The Black Forest nestles in the bottom left hand corner of Germany. A rectangle 50km wide and 150km long, it is the largest German holiday region, with the magnificent Rhine defines the southern and western borders. I first visited here as a child, and can still recall the black battalions of foreboding trees, standing tall like monsters in the dark. No wonder they inspired the many terrifying Brothers Grimm tales. Forty years later, and almost grown-up, we visited again. Here are 12 possibly more adult observations.
#1. The Trees.
It’s the Black Forest – so unsurprisingly there are trees everywhere! And they are very dark green. There are millions of tall spruce trees, planted as part of the massive reforestation project last century. The area has certainly been well spruced up. Every tree is worth 100 euros – so carefully controlled forestry is big business here. In the forest clearings, there are neat piles of tree trunks. Outside the houses, there are neat piles of logs for providing heat in the winter. German woodcutters certainly can cut wood.
#2. The Roads.
Best described a serpentine; the narrow forest roads snake effortlessly through the forests, up and down mountain valleys and around the lakes. They are virtually empty. I have loved gliding around their curves and smooth surfaces, switching gears, and conquering the hairpins, like some latter day Michael Schumacher or maybe James May. Being German they all have immaculate crash barriers, moderating my usual fear of going over the edge. No wonder packs of bikers wizz up and down them and determined pedal cyclists struggle up them for the sheer joy of the decent.
#3. The Houses.
Planted in every village and town are ridiculously huge detached chalets in near perfect condition. With their small square windows, they look more like hotels or ocean liners than houses. One assumes they contain the family, the extended family and at least small holding of domestic animals. Many have 3 or 4 garages. Most striking of all – their enormous tiled hip roofs, overhanging at least the top floor and sometimes reaching all the way to touch the ground. They sit there like Daschunds needing a good haircut.
#4. The Gardens.
They don’t really have gardens here as we English would understand them. In place of our manicured lawns, defiant boundary fences and blossoming borders, here they have scruffy grassy areas, indistinct boundaries and a functional vegetable patch rather than flowers at the front of their property. Their concession to decoration and colour – almost without exception – masses of beautiful red geraniums in window boxes or tubs.
#5. The Rathaus
Every town and many of the villages have a Rathaus. Officially the “town hall”, it often doubles up as a community centre, a Tourist Information centre, a souvenir shop a town museum, and/or a cafe. And – most importantly – the best place for free wifi.
#6. The Signs
The Germans seem to be obsessive about their road signs. There are a dozen pointers on every post at every remote junction, signalling places near and far. In the towns, every attraction or distractions is labelled. Unfortunately their public maps are less helpful. The one in Freiberg was unforgivably upside down – south at the top – which sent us in entirely the wrong direction. I can’t think of any famous German cartographers.
Everything is written or spoken in German. Unsurprisingly I guess as we are in Germany. The Black Forest is clearly designed to be the holiday destination for Germans. Although quite a lot of Dutch drive down from the Netherlands, nothing is in Dutch either .The tourist information offices have virtually nothing any other language and only a few Germans speak English to a conversational level. In fact, my wife held a more productive conversations about the menu with waitresses in French. And finally, there are hundreds of TV channels, all in German. The English and American programmes and films are meticulously dubbed – rather than sub-titled as they are for example in Scandinavia. Which, incidentally is how the Scandinavians learn their English. Whilst I remembered more of my ‘O’ level German than I expected, I guess we now understand how foreigners feel when they visit our country.
As written in my previous blog
, the Germans here have an unfortunate preference for compressing their meat, enclosing it in breadcrumbs and calling it a Schnitzel. They serve this unappetising lukewarm slab with a limp salad and fast-food fries. There really is nothing to commend the food here, even the eponymous Black Forest gateaux
would be better bought from Iceland. Their alcohol earns a little more commendation – a cool wheat beer or a cheeky little schnapps will at least make the meal palatable. And the non-German red wine is ridiculously cheap.
In fact everything is cheap, partly the result of the euro exchange rate, but also a crazy preference for providing Lidl-style good value. They don’t even seem to want to fleece the innocent tourists. On the contrary, we get free rail and bus travel throughout the region for the price of a daily 1 euro tourist tax. The other day, I slotted 1.5 euros into a town-centre car park ticket machine and found we could stay until 10am the next day. Then we bought coffee and cake for two for less than 5 euros. Needless to say they recognise us in Lidl now.
#10. The Welcome
The Germans we have met in the Black Forest seemed initially reserved and would speak only when spoken to. We would say “hello” to people we met on walks, and they would reciprocate, but with a look of some suspicion. When we made conversation, unlike the Americans, they were not particularly interested in us as foreigners. “Where y’all from” clearly does not translate into German. But there is a hidden sense of humour and fun – particularly with the older Frauen. And we were lucky enough to meet one boisterous, loud, larger-than-life Herr. Unfortunately, we shared 16 minutes with him and his family in a small cable car.
#11. The Smokers.
Less welcome are the smokers. Smoking is still allowed in open air restaurants and cafes here, which is where we all want to sit on a hot summers day. Tobacco smoke is not a good flavouring with your Eis or Black Forest Gateau. Being acclimatised to clean air when eating and drinking at home, this has been particularly annoying, especially when the smoker holds their cigarette out in your direction.
#12. The Efficiency.
Finally, we can report that the legendary German efficiency is alive and well and running smoothly. The trains leave on time and Lidl is well-stocked. Everything is neat and tidy, clean and well-presented. Even the historic buildings are lovingly restored and sparkling, as if they were built last year. The grass is cut, the hedges are trimmed. Cars park obediently in designated spaces. The pavements are uncracked and unlittered.
If they can find some decent chefs and ban smokers in restaurants – and maybe have a few more menus in English – everything would all be perfect!