Going Cuckoo over Germany’s Black Forest

By Rick Steves
Casino, Baden-Baden, Germany
Playing craps feels downright elegant in Baden-Baden’s Casino. (photo: Dominic Bonuccelli)

Germans are famous for excelling. While notoriously well-organized and efficient, they are also experts at relaxing. Explore Germany's Black Forest — with its venerable trails and world-class mineral spas — and you'll know what I mean.

The Black Forest is popular with German holiday-goers and tourists looking for serious R&R, clean air, cuckoo clocks, countless hiking possibilities, and chocolate cakes layered with cherries and drenched in schnapps. The forest stretches in a hilly 100-mile range along Germany's southwestern border with France. The region got its name because its forests are so thick the locals called them "black."

Tooling around by car, you get a feeling the area is steeped in tradition. That feeling is confirmed and explained at the Black Forest Open-Air Museum (a.k.a. the Vogtsbauernhof) in Gutach. Built around a grand old farmhouse, the museum makes folk life vivid, using its collection of antique farms as racks upon which to hang artifacts illustrating otherwise long-gone lifestyles. Here you'll learn why and how the farmers with little to do during the long winters were absolutely cuckoo for clock-making.

With its clock-making heritage, it's no wonder this region has what I consider Europe's best clock museum. The German Clock Museum in Furtwangen is more than a chorus of cuckoo clocks; it traces the development of clocks from the Dark Ages to the space age.

The Black Forest's top attraction — and a fine springboard for all that woodsy fun — is the spa town of Baden-Baden. A hundred and fifty years ago this was the playground of Europe's high-rolling elite. Royalty and aristocracy came from all corners to take the Kur — a soak in the curative (or at least they feel that way) mineral waters — and to enjoy the world's top casino. Today this lush town of 55,000 attracts a more middle-class crowd.

During non-gambling hours the still-impressive casino welcomes visitors with low-cost tours every morning (call several days ahead to try to get a tour in English). Built in the 1850s in wannabe-French style, Marlene Dietrich declared this "the most beautiful casino." Inspired by the Palace of Versailles, it's filled with chandeliered rooms honoring French royalty who never set foot in the place. But many French commoners did. Gambling was illegal in 19th-century France...and Baden-Baden was conveniently just over the German/French border.

Even if you're not a gambler, it's fun to witness this casino in action. Sipping a glass of sprightly white German wine, you can lean against a gilded statue and listen to the graceful reshuffling of personal fortunes.

In the German-speaking world, when you see a town with the word Bad in its name, that means it is (or was) a mineral spa. Bad Ischl, Bad Ausse, Bad Neustadt, Bad Kissingen…there are plenty. But there's only one Baden-Baden — and (as its name suggests) it offers what I consider the ultimate spa experience in a park overlooking the old town. Be warned: the dress code is nude (and can be coed, if you choose) — a surprise for many Americans.

Baden-Baden's venerable Friedrichsbad (a.k.a. the Roman-Irish Bath) is traditional, stately, indoors, not very social, and extremely relaxing…it's just you, the past, and your body. Enter a steamy domed world of marble, brass columns, herons, and lily pad tiles.

Like many Americans, I feel awkward when I'm naked in public. Being naked and unable to speak the language…in a steamy place where I can't wear my glasses…I'm somewhere between Woody Allen and Mr. Magoo.

I go for the works: First, a stern woman dressed like a nurse gives me industrial-strength flip-flops and directs me into a torrential shower. Then she instructs me to lay — face down — on something as inviting as an X-ray table. With her coarse mittens scratching me from my heels to the small of my neck, she lathers me up and gives me a rub down. Then with a fat Teutonic spank she makes it clear…the rub down's over. Wrapped in a hot towel, I'm set free to work my way deeper into the steamy complex.

Following the suggested regime (posted in English on the walls), I begin a two-hour ritual of steam rooms, hot pools, cold plunges and finally the quiet room — where my nurse reappears. She wraps me in a thick warmed blanket and tucks me in — cocoon-style — on the nearest of a roomful of beds where I lay in pre-natal peace.

Feeling extremely clean and extremely relaxed, I step back out into the park-like city. I look up at the statue of Emperor Caracalla — who is said to have soaked his rheumatism away right here nearly 2,000 years ago. I give him a knowing wink, thankful for the timeless joys of Baden-Baden.