BLACK FOREST, GERMANY
The Black Forest, or Schwarzwald in German, is perhaps best known for its fairytale castles and brooding forest. Or as the home of the cuckoo clock. Or for its world-famous thermal spas. Or as home to the Brothers Grimm and their enchanting tales of Cinderella, the Frog Prince, Hansel and Gretel, Sleeping Beauty and Snow White. With so many reasons to visit, it's no surprise that this stunning mountain region in south-western Germany is a favorite vacation spot for tourists and locals alike!
The healing springs along the north-western border were popular with the Romans almost 2,000 years ago and were rediscovered by Europeans at the start of the 19th Century. "Here... you lose track of time in ten minutes and the world in twenty," wrote Mark Twain in his book, A Tramp Abroad (1880). Kings, queens, emperors and celebrities have visited the springs for their relaxing and healing power. The spa town of Baden-Baden still attracts high-profile visitors from all over the world.
With the Rhine valley to the south and west, the region has more scenic hills, valleys, forests, rivers and must-see landmarks and attractions than anyone can visit in a single day, so you'll want to plan on staying longer!
A TASTE OF HISTORY
The Black Forest's name comes from the 100-mile stretch of pine trees that is so dense, the sun struggles to reach the forest floor. It's no surprise that forestry has always been one of the biggest local industries. Logs cut here travel the world and are used in a multitude of places, such as ships built in the Netherlands and buildings in Japan.
Some of the wood stays where it's cut. Traditionally, cuckoo clock makers were farmers who built intricate timepieces to supplement their income in the winter. To this day, Black Forest cuckoo clock makers preserve the region's rich history and artisanal skills, using the same methods as their forbears to produce hand-carved clocks that are famous for their quality and craftmanship.
The modern Black Forest welcomes visitors from the world over to its thermal springs, national park and the small towns dotted across the area, each with its local sights and unique personality.
WHAT TO DO
You could spend a week in the Black Forest and still only see part of what's on offer. Whether you're looking for quiet walks in heart-stopping scenery, a romantic getaway in a luxurious hotel, a relaxing soak in a healing spa or heart-pumping outdoor activities, the Black Forest has what you need.
Containing more than 30 spas, the elegant town of Baden-Baden sits on the north-western border of the Black Forest region. There are plenty of modern options but if you want to go the whole hog, hit the Friedrichsbad Roman-Irish Bath. It's the most traditional in the whole region, offering a 17-stage experience for the maximum healing benefit from the spa's natural mineral water.
After a good, long soak, check out the Casino Baden-Baden. Classic gaming and slot machines are housed in this 1850s work of art inspired by the Château de Versailles (the Palace of Versailles). If you prefer history and architecture to gambling, the Casino offers guided tours of its Austrian salon, winter garden and Florentine hall.
From Baden-Baden, travel 60 kilometres down the Schwarzwaldhochstrasse -- the Black Forest Highway or, less romantically, the B500 -- into the Kinzig Valley to experience quintessential scenic views of the region.
Look out for a sign for the Allerheiligen monastery and drive off-piste to visit the beautiful ruins of this building, founded in 1192. A short hike from the ruins will take you on a 20-minute walk to the All Saints Waterfalls, which cascade down 83 meters in seven "steps" and which were only discovered in the early 19th Century by locals with ladders!
Black Forest Open-Air Museum
The Schwarzwälder Freilichtmuseum, or Black Forest Open-Air Museum, takes you back through the history and cultural heritage of the region. Located in Gutach, the museum includes six Black Forest farmhouses built between the 16th and 19th Centuries, all of which you can walk through, plus a variety of outbuildings.
Built in 1599, the Hippenseppenhof is the oldest farm in the museum and features an exhibition of cuckoo clocks and wickerwork. The other buildings are all from the region and were individually dismantled, transported to the Hippenseppenhof's location and rebuilt exactly as they were found. Each house features an exhibition on a cultural tradition unique to Black Forest culture, such as straw painting and woodworking. The museum offers free guided tours for the public in German and in English.
Right off the parking area of the Open-Air Museum is the Cuckoo's Nest, one of the Black Forest's best-kept secrets. They serve fresh food made using the best ingredients, many of which are sourced locally to support the region's farmers... and their 100% beef burger is to die for! The Nest offers curiosa, giftware and authentic (and truly unique) memorabilia. The owners are well-travelled and speak fluent German, Dutch and English. Unmissable.
German Clock Museum
If you're cuckoo about cuckoo clocks, you must visit the German Clock Museum in Furtwangen. They have an unbelievable assortment of over 8,000 clocks and watches from around the world in their 160-year-old collection. One of the most famous and loved pieces is a wall clock from the 1850s in the shape of an alpine hut -- the very piece that helped launch the worldwide success of the Black Forest cuckoo clock!
You can learn how scientists used clocks to conduct experiments and how the Black Forest became the capital of the cuckoo-clock world in their exhibitions. The museum is open 365 days a year and offers guided tours daily.
How To Get To The Black Forest
If you're flying into the area, the closest international airport is in Frankfurt, Germany. Alternatively, you could fly into Basel in Switzerland and grab some chocolate before crossing the border. Baden-Baden has a great local airport for shorter hops.
Once you're in-country, German Railways operates trains into and through the area. You can reach almost every spot in the Black Forest by bus and train. As you would expect, you can rent a car for the duration of your stay -- two-lane highways cross the region but small side roads are definitely the best way to take in the scenery and visit the less-travelled locations.
Where To Stay
You'll be spoilt for choice in the Black Forest. You can stay in a farmhouse, in a five-star hotel or even in one of those fairytale castles! If you came for the spas, Baden-Baden has a wide range of hotels and guest houses. Freiberg in the south-west is considered by many to be one of the most beautiful cities in southern Germany. Triberg is a great option if you're looking for tourist attractions.
Your options are endless. For example, if you're visiting the Open-Air Museum near Gutach, we heartily recommend Müllerjörgenhof farmhouse (www.muellerjoergenhof.de).
Best Time To Visit
If you're planning a summer visit to the Black Forest, make your hotel and spa reservations well in advance. Accommodation is limited and fills up very quickly in the high season, from June to August.
In early spring and late autumn, the Black Forest area is quieter and the temperature is more moderate. It's still worth booking in advance to avoid disappointment but you should have more choice.
No matter when you visit, there's always plenty to see and do. Whether you're windsurfing on Lake Titisee in July, skiing in Feldberg in January or driving and hiking through nature's glory in spring, most of the indoor attractions are open year-round.