WHAT IS IT, AND WHERE IS IT?
WHAT IS IT, AND WHERE IS IT?
The Schwarzwald (Black Forest) comprises a swathe of deep-green woodland draped across the granite and sandstone mountains of Baden-Württemberg in south-west Germany. The Black Forest stretches north from Basel in Switzerland for about 160km to Pforzheim, with its western edge defined by the Rhine, and extends east for about 40km.
The forested slopes and shady valleys once gave rise to legends about mysterious beasts, wicked witches and enigmatic lake nymphs, and provided the setting for many of Grimm's fairy tales. Today, the woods and hills are celebrated for their unspoilt beauty and numerous opportunities for outdoor activities.
The Mannheim-Basel railway, which runs parallel with the Rhine and dates back to 1847, opened up the area. Twenty-six years later, some miraculous engineering created the dramatic Schwarzwaldbahn from Offenburg, cutting right across the Black Forest to Villingen, near the source of the Danube; the track almost doubles back on itself to climb 448m in 27km. Ever since, travellers have come in search of romantic scenery and dramatic views.
WHEN SHOULD I GO?
The Black Forest is a year-round destination - it is in the area of the country that gets most sunshine, and gets thoroughly doused in snow most winters. Almost every town has its Christmas market from Advent onwards, when traders gather in market squares selling traditional presents, and hot glühwein and gingerbread make you forget the cold. From mid-January to the beginning of Lent, carnival, or fasnet, reigns, resulting in long street processions where dressing-up and revelling is taken very seriously. However, late summer and autumn are also perfect times to visit when wine festivals are common around Kaiserstuhl.
WHAT CAN I DO THERE?
The Black Forest is a hiker's heaven, and practically every corner is worth exploring. The region is criss-crossed by well-signposted trails that allow walkers to reach areas and vistas often inaccessible by car, including castle ruins and waterfalls. The Black Forest also boasts several long-distance hiking trails, the most celebrated of which is the Westweg, running the length of the forest from Pforzheim to Basel via Mummelsee, Hausach, Titesee and Feldbach. It covers 280km, and makes for a fine fortnight's walk for a moderately fit person, with a day's travelling at each end.
Also heading south from Pforzheim, the Mittelweg passes Freudenstadt and Schluchsee en route to Waldshut (233km, about nine days), while the more manageable Querweg Gengenbach to Alpirsbach trail covers 50km in three days.
The organisation that manages these routes, the Schwarzwaldverein (00 49 761 38 05 30, www.schwarzwaldverein.de) can provide information on itineraries, accommodation and "luggage-free" trips, as well as maps.
Several UK companies organise Black Forest walking tours, including World Walks (01242 254353, www.worldwalks.com), which offers circular walking holidays from Triberg from £270 for five nights including B&B accommodation but excluding flights.
Walking in Germany (0870 740 4963, www.walking-in-germany.co.uk) offers various walking holidays. The Clockmaker's Trail provides 10 days walking through the Black Forest including a visit to the German Clock Museum. The price of £717 per person includes B&B accommodation and rail travel via Paris to Triberg. The Barden Red Wine Trail takes you on a six-day walk through woodland and vineyards from Lauf to Kappelrodeck.
CAN I GET ON MY BIKE?
Cycling is big in the Black Forest: where you have mountains, you have long valleys. Bicycle touring is encouraged via an impressive number of signposted biking trails, some of which cross the borders into Switzerland and the French region of Alsace. Bikes are available to rent in many railway stations, as well as at the Mountainbike-Fun-Park in Todtnau (00 49 7661 3 18 37 63). For information on bike routes and places to stay visit www.germany-tourism.de/biking.
WHERE CAN I DRIFT AWAY?
Head for the lakes. Titesee, Schluchsee and Mummelsee are the main centres for watersports. Schluchsee is the largest, with facilities for windsurfing, sailing and scuba-diving. Less technically demanding, but equally good fun, pedal-boats can also be rented. Swimming is popular with the hardy, but if mountain temperatures aren't to your taste, there's a heated outdoor pool with facilities for children.
Titesee, 10km away, is smaller, but has enough room for windsurfing, rowing boats and pedal-boats, and easy walks around the lake. Further north, legend has it that Mummelsee (south of Baden-Baden on the Black Forest Hochstrasse) is home to water nymphs, who emerge for a few hours of freedom each night. For mere mortals, boats are available to rent.
DOES THE FUN STOP IN WINTER?
Not at all. The Black Forest has been attracting downhill and cross-country skiers for more than a century. Many of the ski-stations are clustered around Feldberg; this is the region's highest peak, at a modest 1,493m, which explains why cross-country skiing is more popular than downhill. The longest trails are to be found at Baiersbronn, Bretinau, Freudenstadt-Kniebis, Bad Peterstal-Griesbach and St Blasien-Menzenschwand. Schonach, in the central Black Forest, and Belchen, in the south, are linked by a 100km cross-country trail.
Downhill skiing is concentrated around Feldberg and Todnau, the highest summits, with slopes of various degrees of difficulty. Snowboarding and snow-hiking are also popular. The biggest resorts are Baiersbronn, Feldberg, "Ferienland im Schwarzwald" (grouping together five stations), Titesee-Neustadt and Todnauer Ferienland.
THIS ALL SOUNDS FAR TOO ACTIVE
Well how about a spot of culture? The SchwarzwaldCard provides free admission to more than 100 destinations and attractions throughout the region, including museums, cable-cars, boat trips and spa resorts. The card is valid for three days between 5 April and 2 November. It costs €35 (£25) for adults, €24 (£17) for 4-11-year-olds, and €110 (£80) for a family card covering two adults and up to three under-18s. You can buy it at most tourist offices and some hotels.
If you are likely to be exploring museums in the Black Forest and the neighbouring regions of Alsace and Basel, consider the Upper Rhine Museums Pass, giving access to more than 150 museums, castles and gardens. The short-term pass (valid for any four days in one month) costs €25 (£18), and an annual pass is €53 (£37).
You could also chill out in a sauna. The Romans were the first to identify the invigorating powers of Baden-Baden's hot springs, believed to counteract the effects of gout and rheumatism. In the 17th century, Bad Peterstal began bottling its water, and in the 19th century, the Black Forest's mineral waters attracted the aristocratic (Queen Victoria threw off her mourning to enjoy several holidays here) or socially ambitious.
Others went in a desperate search for health - Anton Chekhov, exhausted by tuberculosis, died in Badenweiler in 1904.
Today, the region is home to Germany's densest concentration of spas, visited for leisure as well as health purposes by Germans of all ages. There's even a Black Forest Spa Route, linking spa towns from Pforzheim to Freudenstadt. The oldest spa in the region is in Titesee, but the less traditional outdoor pools at Baden-Baden's Caracalla and Freudenstadt's Panorama Bad draw larger crowds. Many spa buildings, such as those in Bad Wildbad or the Friedrichsbad in Baden-Baden, are magnificently tiled confections of cupolas and stained-glass windows, where bathers pass from sauna to swimming pool under colonnaded corridors.
The Upper Rhine Thermal Museum (00 49 7633 982612) at Bad Bellingen traces the history of "taking the waters" from Roman times onwards; it opens only on Wednesdays and Sundays, 2-5pm, and costs €1.50 (£1).
I'M A TOWNIE - WHAT IS THERE FOR ME?
If you want high-intensity cities, go elsewhere. But from Karlsruhe in the north, via Baden-Baden, Offenburg and Freudenstadt, to Freiburg in the south, the region is dotted with historic towns that reward a visit. Baden-Baden is famous for the casino where Dostoevsky learnt enough about addiction to write The Gambler; it is also home to the Festspielhaus, one of the busiest concert halls in Baden-Württemberg, with big-name performers regularly on the bill (00 49 7221 275233, www.festspielhaus.de). The many boutiques cater to the town's prosperous clientele.
Karlsruhe's Kunsthalle, at Hans-Thomas-Strasse 2-6 (00 49 721 926 335), is home to works by Rubens, Rembrandt and Henry Moore, as well as a large collection of German artists from Matthias Grünewald to Max Ernst. It opens 10am-5pm, from Tuesday to Friday, and 10am-6pm at weekends and costs €4 (£2.80) Kaiserstrasse is the main shopping street, and one of the region's busiest.
Freudenstadt's unusual layout was designed in 1599 by a duke of Württemberg, and the original massive market square remains at its core. The main tourist routes from the north come through here. However, the real capital of the Black Forest is Freiburg: a charming university town situated under the Schlossberg, it is built around a münster (cathedral) that somehow survived extensive Allied bombing in the Second World War. The Münsterplatz has been painstakingly restored, and its colourful Kaufhaus (a 16th-century merchants' hall) provides a fitting backdrop to the daily markets.
ANY INTERESTING ARCHITECTURE AMONG THE TREES?
Maulbronn Abbey, a Unesco World Heritage Site just north of Pforzheim, began life as a Cistercian centre in 1147, when 12 Alsatian monks sought seclusion in the Salzach valley. Since then, it has served as a Protestant monastery and a theological seminary (the philosopher Hermann Hesse worked here), but the complex has remained largely intact, a fine example of a well-preserved medieval monastery. The architecture includes various forms of Roman and Gothic styles. The abbey (00 49 7043 92 66 10) opens 9am-5.30pm daily (from November to February, it opens 9.30am-5pm daily, closed Monday). It costs €4.50 (£3) adults and €2.20 (£1.50) concessions.
Further south, the small resort of St Blasien is dominated by its huge and beautiful Klosterkirche, an 18th-century neo-classical cathedral modelled on the Roman Pantheon. For once, the stone is white, not red, and its dome is one of the largest in Europe.
The baroque Benedictine Abbey in St Peter, constructed in the mid-18th century, was once a necropolis for the dukes of Zähringen. Its library (Klosterbibliothek, 00 49 7660 91010) has a curved gallery, a vaulting painted ceiling and stucco walls; you can take a guided one-hour tour on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday for €3 for adults.
ISN'T THIS CUCKOO CLOCK COUNTRY?
Yes. Beyond the rows of tourist souvenirs, usually constructed in the Far East, there lies real tradition and craftsmanship. The Black Forest was once a centre for clock-making in Germany, which was the major industry in the region from the 18th century onwards.
The Deutsches Uhrenmuseum (German Clock Museum, 00 49 77 23 920117; www.deutsches-uhrenmuseum.de; open 9am-6pm daily from April to October and 10am-5pm from November to March) in Furtwangen traces this history, and has a dazzling selection of richly decorated astronomical clocks, pendulums, watches and clocks from far afield.
Schwenningen (at the source of the river Neckar) was once the world's largest clock-making town, and has two museums to prove it. The Uhrenindustriemuseum (00 49 7720 38044), housed in a disused factory, demonstrates the production side; it opens 10am to noon and 2-6pm from Tuesday to Sunday and costs €3/£2 adults and €1.50/£1 concessions, children under six are free. The Uhrenmuseum (00 49 77 20 82 23 71) has typical examples of Black Forest workmanship; it opens 10am to noon, 2-6pm daily except Monday; adults €2.50.
At least two villages, Triberg and Schonach, claim to house the world's largest cuckoo clock. Locally built cuckoo clocks are on sale, but their cost reflects the artistry that goes into construction of the genuine article.
HOW DO I GET THERE?
The best approach for the southern Black Forest is to fly from Heathrow, London City, Birmingham or Manchester to Basel on Swiss (0845 601 0956, www.swiss.com); direct buses take an hour to reach Freiburg. British Airways (0870 850 9 850, www.ba.com) and Lufthansa (0845 773 7747, www.lufthansa.com) both fly from Heathrow to Stuttgart and Frankfurt. From Frankfurt airport, travel time by fast train to Baden-Baden is about 90 minutes, while from Stuttgart's main station to Karlsruhe takes about 45 minutes. Alternatively, Ryanair (0871 246 0000, www.ryanair.com) flies twice-daily to Strasbourg, often with fares as low as £80 return. From Strasbourg's airport, a complicated but quick bus/tram/train link takes you across the Rhine to Offenburg. By rail, the obvious approach is also via Strasbourg; Eurostar trains from London run to the Gare du Nord in Paris. A 10-minute walk takes you to Gare de l'Est, from which Strasbourg is a four-hour ride.
HOW DO I GET AROUND?
Trains and buses allow visitors to reach all the main towns and many smaller villages. The Baden-Württemberg-Ticket, €21/£15, enables up to five people to travel together on trains and Deutsche Bahn buses all day from 9am, Monday to Friday, and at any time at weekends.
Some tourist railway lines, usually along attractive routes, are served by old-fashioned carriages pulled by steam engines. Examples include the Waldenburg-Liestal route, which boasts the narrowest gauge in Europe (75cm), Ettlingen-Bad Herrenalb (the Albtalbahn) and the Dampfzug Chanderli, between Kandern and Basel (runs every Sunday from late May to October, 00 49 7626 97 23 56).
For drivers, the main route through the region is the rapid E35 motorway, but a variety of sign-posted scenic routes such as the Schwarzwald-Hochstrasse (60km, Baden-Baden to Freudenstadt), Schwarzwald Tälerstrasse (100km, the Murg and Kinzig valleys) or Badische Weinstrasse (160km, a wine route from Baden-Baden to Weil am Rhein) offer calmer driving along picturesque roads.
Cable-cars can help you access hill-tops and the start of hiking or cross-country trails.
WHERE CAN I FIND OUT MORE?
The German National Tourist Office. Brochures, including information on accommodation, can be ordered on 09001 600100, other enquires should be made on 020-7317 0908. ( www.germany-tourism.de ). In Freiburg contact Tourismus Service GmbH, Yorckstrasse 23, D-79110 Freiburg (00 49 761 89 79 79 79) or check out www.schwarzwald-tourist-info.de
Additional research by Daniel McAllister
Greatest hits - the top three sights
Don't miss these attractions:
1. The Wutach Gorge, a national reserve for more than 60 years. With spectacular granite cliffs rising to 50m, this canyon is popular with canoeists and hikers.
2. Triberg and its waterfall. At 163m, it's Germany's highest, and tumbles down over seven cascades.
3. The Kinzig valley, including Gengenbach and Schiltach, two picturesque medieval towns with half-timbered houses and old fortifications.
Let them eat gateau - what's on the menu?
Local specialities include trout, smoked ham, smoked pork shoulder (schäufele), asparagus pancakes (spargel und pfannkuchen) and, of course, sauerkraut. If you're on the Baden Wine Route between Baden-Baden and Weil am Rhein in spring or autumn, try to find a strausswirtschaft, where wine-growers serve their own wine to accompany local dishes. Riesling, traminer, spätburgunder and pinot gris are the main varieties. If rustic fare doesn't appeal, the region also has several gourmet restaurants. And, yes, this is the best place to sample Black Forest gateau (or Schwarzwalder kirschtorte) as it was meant to taste: moist layers of sponge, fresh cream and maraschino, topped with generous shavings of dark chocolate.
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