My Viking cruise of the Rhine River began in the lovely city of Basel on an overcast afternoon. But after a quick overnight cruise, which traversed four locks, we awoke to find ourselves in Germany. To be more specific, in a place called Breisach – better known to us as the jumping-off place for a much more famous place: the Black Forest.
To be truthful, I knew about as much about the Black Forest as the next person: Black Forest cake, Black Forest ham, cuckoo clocks, the Brothers Grimm … the fairy tale image known the world round. But the Black Forest is a real place, a huge forest 90 miles long by 30 miles wide, in southwestern Germany. And yes, it’s the place where they make all those things that bear its name, and where the Brothers Grimm immortalized folk tales like Hansel and Gretel. But as it turns out, it’s quite a beautiful part of the world, even (or especially) on a chilly, misty spring morning.
We left Breisach dark and early, rolling through lush green countryside, to find ourselves climbing steep hills into a wooded landscape surrounded by dense forest. Mist hung in the treetops as we drove past ancient sawmills and farms, one of which (seen below) has been run by the same family for 500 years.
It was a grey morning, but even in the subdued light, the forest didn’t look black. In fact, the Black Forest is green, and full of life. The forest itself has been logged and replanted many times since the days of Hansel and Gretel, and today it’s a mixture of deciduous and conifer trees, including spruce from Canada. And it’s home to a wealth of animal and bird species, some of which are found nowhere else.
But there were no animals in sight when we pulled into a crafts centre deep in the forest, for a sample of some of the region’s signature products. First up, a look at the cuckoo clocks. I confess, cuckoo clocks had always seemed a little kitschy to me. But a closer look at some of the samples on display quickly changed my mind.
These clocks are almost the definition of a regional craft, a combination of masterful woodworking, ingenious engineering, and more than a little whimsy. The basic clock has the iconic cuckoo popping out to sound his call on the hour. But they get much more elaborate, with little scenes of milkmaids and woodcutters and children at play. And when the door pops open, you may see peasants dancing, or a tailor’s wife hitting him over the head for not working hard enough, accompanied by a little tune.
The Black Forest craftsmen turn their hands to other art forms, as well, including wood carvings and dioramas of scenes from local life. But I as most impressed with their little wooden carousels, twirled round by propellers driven by the heat from a row of candles in the base.
Next, a look at the making of the famous cake. But the real Black Forest cake is a whole different dessert than the one we know in North America. The chocolate cake itself is lighter, more like sponge cake. And while there are cherries and a sprinkle of kirsch liqueur, they go on the bottom layer: from there up, it’s all cake and whipped cream, topped with some chocolate shavings, a few more cherries – and more cream. You could try a sample for three euros; I passed.
There was local glasswork on display, as well, but I was more interested in seeing the forest itself. And if the cake was a bit of a letdown, the forest wasn’t. The path led under a towering old railway bridge, blown up during World War II by retreating German soldiers but later rebuilt – an impressive sight.
From there, we wandered through some woodland that was as dramatic as any I’ve seen anywhere. A winding path led along the rocky banks of a mountain stream, crossing small bridges, climbing steep inclines, revealing one vista after another.
Finally, we came to a small set of rapids, splashing their way through a shady grove under huge trees just starting to show their spring leaves. There was still a chill in the air, and a sprinkle of rain, but somehow it all seemed refreshing. All I needed was to hear a real cuckoo call.
The way back led through steep pastures dotted here and there with cows and sheep – happy ones, our guide told us, because the local farmers use organic methods of animal rearing, and treat them well. And here and there, a tower where storks had built their huge nests — bringing good fortune, according to local beliefs.
Despite the dull day, it all looked too peaceful and content to be the sombre place I might have imagined. Maybe they called it the Black Forest way back when to keep away the tourists. But looking at the crows at the crafts centre, it doesn’t seem to have worked.