History Comes Alive in Constance, Germany

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Reed Travel Features executive editor Joe Rosen visited Constance, Germany, on a trip sponsored by the German National Tourist Office. His report follows:

CONSTANCE, Germany -- There she stands at the northern tip of the harbor, like some shameless, table-dancing sister of the Statue of Liberty, showing a lot of leg and rotating enticingly on a pedestal designed to display her 18 tons of scantily clad charms to all comers.

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Her name is Imperia, but they call her worse -- "ugly," "brazen," "the mistake by the lake" -- and she is, in truth, a 30-foot-tall botched attempt to merge marketing and art in sculptured stone.

"Lindau, a major tourism town on the lake, has a statue of the Bavarian Lion dominating its harbor, and we here in Constance wanted something to rival it," a tourism spokesman told me. "Now, we've got her."

At once a landmark and a conversation piece since her controversial unveiling in the spring of 1993, Imperia is an unlikely hostess for a town in many ways more medieval than modern, a town whose religious history traces to the very roots of the Reformation, a town preserved as a living museum when other German cities were destroyed by Allied bombs in World War II.

"We would turn our lights on at night during the war, so the Americans would think we were part of neighboring Switzerland, which was neutral, and they would pass us by with their bombs," one old-timer said. The more conventional view is that the Allies purposely spared Constance because nothing but a few twisty streets separates it from its twin, the Swiss town of Kreuzlingen, making it too chancy to attack.

Not even revisionist historians can get hot over this debate, and the fact remains that the lovely old city, or Altstadt, is much as it ever was, with churches that date to the 10th century and buildings, monuments and fortifications that bespeak a heritage that traces to the Celts and the Romans.

Constance's history is, to a great degree, a function of its influence on the birth of the Reformation, and the story centers on the Council of Constance, which from 1414 to 1418 tried to settle the tangled affair of the Great Schism. With three popes claiming primacy and the German Holy Roman Emperor seeking to extend his authority, more than 100,000 people from throughout Europe came to Constance to help settle the matter.

Among them was the religious reformer Jan Hus, who was betrayed here by a King Sigismund and was burned at the stake for his trouble. A statue of Hus stands outside the Council Building, where 53 cardinals and other delegates elected Pope Martin V in 1417, and a stone slab, the Hussenstein, marks the site of his execution. In fact, one of the top properties in Constance, the Steigenberger Insel-Hotel, was erected on the spot where Hus was held captive in a monastery before being put to death.

A tour of the old city is easily accomplished -- even slow-walking, slow-talking clients can do the town in a day and still have time to amble down the Konstanzerstrasse past a modest border crossing to Kreuzlingen for a cup of bracing coffee or a bar of Swiss chocolate at Portmann's.

Such an itinerary would do well to start at the bustling market square, which was transformed into a mall about a dozen years ago and is highlighted by the whimsical Kaiserbrunner, a fountain featuring the busts of four emperors, gargoyles and a skirted, eight-legged horse that is the delight of children.

Next, it's on to the Rathaus, or Town Hall, a 14th century structure that once served as a guild hall for linen workers. With its archways decorated with arresting frescoes and a stately courtyard just a few steps beyond the street entrance, the Rathaus is a prime spot for picture taking -- but watch out for shadows. Here visitors are likely to stumble upon revelers at some merry social function, such as a wedding reception that included me, if only briefly, as a welcome if uninvited guest.

A left turn from the Rathaus is Rosgartenstrasse, where trendy shops and boutiques are a window shopper's delight. Clients shouldn't forget to take time out here for a pastry at the Strehcafe Backerei or a sandwich of cold meats appetizingly displayed at Otto Muller's Metzgerei. The nearby Niederburg is the maze of narrow, medieval lanes that make up the oldest part of the old city.

Germany is noted for its half-timbered houses, a distinctive architectural style, and it is in the Niederburg that clients, with a bit of luck and perseverance, can find Bruckengasse 10, one of the foremost examples of this kind of medieval framework structure. This "Fachwerkhaus" dates at least to 1352.

Towering over the Niederburg is the Munster Unserer Lieben Frau zu Konstanz (Saint Mary's Cathedral), a 250-foot-high church whose sanctuary was built in 1052. The Munster hosted sessions of the ecclesiastical assembly during the Council of Constance, and it was here that Hus was found guilty of heresy.

If the Munster is the heart of the old town, Lake Constance is the lifeblood of its eponymous community and, in a real way, all of Germany, with the Rhine flowing through it from Switzerland to the North Sea. Also known as the Boden-see, Lake Constance stretches 210 miles around, and although the largest part of its shoreline, about 110 miles, is in Germany, its littoral encompasses Switzerland and Austria.

From a newly constructed promenade that parallels the Constance harbor, visitors can stroll amid squat, full-leafed plantanen trees that seem wider than they are tall and, from this vantage point, look out on the lake as Imperia, the flirtatious Fraulein with a heart of stone, inexorably turns round to look at them.
German National Tourist Office
Phone: (212) 661-7200 (New York), (310) 575-9799 (Los Angeles), (312) 644-0723 (Chicago)

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