Lake Constance, spanning three countries, is one of Europe's hidden gems

It has all the ingredients of a destination that ought to be jam-packed with camera-toting tourists, tour-coach drivers and touts in wigs selling concert tickets: lopsided old towns, pretty lakeshore promenades, cellar doors, improbable tales of feuding popes. Not to mention the cultures and cuisines of three countries. And mountains. Big mountains, serrated against the horizon across a lake blue as a swimming pool – a combination of snow peaks and water to make your soul sing.

Who, however, has heard of Lake Constance? Not Australians, Americans or Chinese. German-speakers, mostly, who call it Bodensee and are in no hurry to share its cycle paths, vineyards, dense culture and magnificent scenery with the wider world. And so here, right in the heart of Europe – just 90 minutes from the tourist crush of Lucerne in one direction and Neuschwanstein Castle in the other – you still feel as if you're in Europe before the fall; before the tourists took over. As if you are back in the days when old-town shops still sold shampoo and potatoes, cafes were full of locals, and the only people in the mountains were hairy-legged hikers.

Austria, Germany and Switzerland divvy up the 270 kilometres of Lake Constance shoreline. Austria only gets a runt end but is compensated by perhaps its best scenery. Take the Pfanderbahn cable car up behind cultured, arty town Bregenz and the shimmering silvery mirror of the lake is upstaged by views of folded green hills rising towards the Alps.

You can't see the Alps so well from the Swiss, western shore of the lake, since they're at your back and concealed by lovely hills. The German eastern and northern sides of the lake are tame and raked with vineyards, but stare across the water at the full Hallelujah Chorus of borrowed mountain backdrop. Just hop on a lake ship or tootle 15 minutes north of Bregenz to Lindau, whose old town sits on a peninsula jutting into the water. Its petite harbour, framed in a lighthouse and giant lion statue symbolising Bavaria, has one of the best outlooks in Germany, even if it isn't Germany you're looking at.

It's worth a journey just to stroll Lindau's lake walls and promenades in late afternoon, when the lake is as cobalt as stained glass and the low sun spotlights the Swiss Alps. The town is pleasant, too. Cafes spill across the cobbles beneath yellow awnings, Gothic houses lean and frescoes relate the millennium-long history of this former free imperial town. Lindau is the most touristy destination you'll find on Lake Constance, though it's mostly independent travellers and shoals of cyclists who visit. And Germans, who come for weekends in resorts on this little Riviera.

Drive north from Lindau and you're shortly among vines that produce crisp and fruity white wines, especially from Muller-Thurgau grapes. (The Swiss shores opposite produce reds, predominantly pinot noir.) Stop off at Meersburg, which, because of its old abbey, has been associated with winemaking since the Middle Ages. The town is a striking pile of grand buildings rising from the flower-flanked lakeshore to a pretty pink palace beside a stern-looking castle.

A little further along the lakeshore is the Pile Dwelling Museum, an archaeological site dating to the Stone Age, and surely proof that humans have always appreciated a lovely setting. Reconstructed lake houses on stilts show how early people lived hereabouts, fishing, weaving and baking bread.

Next is Uberlingen, another handsome hillside town and former free imperial city that busied itself with the corn trade and cathedral building. Don't miss Birnau Abbey Church just before town. It sits in vineyards above the lake, pink and ornate as a wedding cake, with an interior of eye-watering excess. Anywhere else, there would be a queue and a ticket booth. Here, you can wander right in and be left alone in a crowd of cupids.

There are crowds in Konstanz, of a sort. At weekends, Swiss shoppers nip across the border to bag a bargain and get their hair cut. The immediate proximity of Switzerland – take a wrong turn out of the shopping mall and there you are – is good for Konstanz now, and was good for it during World War II, when it was spared Allied bombing. It has one of Germany's best-preserved original medieval city centres, dating from Konstanz's only moment in the spotlight.

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In the early 15th century, cardinals and bishops from across Europe met in Konstanz for one of the church's most important get-togethers. The Council of Constance ended the papal schism and condemned reformer Jan Hus as a heretic. It lasted four years, and Konstanz boomed. Later, this corner of Europe faded and, lacking money, Konstanz never got much of a Renaissance or baroque makeover.

The magnificent 1388 Council Hall still stands, an amazing building of hewn wood so vast that trains were once shunted through it. The Dominican monastery where Hus was imprisoned is now a luxury hotel. Churches, slightly skew-whiff, have been converted to Indian restaurants and bars. The corners of houses wobble as if designed by drunks. Konstanz is built on a moraine and slowly sinking. Near the lake, buildings sit on sunken wooden piles like they do in Venice, or as they did in the Stone Age.

Walk the promenades and gaze at the Alps on the far side of the lake. Somewhere over the horizon, tourist herds stampede and coaches rumble, but here on Lake Constance swans paddle under the willow trees and local children run between flowerbeds dappled with sunlight.

FIVE MORE REASONS TO VISIT LAKE CONSTANCE

CULTURE IN BREGENZ

The Bregenz Festival's huge floating lake stage, which famously featured in the Bond film Quantum of Solace, is the venue for spectacular operas. Rigoletto headlines in 2019. Kunsthaus Bregenz showcases modern art, while the fabulously contemporary Vorarlberg Museum deals with regional history. See bregenz.travel

GARDENS IN MAINAU

This 45-hectare island, joined by a bridge to the mainland near Konstanz, is devoted to gardens and has flowerbeds filled with roses, dahlias, hydrangeas and rhododendrons, as well as a palm house and butterfly house. The surrounding lake waters are an astonishing turquoise colour. See mainau.de

ZEPPELINS IN FRIEDRICHSHAFEN

Count Zeppelin launched his first airship here in 1900, and they're still made in Friedrichshafen, which has a Zeppelin museum. You can enjoy a Zeppelin flight and experience a low-flying, almost silent journey with stunning lake and alpine views, or even take a two-day pilot-training program. See friedrichshafen.de

WATERFALLS IN SCHAFFHAUSEN

Europe's largest waterfalls are only 21 metres high, but the power and volume of water is thrilling in early summer, when snowmelt feeds the Rhine River. The falls can be viewed from picturesque Laufen Castle or by taking a boat to a rock in the middle of the river. See rheinfall.ch

MOUNTAINS IN LIECHTENSTEIN

This principality is tiny in area but big on alpine beauty, and just a 30-minute drive from Lake Constance. Vaduz Castle is a stunning sight against snow peaks. Plenty of well-marked hiking trails showcase the scenery, especially on the high-altitude (but dizzying) Princes' Way. See tourismus.li

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/germany

bodensee.eu

FLY

Cathay Pacific flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Hong Kong with onward daily connections to Zurich, a 90-minute drive from Lake Constance. See cathaypacific.com.au

STAY

Adara Boutique-Hotel is a stylish designer hotel with a good restaurant in Lindau's old town. Rooms from $240 a night. Steinberger Inselhotel in Konstanz is set in a former lakeshore monastery and has a fine wellness centre. Rooms from $245 a night. Sentido Seehotel am Kaiserstrand outside Bregenz is also on the lakeshore with a spa. Rooms from $214 a night. See adara-lindau.de; steigenberger.com; seehotel-kaiserstrand.com

Brian Johnston travelled as a guest of the Tourist Board of Lake Constance.

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