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.
The smart and dignified grande dame of German spas, BADEN-BADEN lies cradled in the palm of idyllic and gentle wooded hills, 42km south of Karlsruhe. In the nineteenth century this was the St Tropez of high society and something of this era’s privilege survives in the dusty elegance of its villas, hotels and boutiques and in the manicured gardens where well-groomed socialites promenade. The absence of any heavyweight sights, moreover, helps make it a near perfect setting for a recuperative weekend.
Baden margraves built today’s thermal baths in 1810 around the same springs that once lured Roman bathers – in particular Emperor Caracalla – nearly two millennia earlier. The baths were a hit in nineteenth-century Germany, so architect Friedrich Weinbrenner designed a complementary Neoclassical spa quarter. Some thirty years later, dapper Parisian impresario Jacques Bénazet added a casino, catapulting Baden-Baden to an elite playground that lured an international who’s-who to play, promenade and soothe their rheumatic joints: Tolstoy, Strauss, Queen Victoria, Kaiser Wilhelm I, Dostoyevsky, Bismarck, Tchaikovsky, Brahms and the Vanderbilts all visited. More recent visitors have included Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Victoria Beckham. Mark Twain came too, but had mixed feelings, describing it as “an inane town, filled with sham and petty fraud and snobbery”. The town emerged unscathed from World War II and now effortlessly blends its halcyon days with modern-day pampering.
The high life: hot-air ballooning in Baden-Baden
As a premier magnet for the well-heeled, it’s maybe no surprise that Baden-Baden has Europe’s largest fleet of hot-air balloons. So if you’ve struck it lucky at the casino, you might like to splurge on a two-hour champagne breakfast flight along the Rhine Valley between the Black Forest and the Vosges for €253 per person with Ballooning 2000 (07223 600 02, ballooning2000.de).
When to choose your hat carefully
Baden-Baden’s social highlight of the year is the August Iffezheim races, Germany’s Ascot, which has been going strong since 1858 and encompasses two events: the Frühjahrsmeeting over the last week of May; and the grander Grosse Woche in the last week in August, when the country’s elite dress to the nines and don flamboyant hats.
The Kinzig and Gutach valleys
The Kinzig and Gutach valleys are quintessential Black Forest landscapes; they’re also the birthplace of many of its most eccentric folk costumes, and cuckoo clocks are sold here by the tonne. From Baden-Baden the region is most attractively accessed along the twisty and scenic Schwarzwaldhochstrasse, which leads to the northeastern end of the steep-sided and densely forested Kinzig Valley, the horseshoe-shaped hub of the Black Forest’s largest valley system, dotted with a series of picturesque small towns. Particularly appealing are the monastery and brewery town of Alpirsbach, and the quaint gathering of half-timbered houses at Schiltach. For generations this remote valley made its money logging and farming, and its modest and fairly sleepy communities celebrate this heritage with various evocative museums, including the open-air Schwarzwälder Freilichtmuseum, one of the region’s premier sights, just up the feeder valley of the River Gutach. This small stream is responsible for the broad 25km-long Gutach Valley, famous for its Bollenhut, a black hat with red pompoms worn as a traditional folk costume by women and reproduced in tourist literature throughout the region. Close to the head of the valley lies Triberg, the Black Forest’s most touristy town, packed with cuckoo-clock shops and coach parties and probably worth avoiding unless you’re after a chirping time-piece – in which case you’ll certainly want to visit the good, nearby clock museum at Furtwangen too.
The Schwarzwälder Freilichtmuseum
Just over 1km south of the Gutach’s confluence with the Kinzig lies the Schwarzwälder Freilichtmuseum, an open-air museum focused on an old farm – the Vogtsbauernhof – that has been here since 1570. Its huge roof is typical of the local traditional building style and the sort of place that caused Jerome K. Jerome to comment: “The great charm about a Black Forest house is its sociability: the cows are in the next room, the horses are upstairs, the geese and ducks in the kitchen, while the pigs, children and chickens live all over the place.”
The 26 other buildings in the complex – which include a sawmill, granary, bakery, distillery, smithy and chapel – have been moved here from elsewhere to create a rather phoney little village. But great effort has gone into authentically furnishing them all and costumed guides doing craft demonstrations help bring the place alive and broaden the appeal.
From where it meets the Kinzig Valley, the Gutach Valley progressively narrows then climbs to a point some 1000m above sea level after 20km, where the air is so pure it once made the town of TRIBERG a health resort. But this was long ago, and today the town is obsessed with only one thing: the cuckoo clock. Thousands are on sale here and the tourist traffic the industry spawns can be nightmarish; but if you embrace the kitsch and are in the market for a clock, it can be fun.
The long, thin Marktplatz that follows the main road through town is its natural focus, with a large pilgrimage church, or Wallfahrtskirche, looming over it decked out in florid Baroque. But the busiest end of town is uphill from here at a bend in the main road, where clock shops are squeezed together. They’re an attraction in themselves (see The cuckoo clock), and certainly as well visited as the town’s two other main attractions nearby.
The Northern Black Forest
Though plenty of small towns and villages dot the Northern Black Forest, most are of little specific interest, though Bad Wildbad does offer an alternative spa town to Baden-Baden. Instead this region is best known for its scenic drives, including the Badische Weinstrasse, which travels through the strip of vineyards that line the Rhine Valley and is home to Europa-Park, Germany’s largest amusement-park. Just east, above the valley, another waymarked drive, the Schwarzwaldhochstrasse is considered the classic scenic drive in the Black Forest.
Though not that well-known beyond Germany’s borders, the Europa-Park is one of Europe’s premier theme-parks and a sure-fire kid-pleaser, with about fifty rides in an area around the size of eighty football pitches and set amid a number of villages themed by European country. Located 35km north of Frieburg near the village of Rust, it’s particularly convenient for drivers heading between Strasbourg or Karlsruhe and the Swiss Alps.
The Badische Weinstrasse
The Badische Weinstrasse (Badische Wine Road), a 160km-long waymarked route that winds through the foothills of the Black Forest, cuts through vineyards and past ruined castles on its way from Baden-Baden to Freiburg. It’s an attractive alternative to the motorway corridor along the Rhine Valley for north- or south-bound travellers with time on their hands, and particularly those with an interest in sampling and buying fine wines.
The tiny town of Durbach, some 50km south of Baden-Baden along the Badische Weinstrasse, amid rolling vineyards and overlooked by the impressive Schloss Staufenberg, is a perfect stop and of particular interest to wine lovers for its excellent Durbacher Winzergenossenschaft (wine co-operative; Mon–Fri 8am–noon, Sat 9am–12.30pm), a shop with a great selection of distinguished and well-priced local wines that’s liberal with its samples. It’s signposted and just off the main road at the centre of Durbach.
There are various routes from Baden-Baden into the heart of the Black Forest, but the most attractive is probably the magnificent Schwarzwaldhochstrasse – the Black Forest Highway or B500 – which climbs from Baden-Baden through an idyllic combination of pines and meadows, valleys and peaks to Freudenstadt. The route may only be 60km long but it’s worth taking about half a day over the drive, allowing for time to break the journey at the various car parks, viewpoints and belvederes which dot the route to take in fine views of the Upper Rhine Valley and France’s Vosges. Allow time too for a couple of short worthwhile hikes, particularly the easy 1.5km loop around the touristy but pretty Mummelsee and a hike from the Allerheiligen monastery – signposted off the B500 6km to the south. From this impressive ruin of a Gothic Premonstratensian abbey, signs point along a path to an attractive waterfall a twenty-minute walk south.
The Southern Black Forest
South of Freiburg the Southern Black Forest gradually rises into a series of rounded and densely forested mountains that begins with the Schauinsland peak and includes the ski resorts of Todtnau and the Feldberg, the highest peak in the area. Only smaller settlements dot their slopes or huddle at the valley bottoms. The more densely wooded hills just south of here are also thinly populated, with the modest lakeside resort towns of Titisee, Schluchsee and small spa resort of St Blasien among the few exceptions. To the east of the area on the fringes of the Black Forest lies the Wutachschlucht, a deep overgrown gorge that’s popular for hiking; while to the west, where the land flattens around the Rhine and the French border, the prim spa-town of Badenweiler is a draw, as is the idyllic cluster of vineyard-draped hills called the Kaiserstuhl, sticking out in what’s an otherwise clear run up to the impressive Vosges mountains on the horizon.
At 1493m the Feldberg is the Black Forest’s highest summit, but it’s hardly a soaring peak. Instead its huge bulk rears into a bald, rather flat, treeless dome. Nevertheless, the area is protected as a nature reserve where wild flowers flourish as do unusual fauna like mountain hens and goat-like chamois. The scattered presence of traditional Black Forest farmhouses and the occasional alpine hut add to the charm. But most villages in the area exist to provide for the major regional downhill-skiing centre. The most convenient is the slope-side village of FELDBERG, little more than a group of roadside houses on a 1234m-high pass, but given its general lack of services and nightlife you might prefer to stay in the more well-rounded village of Altglashütten, in the valley 8km away.
Haus der Natur
In summer the main focus on the Feldberg is on the Haus der Natur visitor centre, which has various displays on natural history in German and is the start point for various hikes including the Feldberg-Steig, a highly recommended 12km loop that links five alpine huts around the upper reaches of the Feldberg. Much of it passes over open ground, offering open vistas which many other Black Forest hikes lack. In winter a good portion of this and other local trails form popular cross-country skiing routes.
A short walk from the Haus der Natur lies the Feldbergbahn which, in winter, is part of a network of 28 ski lifts and covered by a day-pass. In summer it offers the chance of great views over the Alps without any legwork.
On the southeastern fringes of the Black Forest and hidden from view in the rolling landscape of farms and pastures lies the 33km-long Wutachschlucht, a deep gorge that’s been fed and shaped by the waters of the Titisee. The thickly forested and overgrown chasm with its stretches of craggy cliffs, churning waters and unspoilt, ancient forests has become a popular hike. Given that the walk is too long to do in a day, local buses operate to pick up and drop off hikers along the gorge route for a flat rate of €3 per day.
Several communities act as gateways to the valley, with the most practical being Löffingen – which is on the railway network (from Freiburg hourly; 1hr) – to the north of the Wutachschlucht and Bonndorf – an easy bus ride from Schluchsee – to the south. A popular quick taster of the canyon landscape is the feeder valley of the Lotenbachklamm, along which an easy and attractive hour-long, round-trip walk runs to the Schattenmühle, an old watermill and inn in the Wutach Valley. The Shattenmühle is also the ideal place to start a hike of the most stunning stretch of the Wutachschlucht. Take bus #7259 from Löffingen or #7344 from Bonndorf, to the Schattenmühle, or park there, then walk five hours east along the gorge to Wutachmühle, and take bus #7344 back to the start (9am–6pm hourly; 25min) or to Bonndorf.
The quiet little mountain town of TODTNAU, 32km southeast of Freiburg and 25km beyond the Schauinslandbahn, bustles with activity in winter when it becomes a gateway to a network of ski lifts around the Feldberg.
A ski lift up the Hasenhorn carries toboggans in winter and continues to attract a steady trickle of visitors in summer thanks to the presence of a 2.9km roller-coaster-cum-bobsleigh track and a couple of excellent downhill mountain-bike trails aimed at experienced riders who can buy or rent any equipment they need at the base-station shop.
Aside from skiing, Todtnau’s other great draw is a 97m-tall waterfall that cascades over several craggy rocks on the opposite (northern) side of the valley. To get there from town hike the signposted 2km trail from the church at the centre of Todtnau, or simply follow the much shorter trail from the car park on the hairpin of the L126 en route to Freiburg and Kirchzarten. The falls freeze in the winter to magical effect, but beware the slippery trails.
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.
Top image: The Black Forest, Schwarzwald, Germany © Funny Solution Studio/Shutterstock