Baden-Baden Black Forest

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Old meets new in Germanys legendary Black Forest. Writer and German resident Brian Blickenstaff guides us through one of his favourite places, and finds some surprises along the way.

 

In his 1853 book A Summer at Baden-Baden, Eugène Guinot wrote, "should any ignoramus ask which is the capital of Europe, he would be answered: Europe has two capitals: a winter capital, Paris; a summer capital, Baden."


It's hard to disagree. Baden-Baden has the look: the neoclassical buildings, the prestigious museums, and the famous concert hall. And, crucially, on a day like today, with temperatures around 30ºC, there's nowhere in Europe I'd rather be. A breeze blows down Lichtentaler Allee, Baden-Baden's tree-lined, 2.3km pedestrian boulevard, which is flanked by wide, manicured gardens and functions as both the city's central park and Champs-Élysées (you'll find many of Baden-Baden's monuments along the Allee). Flowers bloom in every direction. Young parents push strollers down the gardens winding paths. A young couple sits facing the Oos River, talking quietly and giggling. The mood among tourists and locals alike is almost impossibly relaxed. This makes sense. People have been coming to Baden-Baden to relax for a long, long time.


The Romans first took notice of the area's thermal hot springs in the first century AD, and just about ever since, the alleged restorative powers of these waters have made Baden-Baden Europe's premier spa town. It wasn't until the mid-1800s, however, that Baden-Baden became the high-end resort city it is today. Many of the city's famous landmarks date to this period – the Casino (1824), the Trinkhalle (1843), and the Friedrichsbad bathhouse (1874) – and throughout the 1800s, it was the place to be seen for Europe's elite – at least in the summertime. Queen Victoria and the German Emperor Wilhelm I visited. Johannes Brahms and Fyodor Dostoevsky both spent considerable time here. Even the American writer Mark Twain paid a visit, seeking relief for his rheumatism.


And while there's plenty to see and do in Baden-Baden, perhaps my favourite thing is to simply sit in a café and let my imagination run. Did Napoleon III ever go to the horse races? Probably. Did Mark Twain ever join Dostoevsky for tea? Probably not. But what a conversation they would have had!


Yet for all its charm, history, and opulence, Baden-Baden can feel contrived. It paints a distorted picture of a region defined by hard work and tradition, farms, sawmills, and family.


I take a train southeast, along the Murg River, deeper into the woods. Right around the city of Forbach, I pass over an invisible border, crossing from what was once the Grand Duchy of Baden into the Kingdom of Württemberg. Today, this boundary has no political importance – the Black Forest has been a part of the German state of Baden-Württemberg since 1953 – but this border still carries some cultural significance. The people of Württemberg are known inside Germany as Swabians. They speak a distinct German dialect, Schwäbisch, and have a reputation for being industrious, entrepreneurial, and deeply traditional.


The town of Baiersbronn, my next stop, is a case in point. The city of just 16,000 has an unassuming rustic quality; the oldest farm in the area dates to 1470. Downtown, in the late afternoon, families leave the public pool and prepare for the evening's big event, a performance by a recent reincarnation of the Glenn Miller Orchestra. I decide to skip it, content to sit on the balcony of the family-owned pension, or bed and breakfast, Im staying at and look out at a farmhouse perched atop a nearby hill. As dusk settles in, the silhouettes of a man and his dogs emerge on the ridge-line. The dogs run and play until darkness overtakes them, and as I head inside for the night, I listen to the muffled laughter of a group of old friends out on the balcony below.


The back-to-basics feel of Baiersbronn makes it a nice place to get away to, but what makes the city special are its two 5-star hotels and its seven Michelin stars: two 3-star restaurants and a 1-star restaurant.


In other words, Baiersbronn, this sleepy pastoral village, is also the culinary capital of Germany. Its with these hotels and restaurants that you begin to feel the Swabian entrepreneurial spirit. The Hotel Traube-Tonbach, for example, has been owned by the Finkbeiner family since 1789, when it began as a humble bakery. Generation by generation, it went from bakery to guesthouse to the world-class hotel it is today, with saunas, luxury suites, and an award-winning 3-star restaurant. The generational nature of the hotel gives it a quirky historic quality; different wings date to different periods. You can be in the 21st century one minute and the 19th the next.


A trip to the Black Forest would be incomplete, however, without visiting the region's biggest city, and one of Germany's coolest university towns, Freiburg im Breisgau. On Sunday morning, tourists stand in the city's main square and admire the famous Kaufhaus, or Merchants' Hall, with its distinctive red façade. For much of its history, Freiburg was a self-administered free city, dominated by its powerful guilds. The guilds donated the money for the spectacular stained-glass windows of the city's Minster Cathedral, its most famous landmark, which sits opposite the Kaufhaus.


After lunch it's almost too hot to be outside, and the city seems suddenly empty. I sit under some chestnut trees at the Schlossberg restaurant on the hill overlooking Freiburg. The restaurant doesn't just offer the best view of the city, but the most symbolic, too. To the left, I can see deep into the Black Forest, and to the right, the Rhine valley; on one side, the source of Freiburg's wealth and importance, on the other, the river that connects it to the world.



 

My Black Forest



Café Légère, Freiburg

A great place to sit out and have a coffee or enjoy a meal, Café Légère is just outside the Freiburg Altstadt, or old city, in a part of town the students call the Bermuda Triangle. If you're hungry, I recommend the Maultaschen, a kind of German dumpling. Traditionally made with pork, veggie Maultaschen are just as good. As is the turkey Schnitzel.
Niemensstrae 8, 79098 Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany


 


Schwarzwaldstube

For years, stereotypes about German pragmatism and efficiency carried over into the kitchen, with the belief that German cuisine was more about function than enjoyment. Perhaps no one person has done more to dispel that myth than chef and Black Forest native Harald Wohlfahrt. Wohlfahrt has held three Michelin stars at the Schwarzwaldstube, or Black Forest Parlour, in Baiersbronn for 21 years, a German record. He also has a reputation for teaching: of Germanys nine other 3-star chefs, six trained under Wohlfahrt. He describes German cuisine as "alive and rapidly evolving", and when I ask him if there is a unifying principle behind the new German kitchens, he says, "There is not one definition, but rather it depends on the region." The Schwarzwaldstube depends on the region for more than just its name. Much of the game, fruits, and vegetables prepared by Wohlfahrt comes from the Black Forest itself.
Tonbachstrae 237, 72270 Baiersbronn-Tonbach, Germany
traube-tonbach.de


 


Staufen

Just a 20-minute train ride from Freiburg, Staufen is a little medieval riverside village, complete with a ruined castle looming on a nearby hill. It's well known for its artisan shops, and in the summer, there are festivals in the city's park nearly every weekend.


 


The Fabergé Museum

Baden-Baden may seem a strange place for a Fabergé museum, let alone one with a world-class collection worth an estimated US$1.5 billion, but Germany and the Russian artist famous for his jewelled eggs have a closer connection than one might think. For starters, both of Peter Carl Fabergé's parents were native German speakers. Furthermore, Baden-Baden might be the most Russian city in Germany. It's been a favourite destination for wealthy Russian expats since Alexander I of Russia married Princess Louise of Baden in 1793. The collection itself is a must-see, and not just for the eggs.
Sophienstrae 30, 76530 Baden-Baden, Germany
faberge-museum.de


 


Frau Gaiser Christin, Haus Bergwiese

In small towns throughout Germany, you'll find little bed and breakfasts, or pensions. They're typically small family-owned operations. In Baiersbronn, I stayed in Haus Bergwiese, owned and operated by Gaiser Christin, who took the business over from her mother-in-law five years ago, and who cooks breakfast, cleans, and generally makes people feel like her home is theirs. When I asked her about bus times, she didn't answer. Rather, she insisted on giving me a ride herself.
Winterseitenweg 14, 72270 Baiersbronn, Germany
hausbergwiese.de


 


Sebastian Finkbeiner

At 32, Sebastian Finkbeiner is the eighth-generation hotelier at Hotel Traube-Tonbach. Much like Gaiser Christin and her mother-in-law, Finkbeiner and his family work the hotel with the kind of entrepreneurial pride you see throughout the Black Forest. Is something not quite right? Chances are you can find one of the Finkbeiners not far away. Oh, and the ninth generation? They're around too. "But no working contract, yet," jokes Sebastian.


 


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