Thursday 22 February 2018

Germany: My Black Forest bliss

On a tour of the finest woods, spas and vineyards, Kim Bielenberg samples the bucolic delights of southwest Germany and discovers dinner can be a rather watery affair

The Black Forest
The Black Forest
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

When I arrived at the Hotel Lamm in the heart of the Black Forest, I was a touch nervous and not sure what to expect. All it said on the itinerary of our journey through the German region of Baden-Württemberg was "bath and dinner in historical tub''.

What was the dresscode for this unorthodox meal -- a dinner jacket perhaps with swimming trunks? Or would I have to follow the Teutonic tradition of going about your business stark naked?

I checked in at the old-fashioned, timber-fronted hotel and was greeted by the owner, Herr Klumpp. Along with the rest of my group I was told to go to my room immediately -- and return clad only in a bath robe.

A few minutes later, our normally effusive group of Irish visitors stood somewhat sheepishly in the bath house in the garden of the hotel.

The men were supplied with a pair of thin white shorts and the sort of hat otherwise normally only seen on top of a smurf, while the women wore a bra that was probably in fashion when Hansel and Gretel were lost in the forest.

The bademeister (or bathmaster) Reinhard Bosch, who looked as if he could have had another life as a TV wrestler, told us of the bathing traditions in the area.

The bathmaster used to be a jack-of-all-trades in these parts, doubling up as a dentist and healer of various ailments, but the churches believed these wooden huts were houses of ill repute and shut them down.

After telling us to put on our embarrassing garb, Reinhard said we should kick off proceedings by stepping into the sauna. There, the women in the group were somewhat surprised to come across a group of naked men, fellow guests in the hotel. "You just get used to it,'' our guide told us. "Nudity is normal in Germany.''

After sweating for 10 minutes we were each assigned a wooden tub in the garden with a wooden plank across the top. The bathmaster Reinhard told me to rub myself with salt and a chalk cream before reclining in the tub.

Sitting there in the garden looking out at the stars, the forest and the mountains, I was served a meal and glasses of wine. Each course came on skewers and, in between eating, the bath master gave the guests sturdy back massages.

Stretching for 200km in the south west of the country, the Black Forest is a mountainous area of river valleys, lakes and streams. Every few miles, the dense woodland gives way to grass clearings and villages with sloped wooden houses.

On the morning after our rub-a-dub-dub, we took a stroll in the hills above the village of Tonbach and stopped off for lunch at the Hotel Traube. This area of the Black Forest, known as Baiersbronn, is an unlikely magnet for gourmets: between them the local restaurants boast seven Michelin stars.

We did not eat at the Michelin-starred restaurant in the hotel, but at the supposedly more modest Bauernstube, a small wooden-beamed dining room at the front.

Originally an inn for thirsty woodcutters, the restaurant now serves exquisite food. We polished off smoked fillet of char with sour cream and a radish and herb salad, a dish of crispy pike, and veal in a red-wine sauce, before going on our way.

The most popular resort in the Black Forest is the elegant spa town Baden-Baden. Once known as the Summer Capital of Europe, it was a congregation point for writers and aristocrats, attracted by its thermal hot springs and the casino.

Mark Twain was put off by the social snobbery of the place, but was impressed by the natural hot baths that bubble up from 2,000 metres below the ground: "I fully believe I left my rheumatism in Baden-Baden. Baden-Baden is welcome to it.''

Wandering through the old streets, one can see how the hot springs have acted as a kind of central heating system for the plant life. Orange and lemon trees can grow here because of the warmth, and steam rises in unlikely places from the ground.

Around midnight, I put on a dickie bow and the closest garment to a dinner jacket that I could muster, and headed to the casino, a ludicrously ornate building that mimics the style of the palace at Versailles. The walls have frescoes with cherubs, marble maidens and crowns, gilded mirrors and colonnades.

Like many of his compatriots, Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky became obsessed with playing the roulette tables here. He blew a fortune and wrote a novel, 'The Gambler', about his compulsion.

After their long absence through the Soviet era, the Russians are back in Baden-Baden in droves, buying up holiday homes and squandering their millions in smoke-filled poker schools. Our group was not quite so adventurous, winning €30 at the roulette table before losing most of it again, and retreating.

Baden-Baden and the Black Forest are playgrounds for the moneyed elite of the region's capital, Stuttgart, the throbbing industrial heart of Germany's south west.

The local people, known as Swabians, have a motto that is known across Germany: 'Schaffe, schaffe, Häusle baue' -- 'work, work, build a little house'. They claim to have invented cars, calculators, clothes pegs, spark plugs and machine guns. At least 80,000 people work in Stuttgart's Mercedes-Benz factory, which occupies an area the size of Monaco.

At first glance, the city looks unprepossessing. Huge swathes of the centre were obliterated when 45,000 fire bombs were dropped on it during the Second World War, and much of the architecture that replaced the old buildings is unremarkable. But when you look closely, the regional capital throws up some pleasant surprises.

The city in the valley of the River Neckar is fringed with hilly vineyards that reach right into the suburbs. In the summer, city dwellers volunteer to pick grapes for local wines -- Trollinger, Lemberger and Riesling. As a reward, they usually come away with a dozen bottles.

Moving between vast wooden barrels and elaborate carvings, we enjoyed a tasting of some of the best wines at the viticulture museum in the grape-growing suburb of Uhlbach.

The central square in the city is dominated by a vast palace, the Neues Schloss, at the end of Schlossgarten park which runs through the heart of the city. Asked why any king would require such an enormous dwelling, a local woman told me that it was all about practicality. "The king needed a bedroom for each of his mistresses -- and he had 89 sons,'' she said.

The singular work ethic and a spirit of inventiveness have helped to turn Stuttgart into one of Europe's most prosperous cities. But even the most diligent Germans have to find time to unwind. In Baden-Württemberg, the chances are that they will be lolling about in a tub or sipping wine, and occasionally doing both.

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