Around the Bodensee by bike (in the rain)

by Karl Auer

This little report describes a trip by bike from Zürich to Romanshorn on the Bodensee and thence around the Bodensee in a clockwise direction back to Romanshorn. The total distance for the trip is about 280km on paper, but with the many detours made I guess I travelled about 350km all up.

Sorry there are no photos, but I didn't take a camera. Lucky thing - I suspect it would have gotten very wet.

Day One: Monday 17 May 1999

Zürich to Wil

Packed the bike and was out the door by about 9.00am, headed for Romanshorn on the Bodensee. This meant taking the right-hand leg of the "Veloland Schweiz" bikeway No. 5, which heads out through Winterthur. It was quite hard to follow the bikeway at times - basically I remained very confused until about Opfikon! The bikeway signage was absent at some critical junctures, ambiguous at others. The weather was a bit wet; it was raining even as I left, and the Glatt river was pretty high, blocking the bikeway in a couple of places.

Saw a deer in the forest between Opfikon and Bassersdorf - an elderly male, greying but with magnificent antlers. He watched me a moment, then stepped into the forest in a very dignified way. The forest smelled of humus and Bärlauch. The weather cleared up for lunch with Lis at Bassersdorf; we ate at a Mexican place called "Tres Amigos" and the food was excellent. Then on to Winterthur. There were a few steeper bits near Lindau (the No.5 route is generally pretty flat); it got very windy out in the fields, but no rain was falling. I found a lovely spot on top of a hill just outside Eschikon - a small fountain and a group of benches sheltered by huge trees. I had a drink, washed my hands and sat a while, looking out over fields of oats, barley and rape.

Entering the forest again after the fields, I saw another deer, this one a much younger female, a fantastic soft brown color. Unfortunately I was on a steep descent, so my brakes were making a fair amount of noise; this deer was much flightier than the other, she took one look at the rolling, screeching yellow peril and vanished.

Bypassing Winterthur, I headed west for Thurbenthal via Sennhof. From some of the information posted at the crossroads, Winterthur looks like a very nice place for a cyclist to visit; probably worth a day trip one weekend. However, I wanted to ride around the Bodensee this time, so I gave Winterthur a miss.

Cycling alongside the (very full) Töss river, everything seemed amazingly green, and so many different shades of it! There were lots of little landslips in the slopes above and lots of sticks in the river. The water had been a lot higher recently - there was high-water debris two or three metres above the water level. Found a driver's licence on the path, and decided to give it to the police at the next town. Looking at all the water, I was wondering if I'd still be able to ride around the Bodensee, because that's where all this water was headed!

I stopped on the embankment a little way out of Sennhof to take these notes and watch the river, when I had an Experience. The police arrived in force, hands on their guns! Two motocycle cops and several police cars literally surrounded me, one fellow hopped out and asked who I was, whether I'd seen a person acting strangely, driving a damaged car, what way I'd come. He asked me if I had arrived by bicycle - a strange question to ask someone sitting beside a packed bicycle and wearing a helmet, but I resisted the temptation to make any witty remarks under the circumstances.

Apparently someone had gone a bit loco and started driving his car into walls and policemen. They seemed to realise that I was not the person they sought, then they spoke a lot into radios. As they were about to leave I thought I'd save some time, asked if I could give them the licence I'd found, and handed it over. Well! "That's him!" was the cry. A quick few questions about where I found it, then they were all off like bats out of Hell again.

I met up with them all at a roadblock some kilometres later; they all seemed much more relaxed, though I don't think they'd caught him at that point. The next day, reading the paper, I found a little article saying that someone ("probably sick") had started driving cars at policemen and into walls and had led police a merry chase. His car was found abandoned in Kollbrunn, a few kilometres further along my path; the man himself was eventually arrested in Sennhof.

Rode via Bichelsee, Balterswil and Sirnach as far as Wil, a total of about 60km for the day. There didn't seem to be any camping grounds around - I'd passed one in Bichelsee, but I didn't fancy riding 12km back the way I'd come, so I booked into the Hotel Ochsen on the edge of the Altstadt in Wil. The locals at a pub I asked in reckoned I could camp on the commons ("Allmend"); I said thanks, but didn't take their advice - "camping wild" as it's called here is generally against the law in Switzerland and I didn't want to get arrested on my first day. Besides, I'd seen the Allmend on my way into town, and it was a large, flat, open and above all gravel surface.

The Ochsen was OK; they have a shed/room where cyclists can store their bikes overnight, but it isn't normally locked - and a three-year-old with a screwdriver could get in even if it was locked. Oh, well; I locked up my bike as best I could, had a shower, put on clean clothes and had dinner in the hotel restaurant. The food wasn't exceptional, but it was cheap and plentiful, so on the whole recommended. Slept like a log.

Day Two: Tuesday 18 May 1999

Wil to Altnau

After brekky, looked around Wil briefly. A nice Altstadt, but not a lot of life. Headed off in the direction of Bischofszell via Sonnental about 10am. Riding along beside the Töss in glorious sunshine, the river was getting wider and faster; the rock weirs sounded like thunder. The water was a sort of translucent grey-green; usually that colour means the water is snow-melt, but the reports I was reading in the papers suggested most of the volume was actually rainwater. Whole trees were lying around as debris. The forest flickered between dark and light beside me as I rode; where pine trees were, they overtook everything, leaving darkness at their feet and a sound-deadening carpet of pine-needles. Where the deciduous trees were master, the forest floor was much lighter, all sorts of undergrowth was getting its chance.

As soon as the path moves away from the river, the trees give way to farmland, with the only trees as crowns on the hilltops and the odd loner in a field. Lots of really bad smells - everybody is "dunging" at this time of year. They have tanker trailers behind their tractors; the power-take-off runs under the trailer to turn a sort of blunt fan at the bottom of the rear of the trailer. A rope runs along the top of the trailer, dangling at the end of a metal support in easy reach of the farmer driving the tractor. The farmer lines up the trailer at the edge of the field, kicks in the PTO and sets off, with the fan at the back spraying a thin slurry of ancient shit over everything... at least the plants like it. I can't imagine living in a European farmhouse, at least not an active one; everything smells awful, all the time - because they store up all the dung over winter, usually in tanks quite near the farmhouses. That plus silage makes for an astonishing array of aromas, which are rarely pleasant.

Bought the daily paper, some rolls, some cheese and some sliced meat at Bischofszell, then rode on as far as the bridge over the Sitter river at Lütschwil. Read the paper while having a leisurely lunch. Looking around me, there seemed to have been some pretty bad erosion after the floods, which by all accounts are by no means over yet. The Sitter river looked almost as full as the Töss!

On the move again; somewhere around Wilen I saw a hawk swooping and gliding really close; I could see others in the fields. The terrain in this area is a bit harder - hillier, though nothing too strenuous.

My butt is sore and my hands are tingly - new saddle and new handlebars for next time, I think! Various people have recommended cycling gloves, but the problem seems to be the stiff wrist position occasioned by straight handlebars compared to dropped handlebars. I'm sitting much more upright on the new bike too, so more weight on the old bum. Actually, the bum isn't the problem, it's that the wedding tackle goes numb! Luckily this seems to be temporary :-)

After Almensberg, the run down into Romanshorn was great; got there about 2pm. It looked like it'd been raining recently, hmm! I went into the railway station to ask about camping around the lake - they usually have brochures, free newsletters and suchlike; and indeed they were very helpful. The map I got from them stood me in good stead all the way around the Bodensee in the end. After ten minutes in the station I came out and it was bucketing down. There was a restaurant with covered outside tables just across the way, so I went in and had a leisurely cuppa. The rain stopped, I proceeded. Perfect planning :-)

Armin Wittman's family has a caravan by the Bodensee in Altnau, about midway between Romanshorn and Konstanz. He'd suggested I could stay there on my trip and his mum had prepared it specially for me, so even though it was early in the day and Altnau only 10k away, I decided to stay there the night.

The pressure thus off, I took a leisurely pedal/stroll around the "beach" at Romanshorn. Some interesting sculptures and the whole place seemed beautifully kept. The Bodensee was visibly high, even to someone not familiar with the lake. The water was lapping over walls that are clearly usually a metre above water level, and the debris indicated the water has been higher still (or maybe that was just the effect of wind and waves). Lots of debris still in the water too - driftwood. Imagine how much water it must take to raise the Bodensee a metre!

After the brief rainy patch, the weather was pretty good; it didn't rain on me for the last 10km of the day :-) After checking in to the camping ground and generally organising things I went and sat by the lake to make some notes and look at the water. The bench I found had a lovely view over the lake and was overarched by fresh green spring leaves, dappling the evening sun; little birds eyed me speculatively. The odd duck couple cruised past...

Showered before dinner - yuk. High-tech camping has taken over in Altnau, with chipcards to get into the loos and to get hot water. The shower gives 30 seconds (!) of water, then you have to press the tap again to get more. The taps in the basins detect objects under them and only stay on as long as something is there - and it's quite hard to find the right position for your tooth brush so that it will turn the water on AND the water will hit the head of the toothbrush. The person who designed these showers and taps obviously never used them (or had weird habits!). On the plus side though, everything was very clean and well cared for. I tried out my new magic towel for the first time - it works well, feels very different though. Hard to get used to a towel that feels wet and IS wet, but still dries you.

Had dinner at the Restaurant "zum Schiff" (it's beside a boathouse), eating at a table outside looking out over the lake. Very restful. Wished Lis were there.

Slept very well in the caravan; fell asleep to the sound of the Bodensee and its birds.

Day Three: Wednesday 19 May 1999

Altnau to Ludwigshafen

Made a quick exit from the camping ground at Altnau around 9am, headed for Konstanz and the German border. Getting as far as Kreuzlingen was easy enough, but then I got totally lost due to a maze of bike path maintenance and the resulting badly signposted detours. After managing to pass into Germany three times without ever (apparently) crossing into Switzerland, I finally found Konstanz and headed straight for the Altstadt, which is a very lovely and open area. I dropped into a bike shop for a new valve cap and some cycling gloves, then realised I would need some of the local money - oops! The nice chap at the bike shop (Radial) said I could have the cap for nothing, but I went back with money and got the bike gloves as well, being prepared to try anything to relieve my hands. Had a much-needed brekky in the Altstadt, looking up at the beautiful facade of the Graf Zeppelin Gaststatte in "zum deutschen Haus".

On the map, the Bodensee appears to "fork" at its western end; one fork heads pretty much west, the other roughly north-west. The lower "fork" is actually not part of the Bodensee at all, but rather a huge widening in the Rhein river just after it leaves the Bodensee. The bottom part is called the Untersee, the middle bit (between the island of Reichenau and the Eastern end) is called the Zellersee and the top bit is called the Gnadensee. Reichenau is a pretty big island (about 5km by 2km) in the middle of all this, joined to the mainland by a thin strip of low-lying land.

At about 11:30 I set off for the island. I crossed the Rhein just outside the Konstanz Altstadt and turned left, reaching the land bridge to the island half an hour or so later. The land bridge is only a few feet above the water level. There is a bridge at one place where the land strip doesn't quite make it. The ride to the island from the mainland was fascinating - waterbirds of all kinds, even swans, swimming amongt the masses of reeds on either side. It's a mystery to me how the island is still above water, it seems so low and the lake seems so high. Most of the island seems to be given over to (sometimes glassed or covered) market gardens; the open ones growing fancy lettuces make huge stripy multicolored flags on the ground. Some of the residential areas are quite pretty and there's a camping area right at the end of the island which would be fun in better weather.

As I reached the island it started to rain; I changed into wet-weather gear at the St George Church. Wet, wet, wet. Windy. Looking out, the lake looked like a sea - choppy, white tops, I could hear the low rumble of water against the shore. After riding all over the island in the rain and wind I'd had enough for the moment, so I headed back to the mainland.

Off the island, turn left, heading for Radolfzell. Whoops, stuffed it - path ends at a "private" sign. Back about a kilometre, figure out that the bike path turns off somewhere completely other. The bike path signage is worsening, but the tracks themselves are still good. My confusion deepens as the rain gets worse - I decide at about 13:30 to eat at the next opportunity, which turns out to be 15:00 at a pizzeria in Radolfzell - still prepared to serve a clearly starving customer just before closing, to my great delight. A large pizza costs only 13DM! Hoping to make Bodman and camp (for the first time!) tonight.

No useful signs to speak of after Radolfzell. A major feat of dead reckoning took me past Güttingen on dirt roads between the forest and the main road towards Stockach; I figured if I turned right anywhere before Esperhasen I couldn't go far wrong. Indeed I didn't; timewise I was doing so well when I emerged from the forest that I did an extra couple of kilometres and checked into a camping area just before Ludwigshafen. A very nice host, and the facilities were nicely primitive compared with Altnau. The rain stopped about 10 minutes before I got there.

Setting up the tent was easy and all the rain had made the ground nice and soft, so I expected a comfy sleep. After throwing my stuff into the tent I rode the kilometre or so into Ludwigshafen for a drink, where at 6pm I was looking out over the tail of the Bodensee (the Überlingersee), south towards Bodman. The hills on my side and the side opposite were bathed in soft light from the sun, visible for the first time today. The water was glopping amongst the boats moored nearby.

To my surprise, my mobile phone actually worked in Ludwigshafen; it didn't work in Konstanz, which is a much bigger city. Had a long talk to Lis :-) then bought some nibbles and tootled back to the camping ground. Ate the nibbles looking down a sunlit lake with a pair of swans nibbling the grass nearby, clacking and hissing when they thought I was too close. Beautiful birds - huge and pure white.

Met a nice chap as I was setting up my tent; Harald. He's from near Karlsruhe and was cycling to Konstanz around the Bodensee. He and his wife were intending to meet in Konstanz and cycle back to Karlsruhe together. He had a little bike trailer and had heaps of stuff in it. I asked him what it was like pulling a trailer; he reckoned it was very handy because of the amount you could carry, but that it was a problem on long or steep hills.

Day Four: Thursday 20 May 1999

Ludwigshafen to Friedrichshafen

Trains until midnight, traffic all night - didn't sleep at all well in spite of having a very soft bed. In the morning, every crevice of the stuff I'd left outside the tent was full of earwigs! Lucky I sealed my panniers.

Struck camp about 8ish. Harald and I decided to accompany each other since we were headed in the same direction. We set off in the direction of Friedrichshafen. After about 15 minutes, during which it started to rain, we stopped to have a sandwich and a hot chocolate for breakfast in Sipplingen. By the time we'd finished eating, the rain had well and truly stopped, and didn't start again all day, although the skies stayed very threatening for the rest of the day. After Sipplingen we decided as we rode to take time out on the way to cross the lake and check out the island of Mainau. The obvious route seemed to be the ferry from Unteruhldingen, so that's where we stopped next.

Waiting for the ferry, we could look across the little harbour at Unteruhldingen and see a (recreated) "Pfahlbau" village - thatch huts on poles, built over the lake. This sort of hut was what people lived in in this area around 5000-6000 years ago; remains of huts and some tools have been found near the town. There is a museum dedicated to the subject, but we gave it a miss.

As we set off in the ferry, the weather cleared and we spent a sunny 3 hours on the island - an hour more than we expected, we missed the ferry once... Mainau is a lovely island, almost tropical, covered in gardens. There are two or three lovely old buildings, including a baroque castle. The conservatory attached to the castle had of all things an exhibition of kites in it - from huge, 40-metre-long Chinese kites to thumbnail-sized kites that would fit in half a matchbox. It was the kites that caused us to miss the ferry :-)

Bicycles aren't allowed on the island of Mainau, nor on the ferry. Cars and bikes can reach the island from the southern side of the Überlingersee; there's a bridge to the island from a point about midway between Allmansdorf and Litzelstetten, but they have to park at the western end of the island and can't drive around. The island is thus just people, walking around. It's remarkably relaxing.

Back from Mainau, the road to Friedrichshafen beckoned. On the shore of the lake, the weather was once again very overcast - Mainau seems to have its own special little climate.

Somewhere between Meersburg and Immenstaad (I think), we pulled off to a little roadside stall selling fruit. We bought an apple each and a punnet of strawberries between us. We'd had about two strawberries each when Harald (who was facing the carpark), suddenly shouted "Stop!" - not quite loudly enough or quickly enough to prevent a car backing into his bike. Oops. Luckily one of the pedals had slotted neatly between the car exhaust and the car body, which had just lifted and pushed the bike along, rather than bending it - a lucky escape. We had another punnet of strawberries to celebrate.

With a stop or two in a couple of especially nice towns, we reached Friedrichshafen around 6pm and booked into a campsite about two kilometres out the other side of town. The rather small pizzas they served at the camping ground did not do justice to our cyclists' hungers, so we walked into town and had a second meal at a "Viennese" cafe before walking back. I sat by the lake taking notes and phoning Lis - Harald joined me after a while and we tried to figure out which towns belonged to which sets of lights across the lake.

A big dark area seemed a bit odd - then we realised it was weather, coming directly at us over the lake! It was amazingly well-defined - as we walked (well, dashed) to our tents, we could see the line of rain advancing over the grass. Just as we got into our tents, the rain reached them; not heavy but constant. It didn't stop all night... But I was dry in my tent :-)

Day Five: Friday 21 May 1999

Friedrichshafen to Bregenz

When Harald wasn't up at 8am I left him a note and headed off alone. He'd said he wanted to check out the Zeppelin museum in Friedrichshafen, which I've already seen, so we would probably only have breakfasted together. And he'd also said he was staying put if it looked like the rain wasn't going to clear. The rain didn't look to me as if it had any intention of clearing.

I grabbed brekky at a standup bakery in Eriskircher which warmed the cockles, but by 11:30 I was utterly soaked as indeed were my cockles. Not from the rain (though roadwater soaked my feet) - no, from the Bodensee! The bikeway runs along the lake, and the rain, wind and waves together delivered a sort of horizontal "super-rain". I was pretty wet by the time I reached Lindau; riding over the railway bridge to the island I managed to get even wetter - the description below of riding along the wall into Bregenz fits the railway bridge at Lindau pretty well too.

Lindau would have been great if I'd been dry, but as it was I just took a quick look at the Rathaus and had a quick pedal around, then headed on to Bregenz. I would very much like to take a closer, but above all dryer, look at Lindau some day.

The last 2km into Bregenz were the worst as far as wet went, but quite fun too. A 2m high concrete wall forms the bank of the lake for a wide curve between about Kugelbeer and the eastern end of Bregenz; the bikeway is a two- or three-metre wide concrete way running just beside this wall, with the top foot or so of the wall projecting above pavement level. There are vertical slots in the top bit of the wall at about three metre intervals to allow water to drain off the path into the lake.

Normally a pebble beach stretches out from the base of the wall a good 20m to the water. As I rode by, the water level was a metre up the wall. The wind was at its worst here, and waves one to two metres high were breaking at wall height - and often a bit higher. I was riding through six-inch deep water most of this stretch, with the occasional wave-tip hitting me. Looking out "to sea" was incredible - two-metre waves, debris, spray. And through it all the birds, calmly bobbing around.

Unless a wave was higher than the wall, it would hit the wall hard and smash straight up - five or six metres or so. It's unnerving to have sheets of water rise out of nowhere just beside you... especially since you know the wind will drop a good percentage of it down the back of your neck. When the waves hit the slots, a narrow jet of water a foot high and three inches thick would shoot horizontally across the path. It was really quite fun, in a bizarre sort of way. My only real worry was that one of the waves would contain something hard like a piece of driftwood, but the driftwood all seemed to be on the path. Mostly I could ride over it; a couple of piles were so high I had to dismount and push/carry the bike over them. People were lined up on the road (50m from the path I was on and well out of the way of the water) just watching the lake. Several pointed at me and I could almost hear remarks like "Coo, nearly got 'im that one did!".

Rang Lis from Bregenz; we called off the plan for her to join me. The weather was filthy and she wouldn't have enjoyed it. I was only enjoying it in a perverse sort of way.

Being so wet and starting to get cold too, I decided to call it a day at the first camping spot I came to, even though it was only midday. The maps I had and the local town plan at the Bregenz railway station showed several camping grounds about 3km outside Bregenz, so I headed for those and checked into the first one I found.

It rained all the rest of the day. Having a hot shower was the first priority, an experienced marred by the same daft arrangement as at Altnau. In revenge for such pettifogging I stayed in the shower for a good twenty minutes. I could get everything dry except for my feet, since I had no spare pair of shoes and the pair I did have was sodden. I just got dry and warm as far down as the ankles and spent the rest of the day in wet shoes and socks.

The people at the camping ground had said I could camp in a sort of carport they had; pitching one's tent under a roof is odd, but it did mean I could air and maybe dry my tent a bit. I'd had to pack it wet that morning - no alternatives when it's raining. The surface in the carport was river pebbles - a bit spartan, but not dangerous to the tent.

Around 3pm or so a group of nine young Germans arrived and laid out their gear in the carport: 9 airmattresses, 9 sleeping bags, 9 duffelbags, about 30 gallons of alcohol and a gas barbie! I was glad I'd staked my claim first :-) If this is German youth, I'm not too worried about the future of Germany in a multicultural sense - it would be hard to get a more thorough mix of genotypes from all over Greater Europe than that mob. Apparently a visit to this camping ground was a regular Whitsunday event for the group.

I had a huge "St Galler Schübling" with mustard and a roll for "lunch" at 3 o'clock. Dinner at 6.30, because the camp foodery closed at 7! In the meantime I wrote a couple of postcards, including one to Helmut & Heidi. Dinner was unexpectedly good; behind that unpreposessing facade, the restaurant at the camping ground had a talented cook. Rotzungenfilet (a kind of fish) done in an eggy, very thin batter with lemon, steamed potatoes and parsley. Yum!

The lads played rap music and told filthy jokes until 11pm. Amazingly I didn't mind; everything just seemed right with the world.

I was really hoping the rain would let up a bit the next day.

Day Six: Saturday 22 May 1999

Bregenz to Romanshorn

Had a comfy night in spite of sleeping on river pebbles - I am a definite convert to these insulating sleeping mats. The lads woke up after me, so as I was striking camp I was treated to the most extraordinary chorus of groans, belches, farts and imprecations. Then they all got up and had beer for breakfast! Found a frog under my things as I was packing; showed it to the lads, who clearly thought I was odd. The lake had risen even further overnight, blocking the bike path to Rorschach. Did I mention it was still raining?

After a roll and some chokky for breakfast, I set off for Hard, Höchst, Gaissau, Rheinecke, Rorschach, determined to be home that night; i.e., to reach Romanshorn and get a train back to Zürich. A friendly local showed me how to get to the main road, since the bike path I had planned to take was now knee-deep in water, on top of which floated a solid layer of driftwood and broken reeds.

The detour took me along the Aach river for a while - a roaring, hurtling torrent of brown, with huge standing waves in its middle. The trees on the edges, the ones with their "feet" in the water, were trembling violently. People were just standing, looking. It was pretty impressive.

After a five minute rain-free pause, the rain started more heavily than ever before. What the wind and the Bodensee had achieved in past days, my own increased speed and the spray from passing cars did today. I was soaked again within 10km. Oh well.

Crossed out of Austria at Gaissau/Rheineck, and took fairly small roads back towards the lake shore, to go through Speck and Staad to Rorschach. I stayed on the roads rather than the bike path as far as Rorschach. In several towns, including Rorschach, the lake had invaded the town itself. Whole sections of some towns were underwater; fire-engines and farmers with farm pumps were everywhere, trying to keep water out of cellars. The weather was warming up, though still wet; kids on bikes and wearing outsized gumboots were having a ball. Going through towns was much faster on a bike than in a car - I was overtaking long columns of holiday-makers stuck in crawling traffic.

I asked a fireman in Rorschach if I should try the paths again, he smiled and said "only if you have a tractor in those bags!" It wasn't as bad after Rorschach though, and I was on the bike path pretty much all the way back to Romanshorn after all. Even on the roads though, I spent a lot of time pedaling through 4-6" of water - which is hard work!

Got to Romanshorn at 11:45; booked a ticket home for me and my bike and had a big lunch at the Hotel zum Bahnhof opposite the station. Got home about 2pm.

The End.

Post Scriptum

Apart from a little more rain on the Saturday of my return the weather cleared and continued fine for a full week. Talk about picking the wrong week to go cycling...