Journeys: Black Forest Fantasies

For a college student in Germany in the late 1960s, there was no finer way to pass an autumn afternoon than going on a mushroom hunt. In memory I see myself crossing a sunlit meadow outside Freiburg to the woods beyond. There are six of us, the girls carrying baskets for the mushrooms, the boys, bottles of wine to fuel our quest. Young sophisticates that we are, the witches and hobgoblins said to lurk within hold little terror for our party. Nonetheless, we take out our flashlights and chalk before plunging ahead, and once inside the woods our mood grows wary. Without the flashlights, it would be impossible to tell what lies ahead; without chalking the trees, impossible to see which way we have come.

However exhilarating these woodland forays, life in this southwestern corner of Germany, tucked away between France to the west and Switzerland to the south, had far more to offer. Weekend excursions in the Black Forest typically led from one sun-swept vista to another, from neatly staked vineyards to pristine waterfalls and lakes to gingerbread-like villages with storks nesting on rooftops. It was a place unspoiled by fad or fashion, where the primary industries were making cuckoo clocks and toys, and the dirndl—think Snow White in a bustier—was haute couture, as it had been for centuries.

Who knew, back in those carefree college days, that this rustic locale would someday become a magnet for German style-setters? Or that the simple family inns would evolve into world-renowned luxury resorts? And that this patch of wilderness and farmland, barely 1/60th the area of Germany, would someday boast more Michelin stars than the rest of the country combined?

Now it’s many years later, and for a traveler whose college years are far behind him, there is no finer way to pass an afternoon in Germany than wheeling a bright red Porsche Carrera through the Black Forest countryside. It is heartening to see the forest so robust again. In the 1970s the firs and spruces were hit hard by acid rain, which depleted half the forest’s growth. Since then, antipollution measures enacted in the 1980s have restored most of the woods to their former density.

An hour south of Stuttgart, the Porsche rockets through a tunnel two miles long and emerges in the spa town of Baden-Baden. An anomaly here in the land of the quaint, Baden-Baden, with its elegant villas and palatial manors, has been a favorite of the well-heeled for centuries. Roman emperor and noted bath-builder Caracalla, who tarried here between battles with the Allemani around A.D. 200, was one of the first to take the town’s waters. By the 19th century, anybody who was anybody—the Bonapartes, the Romanovs, Queen Victoria, Kaiser Wilhelm I, Victor Hugo, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Brahms, Mark Twain—could be found soaking in the baths, socializing around the casino’s gaming tables, or prom-enading through the gardens of Brenner’s Park-Hotel & Spa.

Baden-Baden has lost none of its pretensions since then. One weekend every August the town teems with aristocrats and celebrities in top hats and veiled bonnets for the horse races at nearby Iffezheim, the Ascot of the Teutonic world. But for the German upper class, staying at Brenner’s Park, the town’s imposing, marble-slabbed grand hotel, is a foretaste of heaven any time of the year.

Germans love spas, and every imaginable treatment can be found in the Black Forest. Some locales, such as Baden-Baden, tout their waters for drinking and soaking in. At others, the hot ticket is mud, which patrons either trudge through, clutching a support bar to keep from falling, or get wrapped in, which has much the same effect as falling. A third highly popular form of spa features deeply breathing in the mountain air, and the cognoscenti debate the virtues of low-, mid-, and high-altitude air.

However efficacious these regimens, in recent years the spa scene has become less clinical and more stylish in the wake of changes in German law. Until the 1980s, Germans both rich and poor enjoyed a system that provided government-subsidized stays of a month or longer at a spa if prescribed by a doctor. Since then, government cutbacks have compelled spa operators, in search of new markets, to adopt the Canyon Ranch paradigm and focus on beauty, fitness, and lifestyle.

After checking into my Brenner’s Park suite, which could have served as the wing of a decorative arts museum, I change into coat and tie for a stroll along the Lich-tentaler Allee, a stretch of park shaded by lindens that runs along the banks of the river Oos. This may be the only place where one dresses up to go for a walk, I muse. Soon, I find myself in front of the Friedrichsbad, where, segregated by gender, serious bath buffs move naked through steam rooms, cold showers, and mineral water dips before jumping into a swimming pool. Farther along is the trinkhalle, or drinking hall, where attendants dispense glasses of the local specialty. Years ago I had discovered that the servers are not amused when feckless young guests say, with mock authority, “Needs more zinc.”

Feeling part of the ancien régime, I return to Brenner’s Park, where I dine lightly on blue asparagus and Westphalian ham. As a reward for my abstemiousness I decide to take in the Spielbank. Built in the mid-1800s along the lines of an imperial palace, it is Germany’s oldest casino and among Europe’s most elegant, with magnificent chandeliers lighting rooms covered in velvet and gilt. A distinguished-looking crowd surrounds the roulette tables. It would be too much to hope that, along with the ambience, the evening might also yield a modest profit at the wheel. Alas, I am right.

The road leading south from Baden-Baden is a change of pace from the thundering velocities of the autobahn and the perfect venue to put the Carrera through its paces. The blacktop twists and turns in its ascent along a mountainside precipice, and the treetops flashing past my windows provide a sensation of flying low. Now the road is becoming treacherous. I slow down after one particularly challenging series of roller-coaster hairpin turns, in the middle of which I find myself looking down into a chasm that might have given a mountain goat vertigo. I am right to be cautious—the next road sign announces that I am traveling through the Höllental, or Valley of Hell.

The road begins to feel like a fun-house ride, with ghosts and goblins lurking behind every turn. I can feel the forest closing in around me when suddenly, the road turns docile, the countryside more pastoral, and another sign proclaims Himmelreich, or Kingdom of Heaven.

I don’t tarry in Himmelreich to find out what is so heavenly about it, however. Ten minutes later I see the medieval towers and rooftops of Freiburg, which was founded in the 1100s. Decades of work have restored its medieval buildings, squares, and monuments, making it one of the most engaging towns in Germany. It is also home to the University of Freiburg, and like any returning alumnus, I stroll around looking for familiar sights. I immediately pick out the Münster, the cathedral built between the 12th and 16th centuries, with its delicate, 380-foot-high tower and stained glass windows extolling the piety of wealthy medieval patrons. I wander in and find the stairs that lead to the bell tower. Years ago I’d climbed them, gasping for air by the time I reached the top. It was a good thing I’d done it then, because I certainly wasn’t going to do it now.

I step back out into the Münsterplatz, the cathedral square, which is still lined with ancient student taverns with personalized beer steins hanging from wooden beams and tables rutted by centuries of elbows. A few blocks away from the square is the Martinstor, a 13th-century clock tower prickly with spires that once con-nected to the city wall. The city’s most distinctive feature is the Baechle, an anachronistic system of streams perhaps a foot deep that has flowed through the town since the Middle Ages. It is said that every true Freiburger stumbles into it at least once in his life.

Back in the Porsche, I drive south through the town square of Staufen, and then on to the village of Häusern, a short ride away. Here, a different kind of metamorphosis has taken place. Since the 1980s, the Black Forest has experienced a boom in luxury hotels, with many of the old family-run inns adding wellness centers, wine cellars, and luxury amenities, while affiliating with such upscale, worldwide associations as Relais & Châteaux. Some of these, however luxurious, cling to their rustic identities, while some are extravagantly over-the-top. Others evoke a sense of imperial elegance.

My accommodation for the night, the Michelin-starred Hotel Adler, which has been in proprietor Winfried Zumkeller’s family since 1859, falls into the first category. It’s an immaculately whitewashed structure with bright red geraniums bursting from window boxes located on four stories of ornate timber balconies.

Candlelight casts a mellow hue through the Adler’s wood-paneled dining room as Winfried Zumkeller uncorks a bottle of Klingelberger Riesling from the Kaiserstuhl. “I never understand why Americans pay such high prices for famous wines of inferior vintage,” he says, pouring me a glass. “Here, the years are all good. The vineyards in the Kaiserstuhl are more southerly than those in the Rhineland and the weather is better. Of course, the finest Rhine wines are exported. In the Black Forest, the best wines are consumed within 30 or 40 miles of where they are harvested.”

Zumkeller is also the chef at the Adler, and his cuisine is the perfect match for the delicacy of his wines. A light pork pâté is followed first by a trout covered in chanterelles in a reduction sauce and then, venison in a cherry sauce with spaetzle, the traditional Black Forest noodles, accompanied by a 1997 Sasbacher Limburg cabernet sauvignon.

Zumkeller emerges from the kitchen as I sip a Burkheimer Feuerberg White Burgundy Spaetlese dessert wine. “You know, a Michelin star is nice, and we provide every comfort,” he says, “but basically, this is a typical Black Forest inn. You can dine superbly in inns that Michelin would never visit. We are doing what we’ve been doing for five generations. There are no overnight sensations in the Black Forest.”

One of the challenges of touring the Black Forest is figuring out how long it takes to get from one place to another. This is the question the following morning, as I plan my route north from Häusern to Freudenstadt and then to Bad Peterstal-Griesbach. The map indicates it’s a scant 120 miles—a cinch, I think, for a car with a top speed of 177 mph—but Zumkeller advises me to count on a three-and-a-half-hour drive. “The roads twist and turn so much, it can be easily three times longer than it appears,” he says.

He isn’t far off. Even in the Porsche it takes almost three hours to cover the 100 miles from Häusern to Freudenstadt, or City of Joy, where I stop for lunch. Freudenstadt is said to have the largest market square in Germany, which seems unlikely until I see it myself. Sure enough, the town square is well over two football fields in length and breadth, with cafés around its perimeter and statuary and fountains everywhere else.

“This space was reserved for a palace for Wilhelm I of Württemberg,” explains a young lady at the next table. “He died before the palace was built, but if you sit here long enough and drink enough wine you will see the palace that was supposed to be here.”

That comes as no surprise, I say. After all, we are in the Black Forest, where fantasies abound. Even so, what awaits in Bad Peterstal-Griesbach is a revelation. The village is precisely as I expected: a small community of farms, houses, shops, and mineral water fountains clustered along the road. What I don’t expect is the sprawling, modern complex overlooking the town from a hill high above, the Kur- und Sporthotel Dollenberg.

“Thirty years ago, this was a cabin in the middle of nowhere,” says Meinrad Schmiederer, the man behind this Michelin-starred mountainside retreat, a compelling marriage of Black Forest architecture and Las Vegas glitz. The cavernous lobby is lit by a large, futuristic chandelier that drips like icicles from the sky blue ceiling. Pinpricks of lights mounted around it reflect in the sheen of the polished mosaic floor. One ascends to the mirrored bar and lounge via a series of curved steps shaped from marble. In the resort’s gourmet dining room, Le Pavillon, the leopard skin carpeting is repeated in the mirrored ceiling while the chairs are wrapped and tied in a fabric color-coordinated with the table linens.

“It is a fantasy,” says the 50-year-old Schmiederer. “For Germans, that’s what the Black Forest has always been, a place of the imagination. They come here to escape from their everyday world, and that’s what the Sporthotel Dollenberg is designed to do.”

The success of his approach, he says, is evident in his cli-entele. “Years ago, Germans drove to the Alsace for fine dining. Today, the Alsatians come here. There’s very little difference today between the cuisine of the Alsace and the Black Forest, except that for the French, the wine is more important than the food. For the Germans, the food is more important than the wine.”

Dinner at the Dollenberg that night is no less imaginative than the resort’s decor. The parfait of dove with foie gras and apple confit is followed by a turbot filet on spinach, both accompanied by a very dry Klingelberger. The third course is a grilled rouget in a bouillabaisse sauce and the entrée, a saddle of venison with celery puree and fresh chanterelles. Cheeses come next, followed first by a small Champagne soup with a strawberry sorbet and slices of pfirsich, and then by a soufflé of white cheese (Quark) with a ragout of cherries and white coffee ice cream. It is over-the-top and terrific.

“I am happy that I have one Michelin star,” says Schmiederer, “and some people would be content with that. But I think we can be a two-star restaurant. And then, I want to earn the third star. People like going to a one- or two-star restaurant, but oh, to get into a place that has three stars. People will go anywhere, they will do anything.”

I can hardly disagree. Nostalgia aside, a prime reason for my coming to the Black Forest is the opportunity to dine at one of the most exquisite restaurants in the world, Heiner Finkbeiner’s three-star Schwarzwaldstube. The next morning I arrive at the Schwarzwaldstube, whose origins are humble like the Adler’s and Sporthotel Dollenberg’s. “My great-great-great-great-grand-father, Tobias, opened this place in 1789 as a tavern for lumberjacks,” says the lanky Finkbeiner. Today that tavern has grown into the Hotel Traube Tonbach, a vast spa and vacation resort with rooms, suites, and apartments for 300 guests, and four superb restaurants, each with its own chef and kitchen. The Schwarzwaldstube gained its first star in 1970. Ten years later, it vaulted to worldwide prominence with the appointment of the French-trained Harald Wohlfahrt as executive chef.

Curiously, while the Schwarzwaldstube’s cuisine and service are French, the restaurant’s ethos and ambience are uniquely Black Forest. “We’re far away from the big cities,” says the hotelier, himself a former chef at Munich’s acclaimed Tantris. “We don’t get a lot of high rollers or expense account business, where people are buying one bottle of Petrus after another to impress a client. Here, people are paying with their own money, and they take time to enjoy their meal.”

The dining room is furnished with massive, fluted wooden beams overhead and heavy azure and dark blue drapes tied back from the panoramic windows that afford a gorgeous view of the grassy valley and grazing cows beyond. A silver knife lifter glitters amid a forest of crystal on the snowy damask tablecloth.

My lunch begins with an incredibly dry Doktor Heger 1999 Riesling Spatlese, further evidence of the dramatic spectrum shift that has occurred in German wines, with vintages once presumed to be sweet dessert wines now classified as dry.

I am still meditating on my amuse gueule, eel prepared in four delectable ways, when my first course, a caviar and crab salad, arrives. Next is a grilled foie gras in an apricot ragout, followed by rosettes of mussels in a green curry sauce. A Black Forest specialty, calf’s cheeks with truffles on polenta, is the entrée. The selections from the cheese wagon are all French and raw milk. The Schwarzwaldstube eschews German cheeses because their butter content is too high.

As dessert—a cherry soup under a strudel crust—arrives, my waiter inquires, “How did you like the calf’s cheeks?”

“I can honestly say they were the best I have ever had,” I reply.

I could spend the rest of the afternoon lingering over lunch, but Isabel, my guide, is waiting for me back in Bad Peterstal-Griesbach to take me to a mountainside farm. Here, proprietor Josef Huber pours samplings of his homemade wilhelmsbirne (pear schnapps), kirsch (cherry schnapps), and obstler (assorted fruit schnapps). “Almost every farmer in the Black Forest makes schnapps, es-pecially kirsch,” she says. “Kirsch is the secret ingredient in Black Forest cook-ing. If it’s distilled right it will improve with age, just like wine. If it’s not distilled right, it won’t last past 10 years.”

A few sips of the clear, 90-proof liqueurs put me in a nostalgic mood as I look out over the valley. It is clear now that the storybook image we had as students was illusory. The brightly painted medieval villages, the cuckoo clocks, and the dirndls suggested a simple, easygoing way of life, but in reality, the essence of the Black Forest culture is integrity, a tradition of perfectionism that makes no allowances for the expedient, the second-rate. If the Black Foresters eschew the grandiose, it’s because they prefer the scale of craftsman to the vision of kings.

My reverie is interrupted as I hear Isabel ask, “Have you ever been deep into the middle of the forest?”

“Yes,” I explain. “We used to go mushroom hunting there.”

She ponders this a moment. “But it’s easier to find chanterelles and morels in the open field than in the darkness of the forest,” she says.

That may be, I think to myself, but the goal of our hunts was never the mushroom.

Brenner’s Park-Hotel & Spa, +, www.brenners.com

Hotel Adler, +, www.adler-schwarzwald.de

Hotel Traube Tonbach, +, www.traube-tonbach.de

Kur- und Sporthotel Dollenberg, +, www.dollenberg.de

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