The Black Forest: the Jewel of SouthWest Germany
Ask ten people what the Black Forest means and you get ten different answers. Some talk about the delicious Black Forest gateau and cuckoo clocks; others love the medieval towns and villages with half-timbered houses; many think of the high standards of accommodation and service; still others recommend the relaxing spas and unspoiled countryside. But they all agree on one thing – the Black Forest is just plain romantic.
Stretching from Karlsruhe in the north, down to the Swiss border in the south, this area of SouthWest Germany has attracted vacationers for well over a century. As for the name – that’s because from a distance, the trees in the Schwarzwald looked black – literally a Schwarz (black) wald (forest). But, this lovely region also includes orchards, meadows and farms, sparkling lakes and rushing streams. Best of all, this is the sunniest part of Germany!
Cities and villages in the Black Forest
Start with the cities. One of the most famous resorts in Europe is Baden-Baden. More than two thousand years ago, the Romans discovered the thermal springs that established the Black Forest as a spa destination. In the 19th and 20th centuries, royalty and nobility flocked here to “take the waters.” In fact, baden means bath or spa in German, and Baden-Baden’s hot mineral springs are known for soothing away the stresses of modern life. This elegant resort offers two thermal baths. Swim in the modern Caracalla Spa, with its indoor and outdoor pools; spend the afternoon at the traditional Roman-Irish Bath, the “Friedrichsbad,” that is one of Europe’s loveliest and most historic spa buildings.
Not surprisingly, there are luxury hotels, such as the legendary Brenners Park that has set the standard for grand hotels for over 135 years. Nowadays, as well as relaxing in the soothing waters, guests at Baden-Baden’s many five-star hotels can choose from a wide range of wellness treatments, from vinotherapy (using grapes) to Oriental massages.
But Baden-Baden is about more than just “taking the waters”. Think chic, one-of-a kind shops, elegant cafés for coffee and delicious cake, glorious parks, and manicured gardens. And the evenings are lively. Not only is the range of restaurants is amongst the best in Germany, there is live music virtually every night of the year. In fact, the “Festspielhaus” is Europe’s second largest concert and opera house. But that’s not all: if you are feeling lucky, head for what must be the world’s most beautiful casino.
Another fine base is Freiburg, the unofficial capital of the Black Forest and Germany's sunniest city. The old center is pedestrianized and the atmosphere is medieval, with cobbled streets and half-timbered buildings. Watch out for the “Bächle,” the tiny streams that flow beside the lanes. Legend has it that if you step in one, you will marry a local girl! Around the cathedral is a lively daily market where, in summer, stalls are piled high with locally-grown peaches, plums, and cherries. France and Switzerland are close by, and the French influence shows in the fine cuisine. It’s worth noting that many restaurants here, and throughout the Black Forest, serve delicious and varied vegetarian dishes based on fresh produce from nearby farms.
Known as the gateway to the Black Forest, Pforzheim has an even more intriguing nickname: the “City of Gold.” Despite its modern look, it has long been – and still is – an international center for jewelry and watch making. First stop for visitors has to be Schmuckwelten Pforzheim (Worlds of Jewelry). Under one roof, you can admire gemstones and piles of gold bars, see jewelry and watches being made, and then buy the perfect souvenir. Don’t miss the unique and stunning Pforzheim Jewelry Museum. This is one of the world’s great collections, with dazzling displays covering 5,000 years of superb artistry.
The Black Forest is also famous for its photogenic villages – and these offer the same high standards of accommodation and restaurants, deep in the countryside. Take Baiersbronn. This small community has a wide choice of family-oriented hotels, including the luxurious Hotel Bareiss and Hotel Traube-Tonbach. What’s more, Baiersbronn takes pride in its cuisine. Between them, Chefs Claus-Peter Lumpp, Harald Wohlfahrt and Jorg Sackmann have seven Michelin stars. Where else in the world can you eat so well – and in such beautiful surroundings?
But many visitors like to get back to nature in this unspoiled landscape. If you like hiking, this is the perfect place, because hiking as a recreation was “invented” here. It was in 1900 that the 285-km/175-mile Westweg was mapped out, and this trail is still followed today. But, now it is one of a well-signposted network of walking paths that criss-cross the region.
If you prefer to cycle, there is nowhere better. Choose from country lanes or mountain-biking trails; spend a morning pedaling round a calm lake; take a few days to cycle from inn to inn. Wherever you go, villages welcome walkers and cyclists. Baiersbronn, for example, has a special hiking information center to help you choose the best trail for your experience and energy level. In the surrounding hills, you can walk from one hut to another, taking in the wide-ranging views. If that sounds like too much effort, have a go on an “e-bike,” an electric bike that helps you up the hills and speeds you on your way along the beautiful valleys. Whichever way you choose, you can stop at an inn for a cold beer, a glass of local wine or a glass of chilled apple juice.
Another way to explore the Black Forest is by car. In 2011, SouthWest Germany celebrated the 125th birthday of the automobile, thanks to the inventive genius of Carl Benz and Gottfried Daimler. For a real treat, rent a classic Mercedes-Benz or a top-of-the-range Porsche (both are made in SouthWest Germany). Then drive the Black Forest Mountain Road (Schwarzwaldhochstrasse). At about 3,000 feet/900m, the 44-mile/70km stretch of the B 500 road runs along the ridges of a low mountain range. Along the way, you can look up at the 4,900-ft/1,493m Feldberg, the highest point in the Black Forest, and down into some spectacular ravines.
Popular destinations include clear, clean lakes that are easy on the eye and surrounded by meadows and forest. Set high in the Black Forest (2,800 ft/850 m), Lake Titisee-Neustadt is a popular summer resort, where only electric motorboats are allowed on the lake. On Lake Schluchsee, the Black Forest’s largest lake, you can have a go at everything from sailing and windsurfing to rowing and canoeing. Again, only electric boats are allowed. And everyone enjoys the Aqua Fun water park with its giant slide.
Southwest Germany is known for its long tradition of cheerful hospitality, offering high standards and variety. Looking to be pampered? Choose a five-star, luxury hotel. On a budget? Then we have plenty of cheerful, wallet-friendly, family-run guesthouses. Going on a family holiday or meeting up with friends? Then an apartment might fit the bill. Or get to know the locals by staying at a farmhouse – children are fascinated see how a farm works!
Throughout the summer there are traditional festivals, where local women still proudly wear the Bollenhut, the distinctive hat with big red fluffy balls that is the symbol of the Black Forest. Another symbol is the cuckoo clock. The first cuckoo clocks were made in the Black Forest back in the mid-18th century. Today, you can still watch a clock being made, buy one (it really is the perfect gift) and see the world’s largest cuckoo clock in Triberg.
Europa-Park: Germany's biggest theme park
But the Black Forest is not a living museum. It is also the home of Europa-Park. In Rust, near Freiburg, this is Germany’s biggest theme park. Family fun is the main dish on the daily menu, here, with a dozen areas themed on European countries. Among the 100 different attractions and international shows are thrill rides, such as “Poseidon”, a water coaster that transports you to the world of ancient Greece, and “Matterhorn-Blitz” that zooms along the tracks in Switzerland. New this summer is an area devoted to English and Austrian fairy tales, with an enchanted forest, as well as “Piccolo Mondo”, a dark ride round Italy. At the end of the day, stay on in Europa-Park, at one of the 4-star hotels with a Mediterranean theme.
Eat, drink and be merry!
The Black Forest is famous for three delicious products: Black Forest Cake/Gateau, Black Forest Ham, and locally-distilled schnapps.
Famous around the world, Black Forest Cake (Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte) is a revelation when you eat it in the Black Forest. The real thing is so much better! Think layers of chocolate cake, real cream, sour cherries and a hint of Kirsch (cherry liqueur). It is light, not too sweet and perfect with coffee.
Then there is Black Forest Ham (Schwarzwälder Schinken). Again, the flavors are delicate, the slices are thin, and with fresh bread and beer, there is nothing better after a hike through the woods.
Farmers in the Black Forest have longed distilled their surplus orchard fruits and forest berries to make schnapps. Often offered at the end of a meal in a restaurant, a tiny glass of what is like a fruit brandy helps digestion. Look for Obstler, made from apples and pears, and Zwetschgenwasser, from plums. The most famous and most special is Kirschwasser, made from cherries – and essential in that authentic Black Forest cake.