This year, for my birthday, Marco took me to the Schwarzwald (Black Forest) in Germany for a long weekend. We rented a little Fiat 500 with a sunroof, and set off on Friday the 3rd October for our forest escape. We were incredibly lucky to have good weather (crisp, cool, clear, and sunny) the whole weekend, which allowed us lots of outdoor exploring opportunities. Unfortunately I’d hurt my back a few days beforehand, so I was unable to do any strenuous hiking, but we did lots of walking, and saw plenty of things for one weekend! I’d go back in a heartbeat.
I fell swiftly and deeply in love with the Schwarzwald region, with its kilometres of thick pine and spruce forest, winding and sometimes terrifying mountain passes, small towns nestled in the hills, squat and imposing farm houses, lazy mountain cows, and rich folklore. I had read a few Brother’s Grimm tales before leaving, and I was secretly delighted by the traditional wooden homes on the edge of the forest – I imagined Hansel and Gretel huddled before a wood-burner in autumn, fearful of the dangers in the woods that loomed behind their small house.
Although we had only a few days in the Schwarzwald, I managed to get a good feeling for the area, and I can say that it’s now my absolute favourite part of Germany (with Bavaria coming in at a very close second!).
A weekend in the forest
3rd Oct 2014
We set off from Frankfurt am Main in the morning, travelling south towards Baiersbronn, where we were to stay. I’d seen several places on the map to stop off along the way, the first of which was the picturesque university town of Heidelberg.
I’d stopped off briefly in Heidelberg as part of my Contiki tour, so I had memories of the pretty streets and the castle perched up upon the hill above the old town. This time, we strolled down the main shopping street, and crossed the bridge for a lovely view of the Neckar River and the valley cutting through the Odenwald.
The most beautiful thing about Heidelberg, in my opinion, is the Old Bridge. With the autumn colours, blue skies, and crisp breeze, it was wonderful to walk along the bridge, enjoying the view. You can see the river winding through the valley in the distance, and the castle on the hill above the town.
On the side of one of the supporting columns of the bridge, there’s a number of marks measuring the high water marks over the years, most of them recording flooding. The most recent flood occurred last year (2013), although it was nowhere near as severe as previous floods seem to have been
Leaving Heidelberg, we drove off towards Baden-Baden, our second scheduled stop before continuing on to Baiersbronn. As you travel south into the Schwarzwald, you can see the scenery change before your eyes. The forests are thicker, the roads are windier, and it feels like you’re going back in time.
We decided to drive through Baden-Baden with a quick stop at the Altes Schloss – a lovely 12th century castle perched atop the hills above Baden-Baden. I’ve seen a few castles in my time, and this has to be my absolute favourite. Neuschwanstein may be grand, and the Tower of London may be steeped in history, but the Altes Schloss in the northern Schwarzwald simply enchanted me. It is built on several levels, right into the slope of the hill, and it’s quite a walk up many stairs to reach the top. The view from the upper levels is definitely worth it, and I’d recommend spending at least 2 hours here for exploring and soaking up the atmosphere.
My favourite part of this castle was the courtyard on the first level. It looked like something straight out of a Disney movie – windows looking over the vast valley below, large fireplaces and wells, creepers on the walls, the lot.
We then took the scenic Schwarzwald Hochstrasse (Black Forest High Road) onwards to Baiersbronn. We stopped along the way to buy food, and happened across the famous Mummelsee.
The Mummelsee is one of seven glacial lakes in the Schwarzwald region known as the “Dark Eyes of the Black Forest”, and it is the highest and deepest of these “cirque” lakes. This particular lake is steeped in mystery, and there are various tales surrounding its formation and the happenings beneath its dark waters. The Brother’s Grimm even visited the Mummelsee on their travels when collecting folklore!
One version of the legend is that there was once a monastery in the place of the lake. The nuns of the monastery would help the locals in nearby villages by minding their children and tending their animals. However, one of the nuns fell in love with a boy from the village, and this is said to have caused black water to well up from the ground, engulfing the monastery. It apparently still stands at the bottom of the lake, and the nuns are now mermaids, watched over by the jealous King of the Mummelsee. They can be seen frolicking in the light of a full moon, the only time that they rise to the surface of the lake.
4th Oct 2014
We reached Baiersbronn at night, after getting a little lost, and went straight to sleep. When we woke up, we were delighted to see the valley and forest-clad hills, and the red roofed houses all clustered together.
Before setting off to Freiburg, Marco wanted to check out the ski-lift in Baiersbronn. I had never been on one, and I was honestly pretty scared! I finally decided to do it, and we paid a few Euros to ride up and down the mountain on the lift. The lift never stops – you have to stand in position and sit down as it comes up behind you, which I found quite amusing. With only a small metal bar to keep me in my seat, I sat there with legs dangling, watching the ground slowly get further and further away.
Next stop – Freiburg im Breisgau, one of the most popular cities in the Schwarzwald region.
Freiburg was nice as a day trip, but it felt too busy and crowded for me. I just wanted to get back into the quiet villages and wander down thick forest paths.
We arrived back at Baiersbronn at sunset, and enjoyed some crackers, cheese, olive tapenade, and South African wine outside on our balcony.
5th Oct 2015
Day trip – Triberg! The drive there was wonderful, with beautiful forests, cuckoo clock shops, tiny towns, and big farmhouses surrounded by sheep, goats, horses, or cows.
We finally arrived in Triberg after a few hours, ready to see the famous waterfalls. I finally felt like I was in the “real” Black Forest – the town is surrounded by impressive trees, and the houses are literally built on the side of the hill.
The Triberg waterfalls were simply incredible. You walk quite far, up and up and up, for fantastic views of the falls and the valley below. Many famous people have visited the falls, including Ernest Hemingway!
I absolutely loved being in the forest – there’s something about the smell, the shafts of light shattered by outstretched branches, the eerie feeling of being so very small in a world of giant trees.
The forest smell is what I love most – a mix of decaying leaves, growing trees, damp earth, autumn rain – the smell of intermingling life and death in nature. It seems strange, delighting in the death of trees, but at the same time feeling sombre and small.
After visiting the waterfalls, we were feeling a little cold and weary so we went to a nearby cafe for coffee and cake – kaffee und kuchen. I had to try the Black Forest cake, which was good but not exactly mind-blowing. The cherries were nice and boozy, but the sponge cake was pretty average. I suppose it’s just cake from a tourist cafe – not a “real” version baked by someone’s oma 😉
6th Oct 2014
My birthday! Marco suggested we spend the day in Strasbourg on the last day of our trip, so we left Baiersbronn and slowly made our way out of the Black Forest. I sorely regret not filling my lungs with forest air once last time before leaving.
It was a fairly long drive to get to Strasbourg, but the novelty of “just popping into France” proved to be highly motivating! Strasbourg is an incredibly pretty town with a rich history, and it’s especially fascinating with its dual German and French culture. We arrived without any plans, and so proceeded to walk along the river in the direction of the cathedral.
One of the highlights of our visit was Strasbourg’s Notre Dame Cathedral. This architectural gem has to be seen in person for maximum impact, as it’s truly imposing and the attention to detail is staggering.
We didn’t have an agenda to stick to, so we walked around at a leisurely pace and just took everything in. I especially loved walking along the river, as it reminded me of Paris.
After several hours of walking, we were completely spent, and so we started the long drive back. I was sad to leave, but I had a truly memorable birthday weekend!.
I’d love to visit the Black Forest in winter, and again in summer for hiking and mountain biking. For now, I’ll just have to dream of that intoxicating forest smell, and read a few more Brother’s Grimm tales.