We left Mainz, Germany, by car and started heading south. We were spending the next four days with three friends, two of whom lived in a small town near Karlsruhe and had planned a whole pile of things to do in the Black Forest area. We would be using their home as our base for the first two nights while we explored the Black Forest. The third friend was another Australian, as eager to see this area as we were.
We had our own rental car for the first day of driving. Five adults and all our luggage was not going to be a comfortable trip in our friends’ little Peugot. Simon was driving, and it was the first stint of driving on the right hand side of the road that he had done in over 18 months, so most of my job as navigator revolved around me reminding him which side of the road to drive on and which lane to be in.
We had yet to be successful in acquiring a SIM card (Mainz was completely out of stock would you believe!) so I was relying on Google Offline Maps to get up around, and I have to say I was pleasantly surprised with how well it worked. We just needed to make sure we downloaded the map while we still had wifi.
We left Mainz just before lunch time, and our first stop was the town of Heidelberg. Well known as a university city (Heidelberg University is the oldest in Germany, founded in 1386, and one of the most respected in all of Europe), it has a lovely old town and, of course, a castle on a hill. The impressive Schloss Heidelberg was initially a 13th century fortress, but over the years a palace or two was added to it. Now when you visit you can do an audio tour to hear all about the history. The Schloss also contains some other attractions, such as the Deutsches Apotheken-Museum (Pharmacy Museum) and the Heidelberg Tun, the largest wine barrel in the world.
We took a walk along the main street in the old town, and being a Sunday, many of the businesses were shut as is typical in Europe. It didn’t help that it was cold and windy so the weather wasn’t encouraging people to get out and about.
We visited the Alte Brücke (or Old Stone Bridge), almost freezing to death while the brisk wind tried to blow us into the river. There are some great views of Heidelberg Castle from here though. Looking back towards the old town we saw that most commonest of sights, scaffolding! The medieval bridge gate is currently under renovation. Luckily though we could still just get to Heidelberg’s most famous resident, the Heidelberg Bridge Monkey, who was mostly busy posing with kids and adults alike.
If you are looking for more things to do in Heidelberg, I suggest also doing the Philosopher’s Walk (Philosophenweg) which takes you along a path on the opposite side of the river to the Old Town. It’s up high so gives great views back over the city and river. We didn’t do the walk as about this time the rain started.
Instead we went and got a delicious hot chocolate from Yillily, a cafe near the cathedral which makes a delicious, thick, Spanish hot chocolate and some great light meals. It also happens to be an official Bookcrossing Zone, so if you are looking to swap a book you have read or just pick up a new one, browse the shelves while you are waiting for your order.
We left Heidelberg and continued south. We still had time for another quick stop, and this time it was in Ettlingen. This is officially where the Black Forest starts. It’s also the home town of one of our friends. We took a stroll through the centre of town, and when the sun came out for a few minutes, we stopped for a coffee in the sunshine. Some of our party (not the Australians) even got themselves an ice-cream.
For dinner we had a booking at a local winery in Karlsbad – I think it is called Öko Weingut Kuckuckshof (apologies if my German does not make sense!). Most of the year this place does not do meals, but twice a year for short six week stints the family hosts people in their home for delicious traditional German foods that go perfectly with their wines. The menus are limited and there is no English translations, so it was pretty much a matter of figuring out what the main part of the meal was and hoping for the best. I don’t remember exactly what my meal was, but I can tell you this was possibly the best food of our whole trip.
(Edited to add: my German friends have reminded me that this was called “Saumagen”. It’s a meat and veggie pastry. Look out for it on your trip.)
The following morning we were up early for a full day of exploring the Black Forest – or to use the local word, Schwarzwald. It wasn’t a great start to the morning as the constant drizzle set in, and driving visibility was down to just a few metres through the forest. Our first task had been to drop off our rental car in Karlsruhe, then we all jumped into one car and went in the opposite direction to Baden-Baden.
Baden-Baden is best known for being a spa town. In the 19th century this was THE place to holiday for all the wealthy Europeans. It sits on some hot springs, so became the home of many luxurious hotels offering the latest health benefits from relaxing in these waters. Even today there are a variety of luxury spas available.
While we didn’t actually participate in any of the spa treatments, we did get to have a look at some of the grand old buildings. One of those is the Baden-Baden Casino. They do tours through the building at various times of the day if you are keen to have a look. Only certain times are in English, and unfortunately when we were there they only had the German option, but we decided to go along anyway. We were given a hand out in English, and our German friends helped to translate some of the interesting stories for us.
The inside of the casino is elaborately decorated, reminding me a lot of the style of Versailles. Some of the rooms were particularly spectacular. We were also told about some of the slightly different styles of tables that were used here, and how they have changed over the years using more automated methods of sorting, dealing etc.
We walked across the road to Wallstreet im Hamilton for lunch. This is not a bad option if you are in town, but quite touristy. Some of the meals were a little too expensive for what they were, but the specials were good options. And of course, we had to have Black Forest Cake for dessert while we were in the Black Forest. I’m not a fan of Black Forest cake at home, but this was different. There were no layers of jam or fake cherries, just the traditional sour cherries popular in the region, and that made all the difference.
After lunch we finally did what I was starting to think was impossible – we got a SIM card! Yes, there was a store in town, it was open, they had SIM cards in stock, AND I had all our documentation with us! Yay. Of course it was going to take 3 hours to activate, so we wouldn’t actually know if it was working until later today.
As we explored the old town we visited the Spitalkirche. As far as churches go it’s not all that exciting, but what caught my attention were the stained glass windows. We had noticed the previous day in a church in Ettlingen that there were some skeletons in the design of the windows. Here I noticed it again and realised there must be something to this. Over the next few days I saw some more skeletons. Eventually we learned what they were about, but I will get to that in a future post.
Baden-Baden has a fantastic stretch of parklands through the city called the Lichtentaler Allee. It follows along the banks of the Oos River. The impressive thing is that this park is over 350 years old. The oak trees were planted here for the park in 1655. Now the gardens are a lovely place to walk and relax. There are some pieces of art spread throughout, and the pathway passes some of the magnificent buildings like the Casino.
One place we didn’t get to visit that I would have liked to check out was the Fabergé Museum. While this is a small collection, there are still hundreds of items designed by the famed jeweller.
To finish off the day we headed back to Karlsruhe to have a look around. This is a big city, and really felt that way rather than a cute little German town like many of the others we have visited. We took a walk around the Schloss Karlsruhe gardens and had a lot of fun trying to take a group selfie. Imagine trying to coordinate five people 45+ in age who are all terrible at selfies at the best of time? We needed one of our kids with us who would have done it in about 10 seconds! (And no, I’m not sharing one, they are all terrible lol)
We stopped in for a quick coffee break at Café Wohnzimmer, again chosen because it is an Official Bookcrossing Zone. Here you will find bookshelves with dozens of books to swap. Their coffee is pretty good too.
Before we left Karlsruhe we decided to go back to a phone store since three hours had come and gone and no phone service yet. We were now informed it could be up to 48hours! The SIM card saga continues!
Back in Karlsbad dinner was at the local pub. As an Australian, one of our favourite pub meals is a chicken schnitzel (often referred to as a “schnitty”). Ours are good, but I also enjoy the German variety. Traditionally they are pork, but I am not a huge pork eater. Here though I didn’t think and just ordered the schnitzel. It was pork, and I was pleasantly surprised that I still found it tasty.
Early the next morning we were packing up. We are off to the Alsace region in France for two days, but on the way we will be driving through more of the Black Forest and visiting some more picture perfect cute German towns.
We made a brief stop in the town of Alpirsbach to pick up some of the local Black Forest beers. These beers were originally made buy monks, hence the church and the brewery standing side by side. According to the beer drinkers in our party, the beers are quite decent too. There is a Brewery Museum that does guided tours each day if you are interested and have a little more time available than we did.
Next stop was Schiltach. This town was the cutest one we had seen yet. Full of the colourful, half-timbered houses that come immediately to mind when thinking about Bavaria. I loved just walking around this town and admiring all of the buildings.
We visited the Schüttesäge Museum which gave a lot of information about the timber industry’s rafting tradition in the town to move the timber from the Black Forest via the Kinzig River. Many of the displays were great, and there was some really good old black and white film footage of the whole process, but alas it was all in German! (I really need to brush up on my German one of these days, since, not surprisingly, museums etc in these small towns do not have any English and knowing a little more would really help to get more out of them.) Entry to the museum is free. During summer they also offer free walking tours of the town on Friday afternoons.
A little further up the road is the Schiltach Bahnhof. Not very exciting you may think, but this isn’t your typical railway station. In fact trains no longer run here at all. It is now set up as a historical display to show how things were in the past. The nearby train bridge has also been preserved.
One of the other interesting things was a house located on the main street with markings along one corner showing how high the flood waters had risen over the years.
If you visit Schiltach, I suggest looking for their tourist information centre and picking up a brochure which gives you a walk through the town with information on the various sites. There are some significant buildings that are interesting to look at along the way. I really enjoyed looking around here and recommend it for your Black Forest itinerary.
After a delicious, warming soup (It was particularly cold this day!) at Kaffeebohne, we were on the move again, with our next stop being at the Black Forest Open Air Museum (Schwarzwälder Freilichtmuseum Vogtsbauernhof). I tend to enjoy open air museums, and this one was no different. It has a variety of buildings from the area. Some include displays showing different aspects of life in the Black Forest, others were furnished as they were in certain time periods. The “Little Castle of Effringen” for example, may be more than 600 years old, but it has been left furnished as it was when it was last used as a family home in the 1970s. There are plenty of animals around the place, and later in the season there are regularly craft demonstrations, tours and workshops. We saw large school groups here in an area to the side that is clearly used for educational purposes too.
It was off then to our next stop, over the border into France – which will be my next post.
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Josie is a forty-something budget traveller. She only discovered travel in her late thirties, but since then has travelled extensively including taking an adult gap year. She is now based in Australia and loves sharing all she has learned about travelling on a budget but with the comforts a Gen Xer requires.