The Black Forest gets its name from a canopy of trees so dense that the woods seem dark, pierced only by shafts of sunlight. Mushrooms sprout across the damp forest floor. Red squirrels scamper up the towering trees; streams tumble over rocks. No wonder this magical place inspired so many Grimms’ fairytales. But the bleak name Black Forest – Schwarzwald in German – does not capture its beauty.
My family and I camped here late last summer, near the village of Enzklosterle, in one of hundreds of valleys scattered across the forest’s vast, mountainous expanse. The forest stretches across 6,000 square kilometers (2,320 miles) in the southwest of Germany, an easy trip from Frankfurt. Once our tent was erected, beds inflated and our three year old daughter had achieved her goal of muddy feet, we sat and relaxed in the sunshine with cool German beers. But this is no spa resort, and the mountains beckoned. The next morning, I was assigned mule duty and burdened with our small picnic rucksack, while my partner was the heroic steed, carrying his daughter in a backpack on a six-hour hike. There are paths here of all types, from gentle strolls to demanding long-distance hikes, all well-signed and maintained. The region is also popular with mountain bikers.
Mushrooms of all shapes, sizes and shades emerge from rotting tree stumps and leaves in vivid crimsons, delicate corals, black, brown, purple and orange. You mustn’t try them without expert guidance though; like potions in a Grimm Brothers story, they might be poison.
One rainy day during our visit, we drove an hour to medieval Schiltach and another half-hour to the town of Triberg. Traditional half-timbered houses – with gabled roofs and framed windows forming distinctive geometric patterns on the building facades – add to the fairytale look of the towns. Triberg also boasts three claims to fame: cuckoo clocks, Black Forest cake and Germany’s highest waterfalls.
The waterfall trails were busy with visitors watching the Gutach river plunge in seven cascades, over 160 meters (525 feet) into the valley below. Next, we window-shopped for cuckoo clocks, an activity which prompted a debate over whether one would suit our sitting room wall. Prices range from 20 euros for the tiniest clock, to well over a thousand for a large carved timepiece, with overseas shipping available. We decided our wall was fine as it was. Later on the outskirts of town, we visited what is billed as the world’s largest cuckoo clock, which offers tours of its clockwork mechanisms for two euros.
Our tummies were rumbling and the Black Forest’s culinary showstopper demanded to be tasted. Triberg claims the original recipe of the famous Black Forest cherry cake, which is not as sweet as variations elsewhere, but offers a light chocolatey sponge, soaked in cherry schnapps, filled with cream and cherries, topped with chocolate shavings.
Other destinations in the region include spa towns like Baden Baden and the lively university city of Freiburg. But we found our holiday paradise in the solitude of the woods, watching our daughter collecting a bounty of nuts, tasting blackberries and marveling over the mushrooms that grow amid the dark forest’s shadows and dappled sunshine.
By Siobhan Starrs