Welcome to Bodensee
Konstanz (or Constance) is a city in Germany in the state of Baden-Württemberg which borders the Swiss town of Kreuzlingen in the Thurgau canton. What makes Konstanz so special is the substantial amount of Swiss visitors it gets, mostly for shopping. Prices in Switzerland can be very high, sometimes double those you can find in Germany, but thanks to the Free Movement agreement between EU & Switzerland, crossing the border is easy as pie which makes it a naturally ideal place to go shopping for essentials (and not).
You are still subject to customs checks, but these are not rigidly enforced as they would be with a non-EFTA country. The limits can be a bit harsh: you are allowed to transport up to 1kg of raw meat, 1l of hard alchohol and so on and if you go by car, you can be almost certain that customs are going to check your bags (going by train though is a completely different story). The limits are however understandable, since the markets of those Swiss towns near the borders can be financially devastated; they can’t compete with the prices their European counterparts offer.
As a visitor from Switzerland it gets even better for you: you can save more money by filling a VAT refund form from the shops and submitting it for a customs declaration near the border (remember, you are considered a tourist from outside of the EU). Next time you visit, the retailer subtracts that amount from your bill.
It was my first visit this Saturday. I got the regional train from Kloten (a town near Zurich where I live) to Winterthur. Winterthur is the second largest city in the Canton of Zurich (after the City of Zurich itself) and feels a bit more traditional while still being a city comparable to Zurich. Zurich is also a more international city, which might be important for expatriates that do not speak German yet. If you live in Switzerland or Germany however, learn the language, you will thank yourself in a few years, no matter how good of an effort the locals put in speaking English.
From Winterthur one can grab the hourly InterRegio train and in 50 minutes you have arrived in Konstanz. I met a friend in Winterthur where we got the IR train (the ticket cost about CHF 28) at around 9:00 and by 10:00 we were there. No customs checks for us, since we’re coming from an EFTA country.
This was first and foremost a shopping-discovery experience (i.o.w., to know what places to go to next), but we eventually did walk around the city a bit. With the initial shopping done (non-volatile stuff), we put our stuff in one of the lockers around the station (for a fixed fee of €3) and decided to explore a bit.
The morning was overcast and there were some light drizzles, but that changed drastically in a couple of hours or so. Interestingly and despite being Saturday morning, the amount of people we encountered initially was normal, nothing too crowded or too deserted.
The city has a distinct German feel with some heavy Swiss overtones. It’s easy to conflate the two and it’s not always as easy to tell apart, but some telltale signs are the accent people have as well as their complete unwillingness to speak English compared to Zurich (with some minor exceptions), the structure of the city and a general feel that I cannot put my finger to. I admit, I did feel some nostalgia and thought back to my 3 years I lived in Munich, a distinctly different experience from living in Zurich.
There were many paths to choose, most of them picturesque cobbled streets and narrow passageways as well as the open plazas. We reached the river and then got to the harbour, where one could notice that by virtue of the sun coming up, the amount of people walking around had vastly increased. How many of those were residents and how many were visitors? Couldn’t tell, but we’ve encountered quite a few cars with Swiss plates.
The Harbour as well as the Stadtgarten were especially nice places to be around, walk, relax and even have a go at the tourist amenities one can find there, such as the waterbikes or the ships giving you periodical mini-cruises around the lake.
The lake is huge and I mean huge. It almost feels like a sea; it’s much bigger than the Zurich Lake and perhaps bigger than the one in Geneva. We didn’t explore it this time, but we are coming back.
It was time to grab lunch, and I had been recommended a place called Zur Wendelgard. They have steaks. Sure, they’ve other stuff too, but you go there for the steaks, which are roasted on a stone and also served on a sizzling hot stone. They serve them almost rare and you can choose the degree of doneness by simply letting them cook on the stone. The steaks were amazing and at a price less than half of what you would pay for in Switzerland. I’m going back, for sure.
With lunch done, it was about time to go and buy things that matter, like… well… steaks and other foodstuffs. The amount of people walking around had increased… drastically. It was obvious that most of them were tourists and the weather only helped, but it was also good to know that by going early you get to avoid most of the commotion.
Incidentally, you are expected to wear a mask when you go into shops. You are not required to do so in Switzerland, so we simply strolled in only to be sternly told by an employee that we need masks, which we bought right there for about half a euro each. It is the first time I wear a mask and I must admit, I hate the experience, since it makes breathing difficult, but when you are in such crowded places, it really is the only option while the world still lacks a COVID-19 vaccine.
On the way back we came across the Konstanz Munster, the cathedral of the town. Germany has a lot of cathedrals and they are always huge impressive and tall buildings that were built back in an age lacking cranes and other modern technology that makes such endeavours look plausible. Then again, one must consider that erecting such buildings took hundreds of years and this is also the case here. The first reference of a church on this site was about 1400 years ago (!), only for that church to collapse about 400 years later and be rebuilt again (a process that took more than 300 years), which then was adapted to a gothic style (a mere 100 years more). Impressive feats and patience indeed.
At around 3 o’clock fatigue started settling in and we decided to take the (hourly) train and get back. First, we went to the customs office to validate our VAT refund forms which was as simple as saying “Hello”, getting your form stamped and leaving. There were no customs officers on the train (but this does not indicate the definite absence of them).
On the way back.
All in all, it has been a very rewarding experience and one I am looking forward to, at least one more time. Konstanz is famour for its shopping, there’s simply an abundance of tourist options, but it’s also a very picturesque city and one that is definitely worth visiting!