Reichenau Island, Germany
At Lake Constance, four countries meet. The vast stretch of water borders Germany, Switzerland, and Austria, while Liechtenstein is just 30 kilometres away by road. France and Italy are also just short drives away. This is the confluence of Central Europe.
In this lake, with its ferries and yachts and watersports, is a small island called Reichenau. More than a thousand years ago, it used its location and its talent to influence art and architecture across the continent. Although it’s located in present day Germany, it emerged at a time when borders seemed fluid.
A monastery built on Reichenau Island in 724 – and churches built between the 9th and 11th centuries – were some of the first examples of medieval religious architecture in this part of the world. The wall paintings inside these structures also gave inspiration to artisans in the surrounding countries.
What is on Reichenau Island?
When I pop into the information centre on the island, the woman behind the counter seems slightly confused and slightly annoyed that I have interrupted her. The island – and the centre – seem fairly quiet, although I’m not sure whether it’s just a slower than usual day. I tell her I would like to see what makes the island a World Heritage Site and she replies, “everything”. I ask a few more questions, trying to get specifics. Eventually she recommends a couple of important churches but also suggests I see the agricultural side of life on Reichenau.
Only about 3,500 people live on the island but the majority of them are farmers. The first vineyards were planted here in the 800s and since then the small plot of land in the middle of a lake has become one of the best known places for fruit and vegetable production. Although there is a level of machinery involved, it’s still very much a small community activity.
As I walk down one of the small lanes on the southern side of the island, with the water glistening between me and Switzerland, a tractor drives past. I stop to look around and notice cars pulling up on the grass. Locals get out of them, one by one, and with them they bring buckets.
They have all come to a small vineyard to pick grapes together – young and old. They smile at me as they walk past and up into the wonderfully symmetrical rows of vines. This is their office. There are very few ‘businesses’ here on Reichenau Island and the daily work takes place in the sunshine and the fresh air. If you take away the tractor and the cars, this is probably not so different to the way things have been done for centuries.
On my way back to the bus station, I see several small stands set up on the roadside selling vegetables. They’re as fresh as you’ll ever see and the quality of the produce from here is apparently quite famous in the region. There are excellent restaurants all around Lake Constance and many of the top chefs source their organic food from right here. Locals also often make the trip across the causeway to buy their own supplies.
Tourists may come for the churches, locals may come for the food. Regardless, the island of Reichenau is as unique and influential in this part of Europe as it has always been.