Germany’s Black Forest is drawing more visitors than ever before. Some go for the mystique, others for the cuckoo clocks and cake. We tour Germany’s most German region to see what’s really there.
You hear them before you see them. An eager babble swells the silence. Then, out of the morning mist, the first shapes appear dressed in beige outdoor jackets and green Mayser fishing hats, neatly creased pants and Gore-Tex: a group of Chinese, Korean and Singaporean tourists on their 10-day Loving Europe tour. Today’s program: Germany. Titisee, a town on a lake in the Black Forest, no more, no less. A single day to convey the essence of all that is German. But what is that, exactly?
Ten kilometers to the southwest, Achim Laber climbs into his old Audi 80. Driving along a mountain track cut into the Feldberg, he laughs out loud. Laber laughs a lot. He’s a forest ranger who loves his work. Silver firs line his path here in the oldest and largest nature reserve in the state of Baden-Württemberg, where the yellow gentian is protected, the Alpine mountain locust has survived, and the lynx have returned. You could say that the Black Forest is one with itself on the Feldberg, as is Laber, who’s been a ranger here for a good 25 years. “The Black Forest fills me, breathes in me, is in me,” he says. In case that sounded weird, he adds, “I hear that from the hikers who come here, too. We’re seeing an amazing return to the forest in Germany.”
Laber is right. For the past two years, forester and author Peter Wohlleben has been whispering his way through the book charts with his tree and animal primers, while magazines such as Wald and Landlust have been celebrating the escape to the countryside and into nature. The Germans and their forests – it’s a special relationship. The ancient Teutons worshipped the forest as the home of their gods. Hermann the Cheruscan defeated the Roman legions in the forest. To the Germans, it’s the ultimate place of magic and mystery. The forest is the world of Grimms’ fairy tales. It’s a romantic refuge. On the German export charts, the forest is topped only by beer, punctuality and lederhosen. The poets Eichendorff, Goethe and Rilke waxed lyrical over it. And Germany is arguably the only country where a nature conservancy party could become as big as the Grüne has. Maybe there is nothing more German than the German forest, and perhaps the Black Forest is the most German of them all. It’s a wonderful place for testing clichés because it’s where two different longings come together: that of the Germans for the forest, and that of foreigners for Germanness. A trip to the Black Forest is effectively anthropology live.
Our narrative proceeds to Freiburg, to a boutique in the Wiehre district where Kim Schimpfle makes traditional costumes. What? you mutter to yourself, no one wears them anymore, except at the Munich Oktoberfest! But you would be quite wrong. “First of all, we’re in the Black Forest and not in Bavaria,” says Schimpfle, “and second, we have many occasions to wear traditional dress, like birthdays, parties and work events.” The self-taught designer tailors her own brand of traditional haute couture, including figure-hugging styles and colorful skirts featuring digital prints – of postcard motifs from 1900. “It’s easy to lose our identity in the online world, so people are using heimat as an anchor again,” she explains. (The German concept of heimat encompasses a sense of tradition, wholesome, old-fashioned values and belonging.)
Heimat is a tricky buzzword, a minefield, in fact, ever since nationalist parties have been gathering force in Europe. Is it possible for a harmless sense of “homeland” to exist? Are people in the Black Forest actually ahead of the rest of Germany because much of what is considered typically German has always been found right here? In Schimpfle’s opinion, heimat can be totally positive if you give it a modern twist. One of the garments she has just completed bears the German for “Black Forest, my home! How wonderful you are!”
The Asians are now crossing the lake on a tourist steamer. “Beautiful! Beautiful!” Their cries of delight echo across the water. They take pictures of everything: the forest, the lake, the reporter, and themselves with the reporter and the forest and the lake in the background. No one pays any attention to the guide’s patter booming from the loudspeakers, but the moment a woman in traditional dress steps out of a cabin on the southern bank and waves, a Chinese woman shouts: “So fantastic! This is my Deutschland!” She opens her arms wide and twirls around as if in a trance.
Year after year, the Black Forest reports record visitor numbers – and not just because of the Asian tourists who pick up their fix of Germany here. Arabs, Israelis and Americans also flock to the region. In 2015, the guests numbered 7.95 million, more than ever before. Nearly 30 percent were from abroad, and that trend is rising. New records are broken every year. The Black Forest has no dearth of attractions, of course. Baiersbronn has restaurants boasting a total of eight Michelin stars. Baden-Baden is an appealing spa city with casinos. The region has mighty waterfalls and tiny villages. The climate here is wonderfully mild even in the fall, the air is clear, and visibility excellent. But that’s not all. There’s also something that’s hard to put a finger on, but the Brits you meet in Freiburg will tell you in hushed tones that it’s “the mystique of the Black Forest.”
Stefan Strumbel, an artist, attempts to shed light on that mystique. His pop-art crucifixes and giant, neon-colored cuckoo clocks have catapulted him to fame, and his work has featured in Shanghai, London and New York. Strumbel helped to boost this region’s international popularity. Like few other artists, he has dissected, deconstructed and consolidated the heimat theme, almost to the point of producing kitsch. Strumbel’s studio is in Offenburg, at the heart of the Black Forest. But on a sleety afternoon, he can be found in Grafenhausen, where you will find his latest work outside the Rothaus brewery: two 15-meter-tall, rust-red pine cones weighing six tons each. Strumbel, youthful-looking, a big talker in a herringbone-tweed flat cap and with tattoos on both arms, looks up and says: “I’ll never be done with my heimat, no way. It’s absolutely me. I love the Black Forest.”
No-one was talking about heimat fifteen years ago when Strumbel started out. He dug up the concept and approached it with irony, color and verve. “Today, heimat is trending and you have to be careful not to upset the trend, to make sure it doesn’t become an empty feeling. As long as it stands for reflection on traditional values and a sense of belonging, that’s fine, but it shouldn’t stand for withdrawal or detachment from the world.” That’s a good, smart statement from Strumbel, and one that also pretty well describes the Black Forest, which walks a fine line between tradition and modernity. The corresponding questions are: “What is real, what is backdrop? A cliché is a cliché, but wasn’t it something very different long ago? Doesn’t every cliché have a grain of truth at its core?
Strumbel is expanding his studio in Offenburg. He once tried living and working in Berlin, but couldn’t cope with the parties, the distractions, the capital-city vibe. So he went home to the Black Forest. Strumbel can only turn heimat into art if he makes art in his heimat. The rain drips off the giant pine cones. They will be here forever.
Forester Laber has meanwhile reached the summit of the Feldberg. At 1493 meters above sea level, the view is incredible, with the Alps shimmering to the south and the Vosges mountains glimmering to the west. The sun sinks below the horizon and bathes the slopes in a prism of colors: red, yellow, brown and finally, oil-black. Laber peers through his binoculars and says, “Crazy, isn’t it?” Not long ago, someone asked him to run a refugee center in the valley. A good organizer who gets along well with people, Laber agreed, but with some reservations, since it meant neglecting his forestry duties. The weeks turned into months. Returning to his post, Laber was afraid that in his absence, something might have happened to the countryside, but it was as beautiful as ever. That set him thinking. He realized that he needed the forest more than it needed him.
The German forest is primordial, magical and irresistible as German beer
There’s no escaping the cuckoo clocks in the Black Forest. The Asians stand facing a wall of them in a basement workshop in Titisee while a staff member explains the pendulum mechanism and organ pipes, and states each model’s price to ooohs and aaahs. Some of the housings cost more than a small car. There’s a certain charm to the idea of those heavy German clocks hanging in thousands of Chinese homes, their cuckoo-cuckoo interrupting the tea ceremony. “Is there any particular feature you are looking for?” the presenter asks. A Taiwanese man says he would like to see a peasant raising a glass of wheat beer on the hour. “Do you have one like that?” Laughter ensues. In the afternoon, the Asians depart by coach. That’s Germany done and dusted, now it’s on to the Netherlands. In addition to cuckoo clocks, they’ve bought Thermos flasks, knife sets and stainless steel pans. All “Made in Germany.”