Southern Germany, Switzerland, and Northern Italy are surprisingly similar. OK, actually, it's not surprising if you think about it for two seconds. But if I say "Picture Italy! Now picture Germany! Now picture Switzerland!" you come up with three totally different mental pictures, don't you? But if I say "Picture a big lake surrounded by mountains, with lots of pretty greenery and old cities and villages along the coast," well, that could be any and all of the above.
All of these lakes have public passenger boats to ferry you from one side to the other. Recall that last year we tested out the boats of Lago Maggiore. This year we decided to visit the Bodensee (a.k.a. Lake Constance) -- mostly because it's only an hour-and-a-half from Zürich by train, and the kids had never been to Germany before.
As you might expect, the boat rides are very similar but a little bit different. As a control, we also tested out the boat ride on the Zürichsee -- from Zürich to Rapperswil.
Since we didn't bring along my husband (who normally takes the photos), I have to settle for illustrating this post with photos taken by Nico. For example, it may not be obvious from the picture, but here we're on the boat on the Bodensee:
Leo, just a couple days before losing one of those teeth you see in this picture...
(Having an eight-year-old photo-document a trip definitely gives you a different perspective on what's interesting. For example, here's a photo he took of the doughnuts at the Zürich train station:
The exotic doughnuts of the American Bakery of Zürich)
In all three cases, we decided to have lunch on the boat. Here's how they stack up:
The Swiss boat had quite a nice restaurant. The German boat claimed to have a restaurant, but I'm not totally convinced that they had a real kitchen (as opposed to just heating up pre-prepared stuff, like on the train). And, in proper Goldilocks style, the Italian boat was between the two -- not super fancy, but economical, pleasant, and a good value.
Of course the restaurant quality probably had more to do with the size of the lake than with the surrounding culture. The Zürichsee is really small. You have to travel the lake the long way in order to have a two-hour boat ride. The only reason to take the boat is if you want to go on a pleasure cruise. If you just want to go to Rapperswil, you take the train -- it's more frequent, it's only a half-hour, and it costs the same as the boat. On the Bodensee, it took an hour-and-a-half to cross it the short way, so naturally the boat is full of people who are as interested in getting to the other side as they are in the joy of riding on a boat. Naturally, Lago Maggiore is between the two.
The big disadvantage of the Zürich boat was that they separated off the top level for first class. Already, it was a small boat with only two levels (unlike a proper lake boat, which should have at least three levels). That was a bit of a disappointment because part of the fun of a lake cruise is to wander around and explore the whole boat. And the second-class section was fancy enough that it kind of made me curious to get a first-class ticket sometime, just to see what's up there...
The big surprise, though, was that -- contrary to all popular stereotypes -- the Italian boat schedule was more logical (made more sense) than the German one. The various boat lines on Lago Maggiore were very well-integrated with one another, and they fit together in a clear, easy-to-understand timetable. Then (and this is such a simple thing that I can't imagine why they don't do it in Germany), they post the destinations of the next boat on the pier where the boat will land.
The thing is that each port has as many as six or seven numbered slots where boats can dock (for passengers to get on and off). I suspect that the mapping of which boat goes to which slot doesn't change much, but, still, they don't print it on the boat schedule, and (in Konstanz) they don't post it on the dock where the boat lands either. You have to go read the boat-to-pier mapping off a central monitor or chart (which you have to go find, and it can be rather far from the pier in question).
Now, you may be thinking that I just found the Italian timetables clearer because I still read Italian (a little) better than I read German. But seriously, it's just a table of numbers -- the language is irrelevant.
The language, however, is another fun aspect of the trip! All of these lake cruises are (obviously) quite touristic, but they're almost all designed for local tourists. The Bodensee, in particular, is geared almost entirely for German tourists. It's basically the warm-and-sunny Summer seaside holiday destination for Germans. So in Konstanz (unlike Zürich) -- even if my German is obviously really limited -- as long as actual communication is taking place, they won't spontaneously switch to English.
Similarly, around Lago Maggiore, the tourists are mostly from Switzerland, Germany, and France, so all of the tourist-relevant signage is in Italian, German, and French (but not necessarily in English). If you have trouble communicating in Italian, it's not totally obvious which other language they should switch to. So they just stick with Italian until the tourist switches to some other language.
Anyway, sorry this is a bit of a ramble -- but I hope it's useful to any of you who are planning to visit the lakes of the Alpine region! :D