At first it was hard going, uphill all the way, but at last I got my second wind, just as the footpath levelled out. We stopped and looked back down the valley, marvelling at how far we’d come. Below us was the gasthaus where we’d had lunch, flanked by ancient farmhouses, and all around us thick dark forest. It was hard to believe bustling Freiburg was only an hour’s drive away. Up here, we were all alone.
Well, almost. Abruptly, Alexandra paused and pointed at the something on the hillside. At the forest’s edge, nibbling at the undergrowth, was a wild mountain goat. Welcome to the Black Forest – or the Schwarzwald, as the Germans call it – Western Europe’s last great wilderness, perfectly adapted for idle layabouts like me.
For most of us, the Black Forest is synonymous with Grimm’s Fairy Tales – those scary stories of wolves and witches, and children lost in the woods. When the sun shines it’s idyllic, but when night begins to fall and the mist rolls in, you’re suddenly immersed in the very atmosphere that gave birth to those stories years ago. Even in the modern age, it remains a powerful place.
My introduction to this dramatic hinterland was very different, and rather more upbeat. I first heard about it from my German grandmother. She used to come here on childhood holidays, and those happy memories were a sunny contrast to her darker recollections of the Third Reich. After half a lifetime’s English exile, she liked to fill me up with Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte (aka Black Forest Gateaux) every time I came for tea.
I loved the little cuckoo clock she gave me (yes, these kitsch curios come from here, not Switzerland, as so many tourists suppose). I never came here before she died, but I’ve been several times since, and I like it more each time I return.
I’d met my guide Alexandra that morning at Hinterzarten railway station, half an hour by train from Freiburg. I must admit when I first set eyes on her, my heart sank. Nothing personal, of course – she looked like charming company (and so she was, as it turned out) but she was kitted out from head to toe in hi-tech hiking gear, while I was clad in jeans, a scruffy T shirt and a pair of cheap old hiking boots. ‘What have I let myself in for?’ I thought.
I needn’t have worried. Yes, I wish I’d brought better kit, but luckily it turned out the clobber I was wearing was perfectly adequate. That’s the beauty of the Black Forest. It’s rugged and unspoilt, but you don’t need to be super-fit or super-sporty to enjoy it.
Its woodlands are spectacular, its lush green valleys are sublime, but the altitude rarely rises above a thousand metres. If you plan ahead and take a map, you can take your pick between gentle strolls and bracing hikes (or ideally something inbetween) usually ending up in a quaint old gasthaus where you can gorge on Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte, just like I did in my grandma’s house, all those years ago.
‘So why is it called the Black Forest?’ I asked Alexandra. I felt a bit daft when she told me. ‘Because it’s so dark!’ she said. She’s quite right. It is dark, really dark, and this is because it’s full of conifers, packed close together so they grow tall and straight, which makes for better timber. Timber is still an important industry, which is good news for the tourist trade. Logging helps preserve the Schwarzwald, and stops it becoming too twee.
In spite of its legendary darkness, for the modern traveller finding your way around The Black Forest is straightforward. The trails are clearly signposted, almost every village is on a bus route, and trains from Schluchsee and Titisee run direct to Freiburg, with onward connections throughout Germany and beyond.
Titisee is a tourist trap, full of tacky souvenir shops, but it’s a handy base. I stayed at Brugger’s, a comfy family-run hotel with a nice indoor pool, a homely restaurant and stunning views across the lake. It’s only a short walk from the centre of Titisee, but it’s wonderfully peaceful.
If you prefer the thrill of the big city, you can easily stay in Freiburg and still go hiking in the Schwarzwald every day. The warmest and sunniest place in Germany, Freiburg is one of the country’s most attractive cities, with a lovely medieval Altstadt, full of quirky boutique shops and lively bars and cafes.
The streets are full of miniature waterways called Bächle which served as a 13th century water supply. In the summer children float boats in these streams and it’s said that if you accidentally step in one of them, you will end up marrying a Freiburger. The city is home to one of Germany’s oldest and most prestigious universities, and its big student population gives the city a youthful buzz.
Freiburg is also a centre of Germany’s burgeoning wine trade. German wine didn’t used to have such a great reputation in Britain, mainly because they tended to dump their worst plonk on the British market, and save the best stuff for themselves. German wine is still affordable but the quality has rocketed in recent years, and in Freiburg you can buy some superb vintages at very competitive prices.
The best place to try before you buy is the Alte Wache on the Münsterplatz, Freiburg’s picturesque cathedral square. This old sentry house is part wine merchant, part wine bar. Sample a few varieties by the glass, then choose a few bottles to take away.
But Freiburg’s main attraction is its proximity to the Black Forest. Even in the city centre, you feel surrounded by wooded hills. British Airways fly direct to Basel. From Basel it’s an hour by bus to Freiburg, and from Freiburg there are trains to Titisee every half an hour, only 40 minutes away. France and Switzerland are both under an hour’s drive.
Back at the airport, waiting for my homebound plane, I browsed through the booklet I picked up at Brugger’s, published to mark the hotel’s 80th birthday, a few years ago. There were some old photos from the 1930s. I wondered if my grandma ever stayed there? I have no way of knowing, but I like to think she did.
Plan a trip
Where to stay: Brugger’s, Titisee (www.hotel-brugger.de)
Where to drink: Alte Wache, Freiburg (www.alte-wache.com)