When I was a boy my parents had an LP record by Bert Kaempfert. He was a German band leader who was quite popular in the 1960s. They liked it! One particular tune that I can remember distinctly was a jaunty little melody called ‘A walk in the Black Forest’ and today that was exactly what was on the planned itinerary.
It was a fine morning with a perfectly clear blue sky, just the way I like it, so after a substantial breakfast at the Hotel Merkur it was out of Baden-Baden in an easterly direction heading for the town of Gernsbach about ten kilometres away. It was early and the town was quiet with just a few people on the way to church and what was interesting that the streets were all decorated with home made bunting all made from old rags and scraps of clothing but with no real clue to what it was all about.
I have to say that the really nice thing about German towns is the cleanliness and with the sun shining so considerately the town centre, adjacent to the fast flowing river Murg, was especially picturesque this morning.
The road out of town followed the river and wasn’t especially fascinating but after a few kilometres a left hand turn took us into the mountains and towards Schwarzenbach-Stausee, a sort of reservoir lake in an especially picturesque location. The car climbed steeply and negotiated a succession of hair pin bends first through deciduous trees surrounded by the remains of autumn leaf fall and then into dense conifer forest and as it did so we quite unexpectedly found ourselves above the snow line.
Suddenly the Black Forest was completely transformed into the White Forest. There had been a substantial fall of snow a day or so before and the conifer trees were heavily laden with crisp white snow fixed in place by a hard frost and it was as though we had been transported into a traditional christmas card world of snow and ice, frozen lakes and winter pastimes.
What was especially impressive was that the roads were all perfectly clear and had obviously been subject to an efficient snow clearing plan that had kept them open to traffic. This wouldn’t happen in the UK of course because half a millimetre or so of snow in England brings everything to a complete standstill.
The steady climb continued until what seemed like the top of the world and the forest looked like a freshly made bed with a pristine white sheet of pure Egyptian cotton spread across it. At this point the forest is about one thousand one hundred metres high which is just about the same elevation as Mount Snowdon in Wales. At its highest point the Black Forest mountains reach one thousand five hundred metres which is just a bit higher than Ben Nevis and at this height it was just about possible to appreciate the vast scale of the forest; it covers an area of about twelve thousand square kilometres which is roughly the equivalent of Yorkshire.
I don’t know what I was really expecting from the Black Forest but one thing for sure it was much more impressive that Sherwood Forest or the New Forest where I have always thought there is a disappointing shortage of trees, for forests. I think the reason for that is that since the sixteenth century or thereabouts, Britain has always had a navy that used up all of the forest oaks in England to build wooden battleships but Germany didn’t become a naval power until the late nineteenth century by which time ships were made of steel. That probably saved the Black Forest and thank goodness for that.
From the top the road descended again back to the main road and on to the town of Freudenstadt. On the way navigation proved something of a difficulty because I have found that one of the things that could be improved in Germany is the standard of road signs and directions; and road numbers would be quite handy as well. It is hard enough grappling with place names like Badshiz and Klostermeebag but it is even more difficult when the road signs give confusing and conflicting information that continually test a drivers skill at performing three point turns.
It is also disconcerting when the navigator is completely lacking in map reading skills and I always kew that I was in trouble when Kim kept turning the map round to face the way we were going in that female sort of way. This invariably means one of two things, either we are lost or we have just missed an important turning. I always know that this is the time to make preparations for a u-turn.
The town of Freudenstadt was still clearing away the snow from the footpaths and the pedestrian areas and the there was a sense of community involvement as everyone seemed to be making their contribution to the work in hand. Passing quickly through town the scenic tourist road zigzagged wildly from left to right and always upwards towards Bad Rippoldsau and then dropped down again to Kneibis where it was time for a simple lunch and a glass of pils in an authentic German Gasthaus.
I knew that the snow had only recently fallen and was probably the first fall of the winter because it was completely undisturbed and there was a lot of frantic activity as local people had obviously rushed to the countryside with their children for tobogganing and skiing and I suspect that just as in England snow isn’t as common in many parts of Europe as it used to be.
Another tourist road led to the small town of Oppenau where there was a carnival in full flow and it seemed appropriate to stop at a community centre where there was a party to investigate. The children were all in fancy dress, the men were dressed like Noddy and Big Ears with elaborate wooden masks and the women wore colourful medieval style dresses. It all looked a bit pagan to me, which I suppose it is really, and reminded me of the film ‘The Whicker Man’ when villagers in fancy dress sacrificed a stranger.
With that thought rattling around my head and refusing to go away I remained alert to any threatening behaviour. There was none of course, this was all a lot of good fun and it did explain the carnival bunting in Gernsbach and I discovered later that this is the festival of Fastnacht which is a carnival in Alemannic folklore that takes place in the few days before Lent in Southern Germany, Switzerland and Alsace.
The Alemanni were German tribes who lived in this part of Europe nearly two thousand years ago and this area remains characterised by a form of German with a distinct dialogue called Alemannic. The celebration literally means ‘Fasting Eve’ as it originally referred to the day before the fasting season of Lent.
The schools are all closed for this festival and all over the Black Forest there are six days of parties and making merry. At the community centre everyone was shoving down platefuls of food and consuming lots of drink. A sort of doughnut seemed to be popular and these I learnt were called fasnachts and are a traditional fatty treat that are produced as a way to empty the pantry of lard, sugar, fat and butter, which are forbidden during Lent. This is a catholic tradition but in protestant England we call this Shrove Tuesday and serve pancakes instead of doughnuts, it is much the same thing.
This festival is also called ‘Weiberfastnacht’ or Women’s Carnival on account of the fact that tradition says that on this day women take control of local affairs. I might be mistaken but I was under the impression that this was every day not just once a year.
Out of Oppenau the road climbed again and provided stunning views over the Rhine valley, flat and contrasting sharply with the Black Forest mountains, looking deep into neighbouring France. The road finally arrived at the Allerheiligen Wasserfälle, which is a five hundred-metre waterfall on the river Lierbach as it tumbles quickly through a narrow gorge full of boulders and fallen trees.
It was especially dramatic today because of the melting snow that was adding to the volume of water that was contributing to the volume of water in the river. The sides of the mountain were covered in little icicles that had attached themselves to and entombed blades of grass and on the ground the compacted snow was easy to walk on and made the climb to the top of the gorge easy except that is for the parts when the steps were covered in treacherous ice and it was necessary to cling on to the railings for fear of slipping over.
After the falls and back in the car the road continued to an unusually numbered road, the 500, that would have led directly back to Baden-Baden if I hadn’t tried to be clever and find another tourist route which because of the inadequacy of the road signs only led to the uninteresting towns of Bühl and Sinzheim and then back to Baden-Baden through the St Michaels tunnel.