Der Schwarzwald

Updated: Apr 21, 2019

The Black Forest (der Schwarzwald) is known for the tales told by the Brothers Grimm. They didn't create the stories but rather gathered them from the area and published them for the world to hear - stories such as Little Red Riding Hood and The Frog Prince. While the Black Forest might have held dark superstitions in the past, today it is a popular destination for locals and tourists alike for its charming small towns and hiking opportunities. Freiburg rests on the edge of the Black Forest and acts as a great base for exploring these woods.

German Clock Museum: This museum in the town of Furtwangen focuses on coo-coo clocks, which are a historic staple of this area. It also has exhibits on other forms of timekeeping, but the star of the show is absolutely the coo-coo clock. It's a relatively small museum but quite well done. Don't forget to find a nearby food truck for some cheap schnitzel to really seal the "I'm in Germany" deal after you're done admiring the woodwork.

Other than the museum and fairy-tale towns, the main draw for this forest are the hiking opportunities. The first time I drove around the hills, I was struck with how similar it looked to the Black Hills of western South Dakota, though with gingerbread houses rather than presidents carved into sacred mountains. What follows are two distinct experiences I had in the Black Forest and hopefully they give you an idea of what you can do there as well!

October 2010: I had been in Freiburg for about six weeks at this point, and the fall colors were beginning to really shine. They weren't quite at peak color yet, but I was headed to Brussels (more on this in a bit) and had to take my chance when I could.

I love to hike and the hills were calling to me, so after asking my study abroad advisor where the best hiking trails were, I set off one Sunday to be my best outdoorsy self. I went to the Hauptbahnhof (main train station) in Freiburg and grabbed one of the regional trains to my destination of Sankt Peter. As an American, this was exciting in and of itself, as we do not really have trains that simply take you to neighboring towns. After the train (and a quick bus ride), I arrived bright-eyed and ready to explore this adorable town before striking out on my hike. It was a small town indeed, with just a few houses and a church (see photo).. Once I had my fill of small town architecture, I wandered around looking for the trail head. Something on the horizon looked promising and I walked towards it, excitement building in my chest.

And that's when I saw it. The sign pointing into the woods that said, "Freiburg: 21 kilometers." I stopped dead in my tracks. I had no idea how far 21 kilometers was, as I was a 21 year old American who was only six weeks into her first Celsius living experience, but I knew that it was certainly farther than I had anticipated walking that day. I called my father in a bit of a panic (bless him, it was 4am back home) to ask him how many miles that was. He groggily said, "oh, about 14" before hanging right back up. Which, yeah, was a fair reaction. Sorry, Dad!

Now, I am a hiker. I grew up hiking. I love hiking. But I grew up hiking no more than 10 miles at a time and that was a rare day. Usually, our hikes hovered around four miles. I was nervous but determined to complete the hike I had set out to do. So, shoulders squared, I walked up the hill and followed the "k" signs back to Freiburg. As I went along, there were many trails that criss-crossed over one another, leading off to other towns in the region. There were a few spots where there were so many trails next to one another that I wasn't entirely sure which path the K was referring to, but I did my best guesswork and arrived in Freiburg about four wonderful hours after I started.

During those four hours, I walked past a farmhouse that had an incredibly friendly cat who delayed me by about ten minutes because I have zero ability to say no to cat cuddles. And when I crested some of the hills, there were towns in the distance. But mostly, I saw very little evidence of human existence. It was just me and the Big Bad Wolf's woods. I was also the only person on the trail. To this day, I do not know why nobody else was around, because the weather was perfect. Maybe there was some holiday nobody told me about. The things one misses when they live in a country where they don't speak a word of the language...

Considering the October date, the paths were completely covered in leaves. It was beautiful but it also meant that there were many a-hidden tree root. I fell, multiple times, is what I'm trying to say.

As I said, I got to 21-km-away Freiburg about four hours after I started off. The view to the right is what I popped out of the forest to. There is a lovely city park called Kanonenplatz up there and I was suddenly surrounded by families enjoying their Sunday afternoons. I walked the 45 minutes back to my apartment, happy with how my Black Forest hike had gone, and even happier to give my legs a rest. I got home, cracked open a beer, and called it an early night.

The next morning, I woke up at 4am to catch the bus to Brussels with my study abroad program. It took a minute's worth of hot shower water to wake my senses up enough to realize that my left foot hurt. A lot. I hopped out of the shower, put my glasses on, and realized that the top of my foot was incredibly swollen. Aaaaand that was when I remembered the tumbles from the day before. My dream hike had sprained the absolute crap out of my foot!

Now, my study abroad was a European Union-focused program. We traveled quite a bit in order to meet with EU officials across the continent, and this was the big trip: Brussels. I spent the next several days walking around cobblestones, in heels, with a sprained foot. And when I say sprained, I mean sprained. You know how when one of your body parts is swollen and you can tell but others can't really? This was not one of those times. Multiple people in my program pointed at my foot and asked what had caused such a swelling. At least I felt somewhat vindicated with my hobbling! It was a painful week, culminating in actually blacking out from pain in one of the metro stations in the city.

The good news was that by the time we returned to Freiburg the next weekend, my foot had healed. The bad news was that my study abroad advisor insisted that I see a doctor anyways. This medical professional was a typical no-nonsense German, and was quite upfront with me that I had wasted his time.

May 2015: I returned to Freiburg in May 2015, this time with my mother in tow. We were in week two of a three week European extravaganza, which happened to be her first trip outside of North America. She had heard me raving about Freiburg for over four years and was excited to see it for herself. However, at this stage of the vacation she was starting to become worn out. Her knees are not perfect and we had been doing a lot of walking, and, more frustratingly, she is allergic to cigarette smoke. I'll give you a quick second to think about how hard Europe might be for somebody who is allergic to cigarette smoke.

We had two days in Freiburg and I wanted to make the most of them. One thing that I had never gotten around to doing when I lived there was take a ride on the Schauinslandbahn - the local gondola that takes visitors to the top of the tallest hill in the area. It was an easy ride from the city center, and I loved watching the world go by out the tram window as we went from city center to quiet suburb. We soon arrived at the base of the gondola, paid the €12.50 ticket price each, and rode up. It was a sunny day (of course it was, Freiburg is literally the sunniest city in Germany! And yes, I realize that these pictures don't completely indicate this promised bright blue sky but I assure you that is due to the quality of my camera rather than my lying ways) and the greenery around us was absolutely stunning (made all the more stunning due to the fact that I was living in Senegal at the time and hadn't seen so much greenery in over a year).

We got to the top, climbed out of the gondola, and my mother immediately gasped for joy. I thought she was admiring the views, but it turned out she was thrilled to be finally breathing clean air again. These were her first deep breaths in two weeks that did not involve intense coughing fits. To this day, she gushes about how wonderful Freiburg is solely because it offered her lungs a much-needed respite.

On top of clean air, the top of the gondola offered panoramic views, a restaurant (with very bland, overpriced food. Rookie mistake on our part), and walking trails. I am a sucker for gondolas, so I would absolutely recommend this experience, and my mother would tell you to do it because who doesn't appreciate fresh air?