on the Swiss side of the border. The kids thought it was hilarious that we would be staying in Switzerland but having dinner in Germany. Our apartment was on the fourth floor of an apartment complex that lacked an elevator. Had that been an oversight on my part or had it been the best option regardless? I couldn't remember but at this point it made no difference as we lugged our suitcases up eight flights of stairs.

It was surprisingly difficult to cross from Kreuzlingen into Konstanz. Germany and Switzerland are both within the Schengen area so there shouldn't have been any issues, but all the residential streets that crossed the border on the map were blocked by fences. It wasn't even possible to park in Kreuzlingen and walk into Konstanz. The GPS guided us to one street which still had an old border station but access from the Swiss side was denied, ostensibly due to some street construction. However there wasn't much evidence of any actual construction going on. Eventually we had to circle back to the entrance to the main highway which took us into Konstanz without any issues. The Indian restaurant we had selected in the Königsbau neighborhood had just one table available and it fit us perfectly. It was a pleasant place to have an outdoor dinner even if the food didn't quite live up to the restaurant's online reputation. On the way back we were able to re-enter Kreuzlingen via the border station without any problem. It seemed the route was only blocked when trying to enter Konstanz from Kreuzlingen.

We started the next morning by crossing back into Konstanz for a morning market in the Altstadt. This time around we returned to the border station and waited for the oncoming traffic to clear, then drove for a block on the wrong side to get back into Germany. The highway detour was just too much when our Airbnb was only five minutes from our destination. Street parking appeared very tight but we found a nice garage on the main boulevard that formed the western border of the Altstadt. In the wide median of the boulevard was a very strange and entertaining fountain consisting of four pools connected by several arches. Lounging in and around the pools were some grotesque, obese nudes as well as some animals with human features. Affixed to the arches were a collection of seated babies, old men, and monkeys holding steering wheels. It was simultaneously repulsive and engrossing and the kids loved it. It seemed to be a light-hearted criticism of modern sedentary lifestyles but it was hard to know exactly what the sculptor meant to convey. I later learned that the fountain is called Triumphbogen, meaning Triumphal Arch, and is the work of local sculptor Peter Wenk.

The Friday weekly market was held in the parking lot behind St. Stephen's church. Getting a filling breakfast was no problem with the large variety of bread, fruit, and prepared foods that were available. The vendors were friendly and eager to explain their artisanal products.

The area around the church was filled with beautiful buildings and colorful art. The largest open square in the Altstadt was the one in front of the Konstanz Cathedral which was surrounded by classic German buildings. The cathedral's Gothic belltower can be seen from almost anywhere in the old town. There was another fountain here that resembled a large dish with a notch from which the water empties into a grate at floor level.

We crossed out of the Altstadt to the green oasis of the Stadtgarten where we got our first look at Lake Constance. I've been fascinated by this lake ever since I researched our first trip to Germany in 2016. I had to cut the lake out of our itinerary that time due to time constraints and now the moment had finally arrived to fix that hole in our European travel map. Three countries share the shoreline of the glacial lake with Austria getting the smallest share. In German the lake is known as Bodensee, which is divided into the Obersee and the much smaller Untersee. Konstanz stands on the land bridge between the two sections of the lake which is traversed by a short segment of the Rhine. From the shoreline we could see the outline of Imperia, another irreverent statue by Peter Wenk that mocks the power of both church and state as inferior to female sexuality.

We headed back into the Altstadt the make sure we hadn't missed any interesting spots. There was a central shopping street which was quite busy and fun for people-watching. There were also quieter, narrow streets dotted with greenery and more intimate boutiques. Part of the reason for the Altstadt's classic beauty is that Konstanz was able to escape the Allied bombing that decimated many German cities towards the end of World War Two by masquerading as part of Switzerland. The story goes that while other German cities turned all their lights off during bombing raids, Konstanz left theirs on so that the bombers wouldn't notice the contrast with the adjacent lighted town of Kreuzlingen in Switzerland. We probably could have spent more time exploring Konstanz but we already had a plan for the rest of the day which required us to drive back into Switzerland.

Posted by zzlangerhans 18:21 Archived in Germany Tagged road_trip family family_travel travel_blog hohenzollern tony_friedman family_travel_blog martinstor

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