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.