Last week I went to a beautiful part of central Europe. Not in reality, of course, and not even virtually via an online tour, but through the wonder of a jigsaw puzzle.
Piece by piece, the inky waters of Lake Constance and the tree-lined shores of Mainau island, linked by a narrow causeway to the city of Konstanz, have been taking shape on my kitchen table.
My son and I are not alone in conjuring up foreign landscapes from 1,000 tiny pieces – jigsaw sales have gone through the roof during the coronavirus pandemic.
Pieces of history: Ravensburg is one of the world’s chief producers of jigsaws
But close to Mainau is Ravensburg, a pretty town in the Upper Swabia region of Germany that I really did visit last year. It is also one of the world’s chief producers of jigsaws.
It is the HQ of Ravensburger, which for nearly 60 years has created jigsaws featuring just about anything from Disney characters to kittens, as well as many landscapes snapped in the local environs: flower-filled Alpine meadows, fairytale castles and traditional towns and villages.
I was on a cycling trip around Lake Constance when I took a short detour to Ravensburg. It is dubbed ‘the city of towers and gates’, and from the observation deck of Blaserturm tower in the historic centre, or the bright white Mehlsack (flour sack), you can look across the brightly coloured roofs of the old town to the lake and the Alps.
Situated at the crossroads of two important trade routes, Ravensburg had its heyday at the end of the Middle Ages, and in particular in the 14th and 15th Centuries, when its citizens grew rich on the flourishing textile trade and papermaking industry.
The Great Ravensburg Trading Society was formed by the wonderful-sounding Henggi Humpis, and today many of the wealthy merchants’ houses are preserved under a giant glass roof in the Humpis-Quartier Museum.
Not far away, Hotel Obertor, a guesthouse that has been run by the same family since 1891, is a good base from which to explore.
Flowers on Mainau island
The town’s main square, Marienplatz, is traffic-free and the focal point for contemporary life. Here people stroll, shop or stop for a chat by the fountain, while the surrounding narrow streets and alleys teem with cafes, bars and restaurants, lending the place a laid-back Mediterranean atmosphere.
Ravensburg is 12 miles north of the shores of Lake Constance (a perennially popular jigsaw). As I did, many visitors have made a detour here from their circuit around the 40-mile-long lake that sits at the heart of Europe and cuts through the borders of Germany, Austria and Switzerland, and is just a short distance from the tiny principality of Liechtenstein. The USP of the Lake Constance area is its easy access to four countries.
An hour’s train ride from Zurich airport takes you to the city of Konstanz on the shores of the eponymous lake, where you can stroll through its medieval city centre or wander around Mainau (the centrepiece of my puzzle). On the island, a baroque palace presides over rare plant collections, an impressive butterfly house and swathes of blooms cascading down to the water’s edge.
In Konstanz, there’s a fabulous place to stay – the luxurious Inselhotel, a former Dominican monastery set on its own private island. The building was also once the home of Count von Zeppelin of airship fame.
Across the water by catamaran is Friedrichshafen, where a vast Art Deco building is home to the Zeppelin Museum, a treasure trove of artefacts and a replica of the ill-fated airship Hindenburg, which, when it caught fire attempting to land in New Jersey in 1937, put a final nail in the industry’s coffin.
Friedrichshafen was badly bombed during the Second World War due to its major aircraft industry, but Ravensburg remained relatively intact.
With its wealth of medieval buildings, late Gothic church and an art gallery with contemporary collections as well as works by German expressionists, it has plenty to lure lake-lubbers away from the shores.
Production at the Ravensburger factory continues as it tries to keep up with the demand for jigsaws in homes around the world
I cycled from Friedrichshafen along quiet country lanes, through asparagus patches, strawberry fields and vineyards and beside the banks of the Schussen, a tributary of Lake Constance, into Marienplatz. This square is not only the centre of Ravensburg, but also – fittingly – where the world record for the biggest jigsaw puzzle was set. In September 2008, about 10,000 locals gathered to put together an incredible 1,141,800 pieces, made up of smaller jigsaw images such as animals, maps and landscapes, covering about 6,500 square feet in less than five hours.
The previous record for the largest puzzle created was in Singapore in 2002 with a measly 212,323 pieces – although both put my Mainau island in the shade.
Ravensburger may now have component parts scattered around the world, but its HQ remains where it all started in 1883, albeit in a new building on the outskirts of town. The original HQ of the company founded by Otto Robert Maier is on Marktstrasse and now houses the Museum Ravensburger, which charts its history from publisher of instruction folders for craftsmen and architects to global brand. On the first floor is a room dedicated to jigsaws, although it didn’t produce its first one until 1964.
The museum, like most tourist attractions, is closed for the time being, but production at the Ravensburger factory continues, trying to keep up with the demand for jigsaws in homes around the world.