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Gothic getaway: Autumn in Germany's Black Forest

Black Forest in the mist
Black Forest in the mist
Copyright: Hochschwarzwald Tourismus GmbH

On a dark afternoon in late September outside the 700-year-old Hotel Waldhorn Post, the little town of Enzklosterle 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 high-country air and drift in the treetops like smoke from invisible forest fires.

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 Schwarzwalder Kirchtorten -- the famed Black Forest Kirschtorte. It's based on kirschwasser, literally cherry water but actually cherry brandy made from the dark sour morello cherries that originated in the Black Forest.

Sprinkling from a bottle of kirschwasser, then lading 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 exit as his assistants carve the Kirschtorte and serve it with coffee to the guests.

The guests are all Germans, and this is one of the charms of the Black Forest in autumn. The summer hordes are gone. What you get is a feel of the place in its natural cultural state. The pace is slower. The impression is of authenticity. And it's a beautiful time of year.

On sunny days, the mountains and valleys light up with fall colors of deciduous trees among the pines. On weather days, few places are more atmospherically Gothic.

The ideal way to experience the Black Forest at any time of year is to stay in a time-capsule village like Enzklosterle (although it's more a-bustle in the winter, thanks to the ski resort), founded a thousand years ago when the Black Forest was still a remote and spooky place feared by the lowlanders, is so pretty and tidy that one could just about eat off the streets. Kirschtorte and the little villages are among the region's small pleasures, but it's the combination of the small and the large that gives the region its magic.

The landscape itself is immense. Driving through clouds that often veil the heights this time of year, the road is almost lost in the fog. Then it breaks into the open for stunning vistas of farmland, forest and vast, tilted meadows so sparkly with sunlight that one almost expects to see Julie Andrews spinning like a top.

Then it's back into the mists again, through woods as delightfully dark and foreboding as a Teutonic fairytale.

The Black Forest is the high-altitude portion of the highlands in German's Bavarian southwestern corner, stretching nearly 100 miles from north to south and up to 35 miles across. That's a lot of country, but little enough that visitors can do it all with day trips from a place like Enzklosterle.

Each trip itself is an attraction. When meadows open, they may be spotted with blond cows with huge bells around their necks that sound like distant chimes.

One may pass through the Hollental, the Hell Valley, so named for its depth and sheer rock walls.

Or one may drive 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.

Or one may stop at sights like Feldberg, the highest point in the Black Forest at 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.

A good daytrip bet is the cluster of nearby towns Neustadt, Furtwangen, Triberg and Schonach.

Neustadt is a town on the northern shore of the Titisee, a sky-blue expanse of water tucked among the hills at nearly 3,000 feet. Little more than a mile in length and a half-mile wide, it can be viewed from restaurants on the shore, from paths along the shore  or from steamboats that carry tourists around its scenic shores. It's also known as a paradise for sailing and wind surfing.

The town of Furtwangen is renowned as the cultural cradle of the Black Forest cuckoo clock, and of course its German clock museum.

Triberg is known for the beauty of its natural surroundings, its Black Forest museum and its proximity to the Gutach, Germany's highest waterfall. Visitors can reach it by a short hike through the woods to bridges that go back and forth over its misting cascades.

Schonach is a definite must for anybody who wants to see the world's largest cuckoo clock. One entire end of a building is painted to resemble a cuckoo clock. Each hour on the hour, a bird nearly 15 feet tall and weighing, according to the guides, 150 kilos (over 330 pounds) emerges from its cuckoo doors on the building's upper half.

Tourists can go up the stairs to see the room of elaborate wooden mechanisms that run the thing, and watch from inside. The gears grind, and the bird moves forward through the opening doors amidst a clang of bells and an electronically amplified chorus of cuckoos.

At least to an American who loves to drive through an Old World fantasy land, the Black Forest seems so easily accessible that one can't help venturing out to other nearby day-trip attractions.

Baden-Baden, for example, on the western edge of the Black Forest only about 10 miles as the crow flies from the Rhine, is know for the hot springs once valued by Roman troops, and for the gambling. The French in the 1700s built here what is now one of the most beautiful and popular casinos in the world, 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 Madam Pompadour, where the famous diva of pre-revolutionary France held court with her admirers. 

And always, this time of year, there is a special vigor and glitter in the air. Outside of the casino, autumn-colored trees are rushing in a brisk breeze that sweeps the plaza. 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.

Or one might venture as far afield as Strasbourg, France. Dropping westward below the clouds to a different kind of weather and landscape, one winds down through wide hills corduroyed with vineyards starting to lose their green.

These vineyards produce the "Baden wine," distinctly different from the more well-known Rhine wine, and there's always the possibility of a stop for a winery tour. Or one may choose to keep on going across the wide Rhine flood plain and over the river into France.

Strasbourg is 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" and the foreseeable future in 1945.

Today, it's an interesting mix of history and conflicting cultures. Traffic jams up tight in a small city plaza because someone has simply parked a car in the street and gone of on business. "This is so typically French!" fumes a German driver at the wheel of a blockaded car.

Along a shopping arcade, a middle-aged German tourist comes out of a shop with a scowl, complaining loudly to her companions that the French saleswoman was rude. "Because I'm German!" she insists.

Just outside of Strasbourg, the Vosges Mountains are historic in part for intense battles between French-American and German armies in 1944, but for the tourist they are an added drive-through attraction on a Strasbourg visit for their dramatic sandstone formations, charming villages, waterfalls -- a bit of a Black Forest in themselves.

Strasbourg's Cathedral de Notre-Dame is the big highlight of a visit here, though, one of Northern Europe's most incredible Gothic structures. Fantastically large and fantastically intricate in the decorations of its exterior surfaces and voluptuous interiors, this complex structure of bulks and buttresses took centuries to build and defies the ability of the eye to take it in.

Still, it's not a tranquil experience from the outside in the plaza. 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 the turn away.

This is when one appreciates the solitude of a Black Forest mountain getaway. Escaping back into the lost world of Enzklosterle's quiet streets in the autumn evening mist, one can look forward to 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.



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