Rick Steves’ Europe: Time to Relax in Germany’s Black Forest

The Germans are renowned for excelling. Although they are notoriously well-organized and efficient, they are also experts when it comes to relaxation. Explore Germany’s Black Forest – with its venerable trails and world-class mineral spas – and you’ll know what I mean.

A mix of Edenism and hedonism, the Black Forest is popular with German vacationers and tourists looking for some serious rest and rest, clean air, peekaboos, countless hiking opportunities and cakes at the chocolate covered with cherries and dipped in schnapps. The forest stretches over a 100-mile hilly range along Germany’s southwestern border with France. The region gets its name from the fact that its forests are so thick that locals called them black.

Driving around you will feel that the area is steeped in tradition. That sentiment is borne out at the Black Forest Open-Air Museum in Gutach, where six fully restored farmhouses dating as far back as the 17th century are filled with artefacts illustrating bygone ways of life. Here, you’ll learn why farmers of centuries past, with little to do in the long winters, were absolutely cuckolds to watchmaking.

With its watchmaking heritage, it’s no wonder this region has what I consider to be the best watchmaking museum in Europe. The German Clock Museum in Furtwangen is more than a cuckoo clock; it traces the development of clocks from the Dark Ages to the Space Age.

The main attraction of the Black Forest – and an excellent springboard for all these woodland pleasures – is the spa town of Baden-Baden. One hundred and fifty years ago, it was the playground of Europe’s top flight elite. Royalty and aristocracy have come from all over to take the Kur – a bath in the healing mineral waters (or so they feel like it) – and enjoy the best casino in the world. Today, this luxuriant city of 55,000 inhabitants attracts a more bourgeois clientele.

Outside of gaming hours, the ever-impressive casino welcomes visitors with tours every morning. Marlene Dietrich, one of many famous visitors over the years, declared it “the most beautiful casino”. Built in 1850 and inspired by the Palace of Versailles, it is filled with chandeliered rooms honoring French royalty who have never set foot there. But many French commoners did. Gambling was illegal in 19th century France…and Baden-Baden was just across the Franco-German border.

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

In the German-speaking world, when you see a town with the word “Bad” in its name, 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 the 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 mixed if desired – a surprise to many Americans.

Baden-Baden’s venerable 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 pads.

Like many Americans, I feel uncomfortable when I’m naked in public. Being naked and unable to speak the language, in a hot place where I can’t wear my glasses, I feel a bit like Mr. Magoo.

I go for the works ($40, 2-3 hours). First, a stern woman dressed as a nurse gives me industrial-grade flip-flops and directs me into a torrential shower. Then she orders me to lie face down on something as lovely as an x-ray table. With her coarse mittens scraping me from the heels to the bottom of my neck, she soaps and massages me. Then, with a big Teutonic spanking, she specifies: the rubbing is over. Wrapped in a hot towel, I’m free to work deeper into the scorching complex.

Following the suggested diet (posted in English on the walls), I begin a two-hour ritual of hammams, hot pools, cold plunges and finally the rest room, where my nurse reappears. She wraps me in a thick, warm blanket and tucks me in – cocoon-like – on the nearest bed in a room full of beds, where I rest in prenatal peace.

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

Edmonds resident Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guides, hosts travel shows on public television and radio, and organizes European tours. This article was adapted from his book “For the Love of Europe”. You can email Rick at [email protected] and follow his blog on Facebook.

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