Driving Away a Myth of Germany's Black Forest

Hague teaches U.S. history at San Joaquin Delta College in Stockton.

The name Black Forest suggests mystery, leafy paths in dark, forbidding woods frequented by fairies and gnomes. In reality, the forest is a region of picturesque villages and wooded hills laced with hiking trails, in southwestern Germany near the borders of France and Switzerland. The forest is about 105 miles long, 20 to 37 miles wide.

The central region, called the Upper Black Forest, is noted for its scenic countryside and attractive villages. The area is a popular holiday destination among Germans and other Europeans, but few Americans find their way here. Indeed, nowhere do you see many people except in a few lakeside spas.

You can get a good impression of the region with a one-day circular drive, beginning at the university town of Freiburg. At the start or end of your tour, take time to see the Romanesque-Gothic cathedral there, begun in the early 13th Century. Climb the tower for a view of the town and the Vosges Mountains to the west in France.

Visit the historic buildings (Wenzingerhaus, Kaufhaus and Archiepiscopal Palace) on the Munsterplatz just south of the cathedral, and the New Town Hall on the nearby Rathausplatz. Take time to enjoy the tree-shaded walks and the myriad flowers in balcony boxes.

A Peak Panorama

To begin your journey, drive north from Freiburg to Waldkirch. Visit the old section around the church of St. Margaret. For a panoramic view of the region, continue on the road past the church to Kandel Peak.

On the main road again, drive east through the lovely little villages of St. Margen and St. Peter. Each has a historic baroque church. Farther on, you reach Titisee, a charming lakeside resort where tourists on sunny days crowd the shops and sidewalk stalls and lie on the sandy beach where there are paddle boats for rent. It is a nice spot for a morning coffee at an outdoor cafe.

The road now climbs to Kappel, a pretty village with a church and a view of the countryside. Drive a bit higher before dropping down to Schluchsee, the largest lake in the forest and a pleasant resort town. Drive on and soon you will see the signs for Feldberg, just off the main road. From a parking area you can take a 15-minute chairlift ride to the famous statue of Bismarck. Another 15 minutes of walking and you arrive near the highest point in the Black Forest for a panoramic view.

A Choice of Routes

A few miles down the road, at Todtnau, you must make a decision. There are two routes, equally interesting, that you can take for Freiburg. The main road, Schauinsland Road, turns north, following signs for Todtnauberg and Gunterstal. Be forewarned: A section of this route south of Gunterstal is famous locally for its use as a mountain auto race course. It has some hairpin curves that will test your driving skills. If you take your time you should have no trouble, and the rewards are substantial.

If you decide to take the Schauinsland Road, pass through Todtnau and start climbing. A short distance beyond the town you will see a sign for a waterfall ( Wasserfall ), leading into a parking area. The trail to the fall, a series of falls and cascades, is in a wooded gorge and is well marked. Don't be misled by a sign that tells you it is a 10-minute walk--it's longer, and all uphill, although not terribly strenuous.

If you prefer a nice stroll rather than a climb, drive past the parking area a few hundred yards higher until you see a refreshment kiosk on the right on a sharp curve. Park there and take the trail just behind it. The walk to the falls is shady and mostly level.

Back on the main road you will see signs pointing to a side road for Todtnauberg, the highest resort in the Black Forest. The setting is impressive and the village interesting, but it can be bypassed if time is a factor.

Leave at least an hour of daylight for the balance of the drive to Freiburg. It is only a few miles but the road is winding, and you will want to stop occasionally for viewing, particularly near the summit.

Winding Toward Aitern

The alternative drive from Todtnau, which I prefer to the Schauinsland Road, turns south just past Todtnau, toward Utzenfeld. (If time permits, visit the pretty little town of Schonau a few miles farther on the same road.) Just south of Utzenfeld, turn west, following signs for Belchen and Staufen.

Climbing steadily, you soon reach the village of Aitern. This is a delightful place to spend the night if you can spare the extra day. It has rustic guest houses, small hotels and homes that accommodate travelers. I am prejudiced--always, in every country--in favor of the latter.

At Aitern my family and I stayed in a charming old village house with stacks of neatly cut firewood in front, partially covered by cascading flowers of half a dozen varieties and hues. A balcony that ran the width of the house was protected by the deep roof overhang. Three cows were kept under the same roof in a barnlike room at the back, driven each morning to pasture and brought back each evening.

In front of the house an ancient horse-watering trough, carved from a 3-foot-thick tree trunk, still held water. Similar troughs and small ponds in the village were fed continuously by springs. Just across the road from our lodging, a small stream tumbled down the hillside.

Oklahoma Hospitality

We drove about two miles higher that evening for the view and stopped for dinner at a roadside Gasthaus. I know only a few words and elementary phrases in German, and tried to explain to the waitress that we would like to sit on the terrace if that was possible. She looked at me blankly. After a moment she asked, "Are you Americans?" with no trace of accent. I replied that we were. "So am I," she said.

Amy Weinmeister is a student from Edmond, Okla. She was working at the restaurant and living with the owners through a summer work-study program. The program places students in German, French and Spanish-speaking countries in living and working situations that require conversation and stimulate fluency.

She chatted with us at our table on the lawn and agreed with my observation that this was certainly an idyllic classroom. All classrooms should have such a view. She was a bit lonely, however; there were few young people on the mountain.

I was surprised when she told me that we were only the second Americans to stop at the Gasthaus all summer.

Windswept Summit

Beyond Aitern the road continues to climb. Take a turning to the left signposted for Belchen. The road ends above tree line at the Hotel Belchenhaus. A short walk behind the hotel takes you to the wind-swept summit. The valley of the Rhine River stretches out below. Westward you can see the range of the Vosges in France and the Swiss Alps in the south.

From Belchen, the road descends to a plain of meadows and woods. Stop at St. Trudpert Abbey and walk through the grounds and see the interior of the lovely church. Drive a few miles farther to reach Staufen.

This pretty village has cobblestone streets, a fountain and platz . In a small park, the fountain is shaded by beech trees--a nice spot for a picnic lunch. A ruined castle, set dramatically atop a vineyard-covered hill, overlooks the town and the Rhine Plain. Staufen should satisfy anyone's romantic perceptions of the Black Forest region. From Staufen it is a short drive on a well-signed road back to Freiburg.

For information on the Black Forest, begin by writing to the German National Tourist Office, 444 S. Flower St., Suite 2230, Los Angeles 90071, or phone (213) 688-7332. State precisely what sort of information you wish. At Aitern we stayed with Max Steiger, 7869 Aitern, Federal Republic of Germany, telephone 07673-350 ($15 double, including a generous breakfast).

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