The dark pine forests, deep valleys and cascading waterfalls of southwest Germany’s Black Forest region are a joy to explore
Filling a huge area of southwest Germany, the Black Forest is home to outstanding scenery, pretty villages, cascading waterfalls and, of course, not a small number of trees! Wolves and bears were said to still be around until the early part of the 20th century, which demonstrates how wild and untamed much of this region still is.
I chose Freiburg as my base for a number of reasons. It’s the only city to be fully surrounded by the forest, and is easily reached from the main autobahn network. It is also a good central point from which to explore in all directions. But above all, for me it is a beautiful city that has a surprisingly cosmopolitan feel for such an ancient city, with plenty of lively bars and restaurants.
I was lucky to get a room at the small but very friendly Hotel Rappen. Just across the road is the towering 12th-century Munster, an amazing building hailed as an architectural masterpiece. I wrongly called it a cathedral whilst chatting to one of the staff inside the lavish nave. He explained that it was, in fact, just a parish church, built with money from the local population at that time. Freiburg must have had some fairly well-to-do inhabitants 800 years ago!
The same friendly chap also advised me of the best place from which to see the Munster. Follow the small lane to the Schlossbergring, where a path leads up to the Schlossberg itself. From here there are magnificent views across the old town, and you get a real impression of just how immense the Munster, and especially its tower, really is. Being on the east side of the city, go in the morning to keep the sun behind you for the best photos.
The Black Forest is not a difficult place to travel around, either with your own car or by public transport. Indeed, I’ve found in many cases a combination of trains and walking is the most rewarding way to see the best of the region. The railways often follow the deep river valleys, giving some spectacular views along the way, and most towns and villages are best explored on foot. It’s also possible in many towns to hire bicycles, and although I at first thought this was a foolish idea for such a hilly area, the excellent network of cycle paths seldom have any hills too steep for a modern geared machine. All of my favourite places in the Black Forest are ones I’ve reached easily by either walking or cycling from the railway stations.
Triberg is a perfect example. The train journey from the north is stunning, with the line twisting and turning, almost going back over itself as it climbs higher and higher. When I emerged from the station, I found I was surrounded on all sides by the steep rocky cliffs, and it was a bracing walk uphill to the centre of this picturesque old town. After an agreeable lunch at the very pleasant Ketterer restaurant, I set off to the outskirts of the town, to see Germany’s highest waterfall. The Gutacher Falls are actually seven individual cascades in a continuous line, but personally I think that looks more impressive than a single fall. The surrounding trees throw sparkling tints of light as the wind blows them, the water roars constantly, and the smell of the pines amid the clean mountain air is heavenly.
A few stops further along the same railway line, and past even more breathtaking scenery, is the elegant town of Donaueschingen. Here I hired a bike for the day from a local company by the railway station. My first stop was just outside the town centre, at a fairly ordinary fountain in the middle of the Schlosspark. Unimpressive it may be, but this is the source of the mighty river Danube. The nearby castle is also interesting, but not overly impressive as German castles go, although it apparently has some fine treasures to be viewed inside.
I had other plans, however. I was heading for Lake Titisee, around 20 miles through the mountains and forests. Cycling these roads was a wonderful way to experience the region at its best. Traffic was sparse, and the solitude allowed me to hear the cacophony of birdsong from the dark canopy of pines above. In the forested areas, the shade made it noticeably cooler, and the glimpses of sunlight were like a flashing strobe as I rode along. Every so often the forest would open out to lush green valleys, giving some fine panoramic views, and a chance to marvel at the many ornate wooden houses littering the hillsides. Small streams glistened in the sunlight as they trickled along the bottom of the valley, and occasionally small waterfalls were visible through the trees.
Finally, after a little over two hours, I reached Lake Titisee. This is one of the main stops on the tourist trail, and it was immediately apparent by the dozen or so coaches parked up, and the crowds mingling around the line of shops that sell cuckoo clocks of every shape and size. But as I passed them, the forest on my right suddenly opened out to reveal the lake itself, and all thoughts of people, coaches, and clocks vanished in an instant. It was a majestic sight. The serene deep blue water, with the pine trees reflecting around the edges, was also far larger than I had expected. To walk around it would have taken a considerable time, but with the bike I was able to follow the path along the shore, and was soon well beyond any of the strolling tourists. I stopped and looked back from a point where all I could see was the lake, trees, and sky. For those few moments it was my own little part of the Black Forest… and it was perfect.