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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 plentiful 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.

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 capital of this rural area is Freiburg, an untouristy college town with a distinctive sandstone cathedral and old center that manages to maintain a bit of its medieval character, desite suffering heavy bombing in World War II).

Much of Freiburg's charm comes from its Bächle: tiny "stream-lets" that have been running down nearly every Freiburg street since the 13th century. They were originally designed to keep fires from spreading, as they could be quickly dammed to flood the street. Careful observers may notice how Freiburg's streets were built at a slight incline, so as to keep the water trickling throughout the town.

These days, Freiburg's trademark canals are just fun, lending a castle-moat feel to the cobblestone streets. (Tiny footbridges connect the pedestrian streets to the sidewalk.) Toddlers like to sail little boats and splash in the water to cool off when it's hot. Freiburg still employs two Bächleputzer to scrub the canals clean with steel brooms. These canals are particularly dense in what used to be Freiburg's industrial quarter — once full of smelly tanners' shops and millers' busy waterwheels, it's now a delightful district of shops and cafés. Be warned: Local lore promises that if you fall into a Bächle, you are destined to marry a Freiburger.

The Black Forest's top attraction 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 (supposedly) curative 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: the venerable Friedrichsbad (a.k.a. the Roman-Irish Bath).

As I do on each visit to these baths, I follow the suggested regime (posted in English on the walls) through a two-hour ritual of steam rooms, hot pools, cold plunges, and finally the quiet room, where I end my visit in prenatal peace, wrapped in a thick, warmed blanket.

Feeling extremely clean and extremely relaxed, I step back out into the park-like city. I look up at the statue of Roman 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.