Southwestern Germany is a part of Germany I have come to know fairly well over the years, thanks in large part to several visits to one of the country’s most vibrant cities – Freiburg. My most recent trip was part of a greater exploration of the Upper Rhine Region and it just so happens that Freiburg and the nearby Black Forest are at the center of the Rhine experience. Although it wasn’t my first time in this sunny, university town I made sure to enjoy new experiences and, more importantly, to finally venture into the Black Forest for the first time to learn more about traditional culture in the region. My day going back in time in this pastoral area of Germany was one of the highlights of the trip and since the Black Forest is so popular, I thought I’d share what I think is a great way to experience everything that Freiburg and the Black Forest have to offer.
Over the years I have come to love this colorful city near the Swiss border. A massive student population means that the town is almost always pulsing with excitement and since it’s one of Germany’s sunniest cities, the weather is almost always perfect. The cumulative effect is a place that is just fun to be in. There’s also a lot to see and do and as the gateway to the Black Forest, it’s the ideal home base from which to launch your regional explorations. I was surprised by just how much water there is in Freiburg and that more than anything else became the feature I loved most. Sure you have the small bäckle, but there are also canals and rivers creating many special places around town to just sit and relax, or hang out with friends and have a nice afternoon. It’s an old city of course, so the old town can be a little confusing but joining a local guide I was shown all the best spots in town. One of my favorites was near the old mills where today the rush of the water fuels the energy of the crowd as they spend time at the outdoor cafes admiring the scenery. Freiburg is also a very young city, thanks to its impressive and world-famous university, and like most other college towns that constant infusion of youth adds a certain vibrancy to it that similar towns lacking a college don’t have. It’s thanks to those students that the green spaces, which are abundant, are so well used and it’s also due to them that the city enjoys a general feeling of active living that is fun to experience in person.
The heart of the tourist experience in Freiburg though is its massive cathedral that somehow, and somewhat miraculously, survived the bombs of WWII. Surrounding it in the morning is a large market and around the perimeter are any number of colorful restaurants and cafes. But there’s something special nearby that has quickly become one of the most popular culinary experiences in the region, the Alte Wache – House of Baden Wines. Housed in a historical building, it’s a cooperative made up of various wine producers in the Baden region – one of Germany’s most popular viticultural hotspots. There you can buy a variety of different kinds of wines from around Baden but, more importantly, you can taste them. The tasting aspect of visiting the Alte Wache has become popular for locals and visitors alike and on a nice summer’s afternoon you’ll find the outdoor seating area packed with people enjoying both the fine weather and wines. It’s a fun way to learn more about Baden wine while also enjoying what I think is Freiburg’s best experience, people watching. For something a little different try their unique wine slushy, the Kalte Sofie available in both red and white varieties.
Black Forest Drive
Germany’s Black Forest holds a special place in our collection imaginations. It’s where most of our ideas about traditional German culture actually originate, from those deep dark woods featured in hundreds of fairy tales to the more light-hearted cuckoo clocks adorning millions of walls around the world. As I learned, it’s also an incredibly beautiful place to visit and a drive through the Schwarzwald or Black Forest is a must-do experience for any visitor to the Upper Rhine Valley. Before leaving Freiburg, locals advised me to plan some extra time not just to stop off to admire the views, but because the roads can at times be narrow and winding. I naturally ignored them and almost immediately regretted that decision because the Black Forest is truly one of those special areas that deserves some time for exploration. The road from Freiburg is easy to follow and I had several villages as waypoints to mark my journey deeper and deeper into the forest. From villages like St. Märgen and St. Peter, the region’s highest peak, the Feldberg, was a near constant companion. The first half of the journey was more pastoral than I had imagined with sweeping mountain views and quiet towns. But then I turned to head into the woods and everything changed. Immediately I was in Hansel and Gretel territory and I fully expected to see the Big Bad Wolf around every corner. But it was on this section of the drive that I was thrust into the heart of the Black Forest experience. Tiny villages with only a few houses somehow wedged into the hilly landscapes where they’ve been for centuries. I still can’t believe that people live in these remote areas, surely places where not much has changed over the generations. It was that traditional culture about which I was most curious and it’s also how I found myself in the slightly larger town of Gutach enjoying a very special experience.
Black Forest Open-Air Museum
A visit to this remarkable folk village is a must-do stop for anyone in the region and I soon wished I had more time to devote to the experience. Founded more than 40 years ago to save a 400-year old farmhouse, the Black Forest Open-Air Museum has evolved over the years into an immersion into the history and culture of this special part of Germany. Six fully furnished farmhouses from different parts of the Black Forest have been moved to this pristine valley, serving as an open-air museum for visitors to walk through. Surrounding the houses are a variety of outbuildings from chapels and mills to storehouses and even a distillery. Volunteers work on site to share what life was like for the Black Forest laborer, simple people who made their living through forestry and simple farming. Not a dusty museum, those same volunteers use the facilities to make meals for visitors, to run the mill and to actively demonstrate a much harder way of life than what we enjoy today. It’s also just a lot of fun and I quickly gained not only a greater appreciation for the region, but of it’s own inherent beauty as well.
Freiburg and the entire Black Forest region is one of those special places that isn’t nice to visit just once, but many times thanks to the width and breadth of experiences waiting to be discovered. I certainly hope this won’t be my last visit to Southwestern Germany, even after a few trips I know just how much more there is out there waiting for me to experience.