As the setting of countless Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales, the Black Forest happily plays up to its image as a land of cuckoo clocks, cherry gâteaux, outlandish traditional garb, hefty half-timbered farmhouses and hill upon hill of dark evergreen forest. But even brief exploration soon reveals more of the character of a region that’s part of the state of Baden-Württemburg but was shaped as much by its history as a long-disputed borderland between Germany, France and Switzerland – and where something of each is in evidence.
Since Roman times this series of rounded granite summits, which topographically forms a counterpart to France’s Vosges on the other, western, side of the Rhine Valley, has been a border region. The Romans found it harsh and rather impenetrable and the region took centuries to populate and even then was considered an oddly backward part of Germany. Inevitably the Black Forest first rose to commercial prominence for its timber, and forestry naturally spawned woodwork – giving farmers something to do in the winter – and so the famous cuckoo-clock industry, the associated precision engineering, and the manufacture of musical instruments followed. All these continue to provide jobs, though the regional mainstay is now tourism, which continues year-round thanks to skiing and spa facilities. So you won’t find yourself alone exploring this attractive region, but escaping the crowds at the various hotspots is easy, particularly if you’re keen to explore on foot or by bike. Relative to its fame, the Black Forest region is not terribly big – about 150km long and maybe 50km wide – and so easily explored by car in just a few days, though of course that rather misses the chance to drop down a gear in one of Germany’s most treasured regions where good scenery is matched by many time-honoured traditions.
Dozens of attractive slow-paced small towns and villages make touring a delight, but perhaps the best way to explore is to base yourself in one of the two largest towns and strike out from there. The most genteel base is Baden-Baden, a grand old nineteenth-century spa town in the north that specializes in dignified recuperation and pampering. Bad Wildbad, is another smaller, less expensive alternative in the Northern Black Forest, which is otherwise known for its attractive marked drives, particularly the scenic Schwarzwaldhochstrasse, or the Badische Weinstrasse, which travels the range’s foothills through wine country. Both drives can be used to access the attractive Kinzig Valley which, along with the adjoining Gutach Valley, is considered the most quintessential and traditional Black Forest area. South of here, the attractive and upbeat university town of Freiburg dominates. Exploring its usually sun-soaked narrow streets is fun, but its main attraction is as a handy base from which to explore the entire Southern Black Forest. Deep valleys are flanked by rounded peaks like the Feldberg that tops out at 1493m, and include many minor ski and lake resorts.Read More
The cuckoo clock
The cuckoo clock
The origins of the cuckoo clock are uncertain. Though the first known description comes from Saxony in the mid-sixteenth century, it’s thought they were probably first made in Bohemia. Certainly it was only about a hundred years later – in the 1730s – that cuckoo clocks began to be made in the Black Forest, with Schönwald near Triberg being the site of the earliest workshops. The quality of the craftsmanship and engineering quickly captured the imagination and the European market, and the cuckoo clock has roosted here ever since. Local shops sell a bewildering array, but as the over-eager shop assistants will inform you, it all boils down to three designs – the chalet, the hunting theme and the simple carved cuckoo. The technology in each is much the same, clocks with small pine cones dangling below them require daily winding while those with larger cones need only weekly attention. There’s more labour-saving on hand, thanks to the digital revolution which hasn’t been allowed to bypass this traditional craft: some models are battery- and quartz-driven, and play recordings of an actual cuckoo on the hour; others are even light sensitive so both you and the bird can get some sleep. Prices vary according to the size of the clock. Good-sized clocks can be bought for under €100, but for a real talking-piece you’ll need to pay almost twice that – and some creations fetch thousands. The choice is overwhelming, competition keen and almost all shops offer shipping services. See also the Deutsches Uhrenmuseum.
One shop you might want to visit Uhren-Park (Schonachbach 27; uhren-park.de) on the main road 2.7km south of Triberg, which charges a €1.50 fee to see what it claims is the largest cuckoo clock in the world – though there’s a rival claimant on the other side of town. Easter to Oct Mon–Sat 9am–6pm, Sun 10am–6pm; Nov to Easter Mon–Sat 9am–5.30pm, Sun 11am–5pm.