Explore Germany’s Black Forest

Oct 1, 2014
2014 / September 2014

German forests are different. As you follow the impeccably maintained trails among the dappled shadows of ancient trees, listening for wild animals scuttling through the undergrowth and watching for birds flitting between branches, you are not merely experiencing a wilderness. You are wending your way deep into the cultural heart of Germany. It all started in places like this. Germany’s art, its music, its myths and legends, its Gothic architecture and its sense of national identity were forged within the forests.

One forest dwarfs them all. The Schwarzwald — the Black Forest — occupies a huge, mountainous, rectangular swath of southwestern Germany, enfolded by the borders with France and Switzerland. For outsiders, it is a place synonymous with picturesque spa towns and the famous chocolate and cherry cake. For Germans, there exist additional layers of spiritual and national significance. For everyone, the region offers a wealth of year-round recreational options.

The Black Forest has been a popular vacation spot for at least 2,000 years. The Celts and Romans were among the first to exploit the benefits of the natural hot springs in the northern part of the forest. Today, travelers can visit the remarkably preserved ruins of a Roman bathhouse beneath the 130-year-old Friedrichsbad spa in Baden-Baden.

Despite the long tradition for taking the waters here, it wasn’t until the 19th century that Europe’s elite began to discover the area’s attractions, and Baden-Baden established itself as the continent’s premier spa town. (Baden means “baths”; the double name refers both to the town and to the old state of Baden in which it was located.)

In its Belle Époque heyday, Baden-Baden was the spa town of choice for monarchs such as England’s Queen Victoria and Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm I, composers such as Brahms and Berlioz, and writers such as Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. Although less exclusive today, the echoes of its illustrious past survive, especially in its historic spas; in the 200-year-old casino, which inspired Dostoyevsky’s The Gambler; and in the finest of its palatial hotels, the magnificent Brenners Park-Hotel.

Baden-Baden provides the most upscale of potential bases from which to explore the Black Forest. For all the high culture offered by the town, genuine wilderness lies only a stone’s throw away from genteel streets. The town, literally shaped by its natural surroundings, stretches out, long and thin, within a valley. (If you’re arriving by train, bear in mind the constricting geography requires a 15-minute bus journey to reach the center.)

The flipside of the town’s geography: Many easily accessible walking trails into the surrounding forested hills provide a wide range of convenient hiking options. The highest point above Baden-Baden is the 2,191-foot Mount Merkur, laced with wonderfully scenic trails. Reaching the summit need not be hard work: Take the Merkur Funicular Railway (one of the world’s steepest) to the top and then stroll down at your leisure.

The world’s largest cuckoo clock in Triberg © Alexandre Fagundes De Fagundes | Dreamstime.com

The world’s largest cuckoo clock in Triberg © Alexandre Fagundes De Fagundes | Dreamstime.com

The little town of Triberg is a popular staging post for the central part of the Black Forest. At the height of summer, it’s often overrun with coach tours, and traffic jams the narrow approach roads. For the tourist hordes, the town’s main claim to fame is the cuckoo clock. (In the film The Third Man, Orson Welles famously attributed the cuckoo clock to Switzerland, but in fact it originated in this corner of the Black Forest in the 18th century.)

Many of the local shops sell handcrafted clocks. Two rival shops at opposite ends of town boast the “World’s Biggest Cuckoo Clock”; visit both and make up your own mind. Cuckoo clocks feature among the many items on display at Triberg’s Schwarzwaldmuseum (Black Forest Museum), which provides an overview of the region’s cultural heritage.

If the tourist bustle gets too much, you can leave it all behind by heading off into the surrounding wilderness; you won’t have to walk far before it’s just you and the forest. One of the shorter trails out of Triberg takes you to Germany’s highest waterfall, Triberg Falls, which cascades in seven steps down a total drop of 524 feet. At the falls you’ll be back among the coach parties, but they’ll soon be left behind if you tackle one of the many long-distance hikes.

It is claimed modern hiking began in the Black Forest, and it remains a walker’s paradise. The trails offer good signage (though prepare to convert distances from kilometers into miles), and excellent maps are widely available. You can also arrange with the local tourist offices to hike without luggage; your gear will be taken ahead of you to successive overnight stops.

Parkhotel Wehrle in Triberg, a popular stopping-off point for long-distance hikers, offers a luxurious spa in which you can pamper your aching legs and feet. The hotel was Ernest Hemingway’s favorite when he visited the Black Forest, though you can be sure that even if it had a spa in those days, Papa wouldn’t have been seen near it.

If you want to experience the beauty of the region without the blisters, take a ride on the Black Forest Railway; the station at Triberg sits roughly at the midway point, providing the choice of going north to Offenburg or south to Singen. As it breathtakingly negotiates mountains and valleys, the railway passes through 39 tunnels, climbing and descending altitudes within a range of more than 2,000 feet. Another scenic route is the Murg Valley Railway, which sedately meanders through the western part of the forest, close to the border with France.

The city of Freiburg in the Black Forest © Pere Sanz | Dreamstime.com

The city of Freiburg in the Black Forest © Pere Sanz | Dreamstime.com

The lively university city of Freiburg im Breisgau offers the best base for exploring the western forest. It fulfills every preconception you might have of the archetypal medieval German city (though much of it had to be reconstructed after World War II).

The interior of the city’s great cathedral, the 13th-century Freiburg Minster, gives a vivid sense of how Gothic architecture took its inspiration from the forest. Treelike columns rise to spectacular heights on both sides of the nave, spreading out and interlocking overhead like a forest canopy. Weird creatures carved into the cathedral’s stonework prove often as hard to spot as the shy denizens of the forest. On the exterior, numerous functional gargoyles channel rainwater out of their mouths or, in some cases, out of the other end.

The mischievous sense of humor in evidence on the façade of Freiburg Minster is characteristic of the Black Forest. Smiles and laughter seem to break out easily here, though even if you are proficient in German, you might not always understand the joke. Many of the locals, especially in the east of the forest, speak the Swabian dialect, which can be impenetrable even for Germans. A national advertising campaign for the region used typically self-deprecating humor in its slogan: “We can do anything. Except speak German.”

The dialect superficially sets the Black Forest apart. But as you explore its beautiful towns and villages and roam through meadows and shaded forest, you begin to get a sense of the extent to which this wilderness defined the German identity, threading the country together both culturally and geographically.

It is here, near the little city of Furtwangen im Schwarzwald, that a natural spring seeps up from the ground, giving rise to the Breg River, the first tributary of Europe’s second-longest river. This, confirms a plaque above the bubbling water, is the source of the River Danube. The water will flow 1,785 miles from the Black Forest to the Black Sea. Not far away, another plaque marks the watershed between the Danube and the Rhine.

Just as modest streams have flowed out of the Black Forest, joining other streams to become rivers, joining other rivers to become great waterways, so the region’s cultural traditions fed the collective heritage of Germany. Here we are, at the source.

Black Forest Info to Go

Within Germany, Stuttgart Airport is the most convenient staging post for the northern part of the Black Forest, while the southern part is easily reached from EuroAirport Basel-Mulhouse-Freiberg, located in France and serving cities in Switzerland (Basel), France (Mulhouse) and Germany (Freiberg). Travelers also find good connections to the region from major German cities by rail and road.

Read more about Black Forest cake.

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