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ARRIVED AT LAKE CONSTANCE ON AN AFTERNOON of blazing sunshine, but it wasn’t until the first soft rain fell in the evening that the inscrutable waterway really came alive. The wind cooled, the waves rose and a pale mist hid the mountains, blurring the boundary between shore and sky. The lake seemed so much bigger now that the day-trippers had all departed – deep and wide and vaguely sinister, like the scene of an unsolved crime. And then the storm died, the clouds lifted and the Alps reappeared on the horizon – so clear and close, it felt as if you could reach out and touch them.

Lake Constance is one of Europe’s best-kept secrets.

We all know about the Italian lakes, even if we’ve never been there. But how many people have even heard of the lake the Swiss, Germans and Austrians all call the Bodensee? Of course, it’s good to look at, like most other Alpine lakes, but this isn’t just another beauty spot. It’s also an artistic and architectural sanctuary, where several thousand years of high culture and history converge.

The Bodensee has always been at the heart of Europe. The Romans built their robust forts beside its pebble beaches, and long after the Roman Empire had crumbled it remained a crucial highway Unking north and south, east and west. The Rhine trickles into it at the eastern end, from its source in the Swiss Alps, and pours out again at the western end before turning towards the North Sea. Today, the lake’s international traffic has dwindled to a few pleasure boats and car ferries, yet it has left behind a rich flotsam of antique ports and palaces. For a thousand years, from the fall of Rome until the dawn of the Renaissance, this was one of the most important places in Christendom; and although the tide had turned against it by the end of the Middle Ages, its maritime towns still recall the millennium the Bodensee spent at the centre of the world.

The Bodensee’s strategic significance has been shrinking for 500 years but, like its imperial heritage, the lake itself is huge. Nearly 80km long and more than 14km wide, there’s nothing like it anywhere in the British Isles. Of all the lakes in Western Europe, only Lake Geneva is

bigger; but whereas Lake Geneva borders two countries, France and Switzerland. Lake Constance is a border (and a thoroughfare) between three. The northern bank is German, the eastern is Austrian and the southern is Swiss; and along this aquatic frontier, three different cultures converge, with German the lingua franca.

For West Germans in particular it’s always been a popular, upmarket holiday destination. Consequently, it’s criss-crossed by graceful cruisers and littered with scenic restaurants and stylish hotels. And yet it’s also a working lake, and that’s what saves it from stagnation. Germans, Swiss and Austrians all cross the lake to work, shop or study. Commercial fishermen still trawl for salmon, trout and eels, in fierce competition with the herons and cormorants that patrol its marshy banks.

Getting here from Britain, however, always used to be an expensive and exhausting business. Overland took forever, and the nearest large airports, Zurich and Stuttgart, were hours from the lake. But Ryanair has started flying from Stansted direct to the lakeside town of Friedrichshafen in Germany. Suddenly, Lake Constance is only a few affordable hours away.

So what sort of lake will you find when you get there? That’s hard to say, because its mood swings with the weather. When the sun shines, it’s quaint and kitsch. But when the skies darken and the wind picks up, the lake rediscovers its primitive allure. Bodensee is German for earth sea’, and it was in search of this elemental body of water that I set out on a voyage through three countries and around one great glacial lake.

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