Off-Season Vacation Delight: Autumn in Germany’s Black Forest
On a dark afternoon in late September outside the 700-year-old Hotel Waldhorn Post, the little town of Enzklösterle huddles like a storybook hamlet in a deep cleft of the Schwarzwald, Germany’s Black Forest. Across the road, trout hang suspended in the chill pools of the river Enz. Above, the hillsides crawl with mists that rise in ghostly tendrils through the cool autumn high-country air and drift in the treetops like smoke from invisible forest fires.
The Black Forest is the high-altitude portion of the highlands in Germany’s southwestern corner, stretching nearly 100 miles from north to south and up to 35 miles across. During the Dark Ages, while trade flourished in the nearby Rhine Valley on the west, the Black Forest was still almost uninhabited. Lowlanders feared these eerie mountains, the dark and dense forest of trees whose trunks turned almost black in wet weather, these mountains that loomed and looked down from the mists like living things in forbidden places in some dark Teutonic fairy tale.
Eventually, settlers came to exploit the region’s mineral deposits, then the lumber. Woodcutters and raftsmen found work in places like Enzklösterle, founded a thousand years ago by monks who built a cloister (the Kloster in the name). The river Enz once carried floats of lumber down to the low country. Now, buses carry in tourists, mostly German, to enjoy the beguiling charms of this other-worldly place – especially charming at this time of year.
In a corner of the hotel’s restaurant of white-clothed tables and dark and shiny old wood, a fire blazes in a nearby hearth while a hotel chef conducts a seminar for interested guests on the making of Scharzwälder Kirschtorten – the famed Black Forest Kirschtorte. It’s based on kirschwasser, literally “cherry water” but actually the famed cherry brandy made from the dark sour morello cherries originally grown in the Black Forest.
Sprinkling from a bottle of kirschwasser, then ladling fresh whipped cream from a bowl the size of a washtub, the chef lectures and jokes as he soaks and covers each enormous layer of dark brown cake to the oohs, ahs and laughter of the German tourists. Covering the top with a last thick layer of cream, he decorates it with well-placed squeezes of cream around the rim, and a pattern of cherries.
“Isn’t that beautiful? Make it at home, and your friends will be amazed!” he declares in German to a flood of applause. Then he makes his exist as his assistants carve and serve the Black Forest Kirschtorte with coffee.
The kirshtorte is one of the Black Forest’s many small pleasures, and it’s the unique combination of the small and the large that gives the region its charm. The dorfs, or villages, are small and so traditional even in the look of new construction that one suspects a historic building code is at work. The traditional siding on many of the buildings is composed of coin-sized shingles that almost make it look like the structures are covered with fish scales.
September turns out to be an ideal time for the slower pace and sense of authenticity one gets when the tourist crowds are gone, and a beautiful time of year. On sunny days, the mountains and valleys light up with fall colors of deciduous trees sprinkled among the pines. On weather days, few places are more atmospherically gothic.
Trails beckon visitors into the woods wherever they go, and one can walk almost anywhere. The bulk of the Black Forest is not private land, but more like a national park in the U.S.
The ideal way to see the Black Forest is to stay in a time-capsule village like Enzklösterle (although it’s more a-bustle in the winter, thanks to the ski area), which, like many German villages, is so pretty and tidy that one could just about eat off the street. It’s possible to make day trip forays by rented car to the Black Forest’s innumerable attractions and escape in the evening back to the secluded valley.
On a for-example September day trip, visitors might emerge from the Waldhorn Post at dawn to find the valley of the Enz dark and dripping as they ride south to Besenfeld, a little mountain town on the side of a high ridge, surrounded by long, angled fields that look like lawns freshly mowed, dotted with blond cows with huge bells around their necks that sound like distant chimes.
On through Freudenstadt and past Bad Rippoldsan, a small village in a sharply cut little valley with enormous outdoor hot baths. A stop for snacks and shopping in Wolfach, a town that grew around a blown-glass factory, where tourists can still watch artisans blow glass, tour the glass-blowing museum and, of course, buy blown-glass artworks and souvenirs. On to St. Peter, with its famous Benedictine Abbey reputed as a masterpiece of baroque art.
On to St. Märgen at over 900 meters height, a dorf on top of the world with fields and forests falling away into cloud valleys; down through the Höllental, the Hell Valley, so named for its depth and sheer rock walls; on back up winding woodland roads to a stop at Feldberg, the highest point in the Black Forest at nearly 5,000 feet. A plateau with two domes of summit, Feldberg hosts a major ski area, a gargantuan monument to Bismarck and awesome views of the Schwarzwald.
From there it’s on back down to the town of Neustadt on the northern shore of the Titisee and a longer stop for lunch, shopping and sight-seeing. A little more than a mile in length and about a half-mile wide, the Titisee is a sky-blue expanse of glittering water tucked among the hills at nearly 3,000 feet of altitude. One can ride the steamboats along its scenic shores.
One entire end of the building is painted to resemble a large cuckoo clock, and each hour on the hour, a bird nearly 15 feet tall and weighing – so say the guides — 150 kilos (over 330 pounds) emerges from its cuckoo door on the building’s upper half. Tourists crowd inside and climb the stairs to the room of elaborate wooden and metal mechanisms that run the thing as a guide explains its construction and operation. Now, watching from inside, they wait breathlessly as the hour arrives again. The bird moves forward through the opening doors, amidst a clang of bells and an electronically amplified chorus of cuckoos.
Or one can go farther afield. A day trip in itself is the town with the most millionaires in Germany: Baden-Baden to the west, just about 10 miles from the RhineRiver valley. One the way, one passes through the Murg Tal, the valley of the Murg River, and the foremost paper manufacturing area of Germany. Ancient Burgs dot the hilltops, stone citadels from the 12th-15th centuries, when townsfolk would scurry inside when danger approached.
Then it’s on over the Schwarzwald Hochstrasse, the high road of the Black Forest along ridge tops above 1,000 meters (3,281 feet) with some of the greatest vistas and in-cloud cruising.
Baden-Baden, on the western edges of the northern Black Forest, is known for the hot springs once valued by Roman troops. The French in the 1700s built here what is now one of the most beautiful and popular casinos in the world. The Casino Baden-Baden is voluptuously decorated inside with all the gilt and glitter of an aristocratic French Restoration estate. Just off the main floor and preserved like a museum is the Salon de Madame Pompadour, where the famous courtesan of pre-revolutionary France held court with her admirers.
Outside, autumn-colored trees are rushing in a brisk breeze that sweeps the plaza, and chestnuts come down like hailstones, thumping on awnings and banging on metal tables outside the little Bakerei (bakeries) where visitors and locals are warming themselves with coffee and exquisite pastries.
So much in the Black Forest is packed within easy driving distance. One can easily spend a day traveling out of the Black Forest and across the Rhine, for example, to the City of Strasbourg in the French region of Alsace.
Dropping westward below the clouds to a different kind of weather and landscape, you wind down through wide hills corduroyed green with vineyards that produce known as Baden wine, distinctly different from the more well-known “Rhine wine.” Across the wide Rhine flood plain and over the river into France, one can make a stop in Souffleonheim, a city renowned for its beautiful ceramics.
Strasbourg is the main attraction here, however, a historic city that bounced back and forth between Germany and France with the ebb and flow of historic wars. Germany took it “back” during the war of 1871. France got it “back” in 1918. Germany grabbed it in 1940, and France got it back “for good” in 1945, and there are still bones of contention in the air.
Traffic is jammed up tight in a small city plaza because someone has simply parked a car in the street and gone off on business. “This is so typically French!” fumes the German bus driver. Along a shopping arcade, a middle-aged German woman storms out of a shop with scowl, complaining about the rudeness of the French saleswoman. “Because I’m German!” she maintains.
Strasbourg’s Cathedral de Notre-Dame is the highlight of the visit, one of Northern Europe’s most incredible gothic structures. Fantastically large, and fantastically intricate in the decorations of its exterior surfaces and voluptuous in its interiors, this complex structure of bulks and buttresses and spires took centuries to build and defies the ability of the eye to take it in. Standing outside in the plaza, however, one is constantly harried by teams of persistent hawkers working the crowd like sharks working a school of jack, thrusting tooled belt buckles and wallets in people’s faces and following them when they turn away.
This is when one appreciates the solitude of a Black Forest mountain getaway, at the end of the day when the head spins from touring the countless attractions of the Black Forest and its surroundings. Escaping back into the lost world of the quiet streets of Enzklösterle in the mist, and another night beneath the goose-down comforter in the Waldhorn Post, the bedroom window open to admit the bracing mountain air, the dark forest outside quietly dripping.