I had taken Janusz’s suggestion to explore the little town of Stein am Rhein on the Rhine near the mouth of Lake Constance. I arrived at 8:45pm after spending a few hours at Schaffhaussen and the Rheinfall, and found a hotel that was nice enough to let me use their wi-fi. There are two parts of Lake Constance – the town of Konstanz demarcates the place where the lake pinches in two. Obersee Bodensee is the part east of the city and Untersee is the part to the west. The Rhine dumps out from Constance’s western end and continue west to Basel where it bends north through Strassbourg and Cologne, emptying into the North Sea in the Netherlands.
At 10:30pm I called it a night and decided to try my luck finding a place to camp in Germany, as I was practically on the border. Using my phone app Here, I spied some open space on the map and headed in that direction. It turned out to be up a road fromthe small town of Öhningen. I slept better than I had in many days, though I went to sleep listening to strange peacock- like bird calls. Don’t know what was making them, but they made me think of wolves, and I had to rationally contemplate the one time I had had a face to face encounter with a wolf in the wild. It was after I had hiked up onto the Comox Glacier on Vancouver Island. A pack of wolves had waited patiently for an elk to swim across a lake, sabatoging it on the other side. This wolf had strayed from the pack and was watching my friend and I set up our tent, albeit at a distance of 100 feet. It stayed there watching us for at least an hour, and I got the distinct impression that it was not a threat, rather curious and wondering what kind of creatures we were. At that time, in 1984, I don’t think there had been many people hiking in that area of Canada.
Next morning I headed back to Öhningen where I was thrilled about finding a SIM card for my phone at Lidl, the Walmart-like German supermarket chain. Unfortunately the card turned out to be a dud, and after waiting a few days for it to work, I went back and re-registered it, and finally a third time replaced it completely. Three times a charm, and it finally ended up working after I waited 24 hours for activation. Then I went to the gas station, filling up on diesel at only 1.07 Euro per liter after paying 1.45 Swiss Franc. There I found two 3 Volt batteries needed for my headlamp which had gone dead several nights before, a challenge to set my tent up in the dark. I bought some wonderful German pastries, including a raspberry linser tort-type cookie and a pretzel. I was still used to Swiss prices and was shocked that both were 1.30 Euros rather than the 4 Swiss Francs I was used to paying.
I headed back to Stein am Rhein and found the only non paying parking place in the village. I walked through the well-preserved medieval center, with its ancient street plan of which the city wall and gate towers still stand. Beautiful frescoes adorn many of the residences. Ironically, the main reason the town is so historic and retained its attractive historical features is that it became an economic backwater in the late 1800s and early 1900s due in part to loss of river toll income resulting from the lessening of cargo being shipped along the river. As a result, when other cities were able to modernize and tear down the unwanted old for the glitzy new, Stein went into hibernation. And awoke in the mid 1900s as a tourist magnet for people seeking the quaint reminders of yesteryear.
I walked up the river to the outer walls of the Saint George Abbey, which had been founded as a Benedictine monastery in 900 on Hohentwiel, an extinct volcano, and moved to Stein in 1100. Its pinnacle of power was under the last abbot, David von Winkelsheim, who came to power in 1499. He completed earlier building works and added a beautiful suite of Renaissance frescoes that are among the earliest known in northern Europe. Interestingly, much of the reason for Stein’s economic success was due to Emperor Henry II, who was the cause for the abbey’s move to Stein to be near major waterways and trading roads. He gave the abbots extensive rights over Stein and its trade so that they could develop it commercially. In this, they were very successful and Stein am Rhein rapidly became a flourishing and prosperous town which, in the 15th century, the citizens bought their freedom in the form of reichsfrei status. The abbey has some incredibly decorated walls and ceilings, particularly in the abbot’s quarters and large dining hall. The monk’s apartments, by contrast, were simple and plain, though apparently in the 1400s and 1500s, the abbey enlarged and enriched the monk’s quarters, as noblemen were becoming monks.
In a large barn next to the kloister was a huge wooden wine press, in good shape given it was 300 or more years old. It was available for use by the whole village and probably surrounding villages as well. The area in and around Stein has historically been a big wine growing area, so there would have been great demand for using a huge press. And this one was massive. I’ve rarely seen trees as big as the cross beam that was used to leverage the press. I also enjoyed the kitchen garden, which featured a wide array of plants from the Artemesia genus, a powerful vermifuge and an antibiotic/antiviral/antifungal. I’m sure they were in need of such strong medicine, particularly in the days before penicillin. They also grew Artemisia absinthium (“grand wormwood”), which is used in combination with green anise, sweet fennel to make absinthe. The garden is a replica of the medicinal and kitchen garden the abbey had kept for centuries.
I spent from 1 to 4pm at the abbey, then made my way to the rathaus (city hall), where I saw an exhibit on Museum Lindwurm which peaked my interest. So I found the house museum and decided to see what I could in the remaining 45 minutes. It’s good for me to try to see things at a faster pace, as I normally go at a snail’s pace through most of them. The dragon house is in the middle of Stein am Rhein’s old town district. The house’s exterior was renovated to its current Empire architectural style in 1729 by a wealthy judge. Prior, it was an exposed beam farmhouse like any other, as the town had been mostly agricultural, shipping grain to Switzerland and wine to Swabia for many centuries.
The house is actually is made up of two houses later joined to create an inner courtyard housing chickens, farming equipment, and cattle stalls and hay lofts. The oldest part of the house dates back to 1279. The house featured various exhibits including: life of bougeoisie families in the 1800s, the changing role of women and domestic help, families that lived in the house over time, typical furnishings in the 1700s and 1800s, domestic chores like washing, ironing, and cooking, agricultural work, tanning, travel and hiking in the 1900s, the swimming and bathing craze on Lake Constance in the 1900s, and a spotlight on a few individuals who had lived at the house, including a young woman who loved mountaineering and had studied medicine as well as a painter who did mostly watercolor of the village and its inhabitants.
The reason that Stein am Rhein is a medieval jewel is economic. They fell on hard times and couldn’t afford to modernise the city in the early 1900s. Stein experienced significant upheavals in the wake of the French Revolution, resulting in a new political and economic environment. The main source of revenue, ship and bridge tolls, disappeared, and the establishment of the German Customs Union caused trade between Switzerland and Swabia to slump. Industrialization and the railway temporarily revived the failing economy, but WW I and II, as well as crop failure, resulted in poverty. Much of the population emigrated in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and it became a backwater. Only when tourism started in the 1950s and 60s was Stein rediscovered for its beautiful well-preserved old town. The ironies of life.
At 5pm I left the museum and decided I’d try to drive around Lake Constance in the remaining daylight. I took the local roads that wound around the lake, and didn’t make good time. Finally, I pulled into a small village where the lake narrows before the town of Konstanz. It was a lovely little place, and I was tempted to stay the night, as I was getting rather road weary. But they didn’t have any room. I tried to get a photo of a chateau hidden by trees right on the lake, but no luck. Then I headed toward Konstanz and decided to stop at a McDonald’s for free internet. Travelers know that you can always use the bathroom at McDonald’s (or used to be able to – now most of them have a keypad that requires a code). Now they are known for their free internet. Someone told me about it when I was trying to find wi-fi, and I’ve been taking advantage ever since.
I was going to head back to the place I’d slept the night before, but it was a good hour away, and I’d wanted to explore this part of the lake. So I headed up the hill, finding a wooded area where I hoped to find shelter for the night. It didn’t seem right per the sixth I rely on to make decisions, so I drove on, until I found a nice wide spot in the road and some grass. I parked there and set up my tent, as usual pulling far over so that the road was completely unobstructed in the case that someone would drive by. Unfortunately, my luck had run out that night, and at 7:30am the next morning I had a rude awakening. A woman, looking militant and right out of a WW II German propaganda poster, after having honked four times, parked in the road and began noting my license plate and other details. I raised my weary head and said I don’t speak German, whereupon she thrust her finger in the direction of the main road and shouted “get out”! I hurriedly began dressing and trying to pack, while she stood motionless. I was afraid she would detain me until the police came or some such, and couldn’t get out of there fast enough.
That was when I realized it was my birthday, September 8. I’d been off a day and had thought it was the next day. I have a sentimental feeling about my birthday, much like some cultures feel about New Year’s Day, that it sets the tone for the coming year, and it took much of the day (and night) to shake the sense of foreboding. And sadness. I suddenly felt more alone than ever, and the fact that it didn’t matter to anyone here that it was my birthday made it even worse. This was ameliorated by some lovely messages from my mom, step dad, and friends, and I realized that you can’t control what happens on any particular day. I decided to consider September 9 my official birthday this year instead.
The silver lining was that it woke me up early and I headed to the lakeside, which was shrouded in fog. It turns out that the locals often go to the Alps to escape the fog like mists, which some say get depressing, particularly in the winter. Luckily the sun was hot, and it burned off the mists. I didn’t know where I was going but stopped at a small town and bought some fruit and baked goods, then filled up my water bottles with what I thought was drinking water (Kein Drink Wasser). Turns out it meant Not Drinking Water (I thought it was Little Drinking Water, which would have been Klein, not Kein). I realized this after getting a stomach ache, and then asked someone who spoke English later in the day. That’s one way to learn German.
I ended up in the town of Konstanz and decided to park and explore the archaeological museum. Parking was impossible, so I finally gave up and parked in a garage. The museum was housed in part of a former kloister. Sadly it was almost all in German, but the first section about shipwrecks had been translated into English. I spent a long time trying to understand the German exposition, and felt like I wasted 2 good hours in the effort. Such is life. A stereotype of German (and Swiss) culture: they used to have the entire exhibit translated into English, but someone had taken the translations in order to perfect them, and now there was none. Perfectionism is a problem when it makes people feel that they can’t do something unless it’s exactly right or just so. Maybe that’s why my Swiss friend’s brother committed suicide. Too much pressure, whether from within or without.
At 3:30 I headed across the bridge to the old city. A lovely place filled with medieval buildings. I walked into a few nice churches, and particularly admired the Konstanz Cathedral, where I explored the crypt and chapels along the convent walk. I found out that the netting surrounding the bell tower was erected in the last few years after a series of people, including a 14 year old girl, jumped to their deaths. Maybe it’s better to have people live imperfectly than die because they can’t achieve perfection.
The cathedral is a jewel and unlike many, everything was accessible. There was a lovely wooden painted octagonal altar piece showing the life of Christ. The cathedral was used for the Council of Constance from 1414 to 1418, the most important assembly of the Church during the Middle Ages, and the only one in Germany. Martin V was entroned in the cathedral in 1417. His election to Pope by the Conclave ended the schism dividing the Church. Between 1418 and 1525, the cathedral was renovated to the Gothic style by master craftsmen. Paintings, stone masonry, wrought iron, stained glass – there are amazing artworks there. Unfortunately much of the artwork was destroyed during the radical iconoclasm instigated by the reformer Huldrych Zwingli in Zurich during the Reformation.
I topped off my visit to Konstanz with a lemon zest crepe. It was my birthday after all and I’d hoped to have cake or ice cream. The woman running the closet-sized shop was very kind and I guessed not Swiss. I was right. She turned out to be Greek. We talked about Greece, and life in Switzerland, and her desire to return home. She made my day – her kindness and care. I decided that strangers can be caring. I knew that in Greece. It was just harder to know in Switzerland and Germany.
I headed back to my camping spot of two nights ago. I didn’t want to take any chances with militant people turning me into the police, and had felt safe there. So I found a quick route back, though I was a little shaken when, upon crossing from Germany back into Switzerland (the border runs across the middle of Lake Constance), a camera flashed as I crossed the toll booth. I wondered for many minutes later whether I should have stopped at the booth, but there was no one there and the signs directed people to go through. I wonder whether they got in touch with Interpole and were on the lookout for my French red license plate. Someone told me that if I ever enter Switzerland again they’ll hit me with all the fines from the traffic camera tickets. We’ll see.
Back in Öhningen I was uneasy. I found my spot but kept seeing lights shining onto my car. I tried to put up the tent as silently as possible, when I finally realized that the lights were headlights from cars passing on the highway. The trauma from the night before had colored my experience of camping, and for many nights to come I was uneasy. It was a shame, but led me to take a break from camping and stay with a family that hosted me for couch surfing in Schwaibisch Hall the next night.
Next morning I headed to Öhningen’s town hall. What a lovely building. They recently did a lot of renovation, including making the attic into a meeting room. There was a modern art exhibit on the wall, and two girls had come in to have a look. I drove down toward Stein, then decided to follow a sign toward the lake for Fish (in German). I parked and walked a ways till I found a fisherman mending his nets. And there was a fish store. I had a hankering for trout, and decided to buy a very lovely smoked specimen, which reeked to high heaven in the car for days afterwards. Then I went back to Museum Lindwurm in Stein, spent a few hours, during which time I talked with a very interesting woman who worked there. She was German, and told me that Swiss people were so smug about being well off, but actually had benefited greatly from Hitler stashing Nazi money in Swiss banks. Most of the recipients died during the war or were persecuted afterwards, so very little of the money was actually claimed. In any event, she was from the Black Forest and said that that was a special place in Germany and that I must check it out.
I thanked her for her kindness and drove to a nearby schloss that I had seen the night before. It is now a business center, and a meeting of all male executives was going on at a cafe outside the palatial estate. I wonder how many of the chateaus and villas scattered thoughout Europe are now private estates that only the wealthy and powerful can access. Probably a good many. I stopped at the hotel where I’d gotten wi-fi the first night. I discovered that I could check email without entering the premesis, which I prefered. Suddenly my luck had turned. The couch surfing request that I had made several days ago was answered affirmatively. I could visit the family I had stayed with a year ago in Bibersfeld near Schwaibisch Hall. The only problem was that I didn’t have their address, and hadn’t yet gotten the Lidl SIM card to work. So I had no phone.