We went exploring through the Black Forest today (the place, not the cake) and it was AWESOME! Check it out…
The Schwarzwald (translation = Black Forest) is indubitably Germany’s best known wilderness area. Birthplace of so many childhood fairy tales, this is one woodland I have been excited about visiting for decades (because yes, I am THAT old). This is the background against which many popular legends and fables are set – stories like “Sleeping Beauty”, “Hansel & Gretel”, “Little Red Riding Hood”, and “Beauty & the Beast”. Walking under its dark canopy today we could can just imagine how foreboding the forest must have seemed centuries ago when bears and wolves roamed the hills, and children who ventured off the known paths got lost and were never found again…
The Black Forest is in far South-Western Germany, in the state of Baden-Württemberg. This 10,000 square kilometre mountainous woodland was once home to lots of scary beasts and imagined horrors; today it has well and truly been tamed however and is even serviced by a train that brings happy little tourists like ourselves into its verdant embrace. Tourism is in fact the regions major industry and there are dozens of small villages spread throughout the forest that provide sustenance and shelter for hikers, campers and day trippers like us. So really the Black Forest is not that foreboding any more at all.
There are hundreds of kilometres of hiking trails that criss-cross the Schwarzwald and since it’s been AGES since we did a good hike, we set off early this morning to trek the Kinzig Valley Trail. This 120km trail follows the Kinzig River through the centre of the Black Forest and is considered part of the Swabian Camino (i.e. the German component of the 2,500km Camino that cuts across Spain and France to Santiago de Compostella). Like the Camino in Spain, the Kinzig Valley hiking trail is sign posted with the yellow symbol of the St James mussel. The Kinzig Valley Trail is also part of the European E1 Long Distance Hiking Trail that runs from Sicily to the top of Norway. It goes without saying that we did not do the entire Kinzig Valley Trail today; we picked 15 of the most scenic kilometres to hike and just stuck with that.
We caught the train from Heidelberg to Schenkenzell (a rather epic 2 hour journey in itself) and then set out to walk all the way to Wolfach, some 15kms away. The hiking trail itself was very smooth and flat and consisted of some paved pedestrian-only bits along the roadside, some country roads that we had to share with the occasional tractor and/or cow, and some sections of rocky forest paths that took us deep into the woods. It was an easy hike, especially compared to some of the very hilly treks we did in Japan!
Along the way we saw lots of rolling green fields full of fat happy dairy cows, cute little villages set beside the babbling Kinzig River, and, of course, trees (it is a forest after all). It was a wonderful day of hiking…
The highlights of the day were without a doubt the village of Schiltach and the ruins of Schenkenberg Castle. Schiltach is a small village, founded 1,000 years ago and now home to 4,000 residents. What made Schiltach so special is that the entire medieval town centre has been preserved. The central Marktplatz (translation = market square) is still cobbled and home to the old town well; the original Rathaus (translation = town hall) is still there too (it now houses the Tourist Information Centre); and there are dozens of timber-framed houses to enjoy. Even though it is late summer, most of the old houses still had planter-boxes full of flowers at their windows, making for a very pretty sight.
The other highlight of the day was Schenkenberg Castle. This 13th century fortress was once an administrative and defensive holding belonging to the local lordling, but has long since been abandoned and left to crumble. The ruins are perched up a hill, overlooking the valley below. All that’s left of the original fortress is part of a wall from the main keep and the fountains of the main guard tower. It’s all very eerie, perched up on that hill by itself, the vacant eyes of its empty windows looking blankly across the landscape..
We stopped for lunch in a great little Italian trattoria beneath the castle’s ruins where a genuine Italian Mamma cooked us home-made gnocchi whilst the rest of the family regaled us with tales of life under the shadows of the Black Forest. It was great, especially because IT WASN’T SCHNITZEL. I mean, we love German schnitzel, don’t get me wrong, but every now and then it’s nice to eat something not so schnitzelly.
Around 4:00pm we arrived in Wolfach, our final destination. Wolfach is a vertiable bustling metropolis compared to the other villages we passed; with a permanent population of 6,000 people it is one of Germany’s most famous spa towns and plays host to about 130,000 tourists every year. One of the main attractions in Wolfach is the Dorotheenhütte glass blowing workshop – one of the last active glassworks using traditional methods in the Black Forest. By that stage of the afternoon we were not all that interested in glass blowing however and just hopped on our train and watched the mountains and forest of the Schwarzwald gradually peter out until we were once again just passing by rolling green farmland.
The Black Forest is a beautiful part of Germany – not quite as wild and foreboding as we thought it would be, but still a wonderful piece of wilderness in this very industrialised and populated country. We will definitely have to come back, if for nothing else than for some more of this…
We just love a good schloss (translation = castle or palace)!
Germany certainly has satisfied our hunger for good schlosses – between the fairy tale castles on Bavaria (i.e. Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau castles), Meissen’s hill-top marvel, the stunning palace in Dresden and the many, many fortresses and castles of the Rhine Gorge, we had almost had our fill of castles and palaces. Or so we thought until today, when we discovered Heidleberg Castle…
Heidelberg Castle is quite captivating; the entire edifice was built from red sandstone and its crumbling ruins stand in sharp contrast to the green background of the forest and parkland around it. Originally built in 1214 the castle was expanded in 1401; but then, in 1537, it was struck by lightening and the entire upper portion of the castle destroyed by fire. That damage was repaired and further fortifications added in the second half of the 16th century. During this time the grand Renaissance Wings of the palace were also built and ornate Baroque gardens commissioned. This was reportedly when the castle was truly at its finest.
With the advent of the Thirty Years War in 1618 the castle’s demise began. First the gardens were burnt and destroyed by the invading French army, then the Powder Tower blown apart, and finally, the towers and walls which had survived previous waves of destruction were blown up with mines. The gardens were, in their time, considered “an eighth wonder of the world“. Now, however, there is just forest and a bit of grassy parkland where once there were flowers, trees, fountains, ponds, promenades and marble statues. And of the magnificent Renaissance Wings there is just one facade left, the empty shell all that remains of what must have once been a fantastic section of the castle.
When peace finally returned to Heidelberg in the late 17th century, attempts were made at rebuilding the castle, but lack of funds and a series of disputes with the local religious elite convinced the ruler at the time to abandon all plans of restoring Heidelberg Castle to its former glory. Instead, in 1697, he moved the entire court and all its administrative bodies to Mannheim, about 20kms down the road. So disillusioned was the Elector of Heidelberg with the town and its castle that he reportedly said “Leave the castle to rot, so that grass may grow on her pavements and birds nest in her rafters“.
Some small attempts to repair parts of the castle were made in the 1700s, but when the castle was again struck by lightening in 1764, the ruins were completely abandoned. From that moment, Heidelberg’s fate as an eternal ruin was sealed. A century later, during the 1800s the ruins of the castle were idealised by the Romantic movement. Victor Hugo (the leading French Romantic and author of the “Hunchback of Notre Dame“), for example, visited Heidelberg Castle many times and was fascinated by its beauty.
As well visiting the ruins of Heidelberg Castle we also took a look at the Apothecary Museum that is now housed in one of the buildings. This little museum showed how the science of pharmacy has evolved over the centuries, from its beginnings in ancient apothecaries to modern mass-produced chemical drugs. They even has a mock 17th century pharmacy set up, with bottles of lotions and potions lined up neatly on shelves, and drawers full of dried herbs and mysterious powders. Downstairs they had an apothecaries workshop, complete with stills and other funky glassware. It was so cool! I found it particularly fascinating, from a professional perspective, to see the primitive equipment apothecaries had to use to perform their chemistry and dispensing.
One of the castle’s other claims to fame is that it’s home to the world’s largest wine barrel – so huge that it took 130 trunks of oak to make the thing. The Heidelberg Tun, as it’s called, was built in 1751 to house the wine paid as taxes by the wine growers of the region. It stands 7.0m high, is 8.5m wide, holds 220,000L of wine, and has a dance floor built on top of it. That’s one bog barrel!
After marvelling at the castle and its various attractions, we spent the afternoon wandering through its gardens and enjoying the views back down to Heidelberg (the views from Heidelberg Castle are amazing, perched as it is high above the town on Königsstuhl Mountain). The castle, its views and its surroundings really captivated us today – we will definitely have to add this schloss to our list of favourites!
Heidelberg – an academic marvel and one of Germany’s cutest historical towns
We left Mainz and the Rhineland behind us today, continuing our journey and moving on to Heidelberg, Germany’s best preserved Baroque town. Heidelberg is by far one of the most beautiful towns we’ve seen in Germany so far….
The train journey from Mainz was quite short which meant we got to Heidelberg with plenty of time to do some exploring!
Built along the banks of the River Neckar, in a narrow valley surrounded by mountains, Heidelberg is essentially a university town (students make up 20% of its 150,000 population) with a long history as a respected academic city.
Heidelberg University is in fact the oldest university in Germany (established in 1386) and was the third university established in the Holy Roman Empire. During the 14th and 15th centuries Heidelberg University was reportedly viewed as the key academic centre for theologians and law experts. Even today the university has a reputation internationally as a premier academic institution, especially for humanitarian disciplines. Interestingly, Heidelberg University played a key role historically in the era of reformation as many theological discussions and debates were held in its main hall and, in 1518, Martin Luther defended his theses within its walls.
The university was just one of the historical sights we enjoyed today whilst exploring Heidelberg’s altstadt (translation = old town). This is one cute little town! Most of the city of Heidelberg survived WWII intact, you see, so the altstadt here is fantastically preserved.
Heidelberg was originally a Celtic* town, then a Roman garrison town (10BC to 260AD), then part of the Holy Roman Empire. It was during the time of the Holy Roman Empire that the town reached its peak in terms of political importance, as the Electors of the region built their castle here. During the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), however, much of the town was destroyed and the court was moved to the nearby town of Mannheim instead. Since then Heildelberg has remained a relatively small university town. Its relative unimportance in the global political arena is part of the reason, I think, it has been allowed it to remain relatively unchanged for 350 years.
*Who knew that the Celts lived in mainland Europe as well as the British Isles?! I didn’t! I have always associated Celtic language and culture with Ireland, Wales and Scotland; turns out, however, that the Celts lived throughout Europe during the Iron Age, as far South and Northern Italy, as far East as Portugal, and as far West as Turkey. To the North they reached the British Isles, where the Celtic language is still spoken today. By 500AD he Celtic tribe sin mainland Europe were mostly gone, however, conquered and assimilated by the Romans and/or the Germanic tribes. High in the hills above Heidelberg remains of a Celtic settlement have been found, one of the few remnants of this ancient European tribe.
Our foot-powered exploration of the old town centred around the hauptstrasse (translation = central street), which runs for over 1.5kms and is the longest pedestrian shopping street in Germany. The buildings lining the hauptstrasse are beautifully maintained and house more cafes, restaurants and souvenir shops than a town this size should need – I guess someone has to feed and water the 3 million tourists that visit Heidelberg each year! We spent our whole afternoon losing ourselves in the narrow cobbled streets of the old town, discovering Heidelberg’s charms for ourselves. Always above us, however, was the imposing Heidelberg Castle. Now mostly in ruins, this once magnificent structure must have once been awe-inspiring to behold.
All-in-all, an awesome way to spend an afternoon! And to top it off we found ourselves a great little restaurant in the altstadt for dinner where we had… that’s right, you guessed it: German beer and schnitzel!
Awakened by the sounds of ringing bells in Mainz, city of churches
After arriving by boat last night around 8:00pm and lugging our bags the 1.5km from the river-pier to our hotel (being a Saturday, all the taxis in Mainz were apparently too busy last night to pick us up!), we didn’t really have much time to explore our new home. We made up for that today though, spending our Sunday exploring the maze of streets in Mainz’s altstadt and wandering along the banks of the Rhine.
Mainz is a relatively small town (population around 200,000) in Germany’s South-West, right in the heart of the Rhineland wine region. The city’s location at the confluence of the Rhine and the Main Rivers made it an ideal stop for traders, which is why there have been settlements here since 300,000BC. The “civilized” origins of Mainz date back to around 38BC, when the Romans built a citadel here; even today there are Roman ruins dotted around the town. Mainz is in fact recognised as an important centre for Romano-Germanic studies and in the centre of town there is the Römisch-Germanisches Museum which is home to Roman, Medieval and Bronze Age artefacts from the region.
We were awoken this morning by the sounds of multiple church bells ringing, coming from every direction. Turns out Mainz has A LOT of churches and they all ring their bells very enthusiastically on a Sunday morning. Due to its key geographical position in the middle of Europe, Mainz was a particularly important religious centre during the time of the Franks and The Holy Roman Empire. The Franks united the Celtic and Germanic tribes of Europe; and, under Charlemagne, built a new empire in Europe: the Holy Roman Empire. So important was Mainz during these times that the Archbishops of Mainz were considered the most important of the seven Germanic Electors and substitutes for the Pope North of the Alps. The first Archbishop in Mainz, Boniface, was killed in 754 whilst trying to convert some heathens to Christianity. He was canonised not long after his death and is the patron saint of Germany.
The statue of St Boniface in Mainz stands in front of the the town’s main cathedral, St Martin. This massive church was first built in 975 and added to in the 13th and 14th centuries. It was one of the few buildings that survived the air raids of WWII intact and today sits at the heart of modern Mainz (the square in front of the cathedral is still Mainz’s main town square).
A small number of fachwerkhäuser (traditional German Medieval houses) also survived destruction during WWII, much to our delight. Their steeply pitched roofs, window flower-boxes and timber frames are just to cute and we couldn’t help but photograph them as we wandered through the cobbled streets of Old Mainz.
As we strolled through Mainz’s altstadt we also came across the reconstructed Electoral Palace, built in the 18th century as the residence of the Elector of Main; and the 17th century Domus Universitatis, once Mainz’s tallest edifice and still part of its university. These buildings stand around Schillerplatz, one of the main squares in town. In the centre of this square is the Fastnachtsbrunnen (translation = carnival fountain), a fanciful piece made of many figures together, all celebrating Midsummer’s Festival together.
Finally, during our wanderings we came across the Gutenberg Museum. Named after Mainz’s most famous son, Johann Gutenberg (the European inventor of printing press* in 1450), this museum is dedicated to all things printing and publishing-related. It contains 2 copies of the Gutenberg Bible (the first book ever printed using a printing press) and numerous other rare and precious books printed on one of those early printing presses. Ah the power of the written (typed) word… With the advent of television, the internet and mass media, we barely think about the value of information any more these days – we just expect to be able to access all information, from anywhere, at any time. At least in the developed world, we take being able to read for granted and assume we have a right to gather information and make up our own minds about “the facts”. This was not always the case, and the invention of the printing press represents one of the leaps forward in human evolution, I think, because it facilitated the easy dissemination of knowledge. And you know how it goes: with knowledge comes power. Who knew that one of the tools that enabled us to become so very “powerful” today was invented right here in Mainz?! WE didn’t (until today)! A great discovery to end a great day of exploring in Mainz!
(*They had printing presses in China and Korea in the 11th century, Europe just took a little longer to catch up.)
Evening blog fans! We spent most of today cruising up the River Rhine from Koblenz to Mainz, admiring the castles, villages and vineyards of the Rhine Gorge. The cruise from Koblenz to Mainz took 9 hours (despite the towns only being about 100km apart) because we were going against the current; whilst this is MUCH slower than the train, it was far more scenic and relaxing.
Since the cruises left quite late, we had heaps of time to linger over coffee and breakfast at our newly found favourite coffee shop in Koblenz. It’s right in the centre of the altstadt and looks out over the central Marktplatz. A great spot for a cafe-au-lait (or two).
At 1200km in length the Rhine is Germany’s longest river, and is one of Europe’s most important navigation and trade routes. The Rhine once marked the Northern-most limit of the Roman Empire but was taken over by Germanic tribes when the Roman Empire fell. The Rhine starts in Switzerland as meltwater from the Rheinwaldhorn Glacier. Beginning its journey as a tumultuous alpine stream, it cuts its way through deep ravines then empties into Lake Constance on the German/Austrian border before continuing on at a much more sedate pace through Germany, France and the Netherlands. Along the way the river swells with water as tributaries such as the Moselle River (confluence at Koblenz) and the Main River (confluence at Mainz) feed into it.
This section of the river is believed to have been originally settled by Celtic tribes and the name Rhine comes from the Celtic word renos meaning “raging flow” – a fair description for this deep, wide river when it’s in full flood, I’m sure. The river was flowing quite sedately today though and we had a very smooth ride all the way to Mainz.
Our desire to cruise through this portion of the Rhine came from talking to a local guy from Koblenz that we met on the train there. He insisted we MUST cruise through the Rhine Gorge as it was beautiful and, per square kilometre, contains more castles than anywhere else in the world. How could we argue with logic like that?! And we were not disappointed; the Rhine Gorge is a picturesque ravine lined with steep cliffs, forested mountains, vineyards, medieval villages and fairytale castles.
Despite the clouds, the cruise was amazing. The steep walls of the Rhine Gorge towered above us, often covered in impeneratable forest and sometimes decorated with vineyards (most of Germany’s vineyards are in the Rhine Gorge). We also saw dozens of castles, some in ruins but others beautifully restored and turned int luxurious hotels or private homes. The entire 100km-long section of the Rhine Gorge between Koblenz and Mainz has in fact been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site due to the number of castles and medieval buildings lining its cliffs. Many of these castles were built in the Middle Ages and are dark and imposing structures; it’s obvious the feudal overlords who built them designed them to be defensive structures not pretty palaces. Some of the castles, however, were constructed far more recently, in the 18th and 19th centuries; built by lords made rich from collected tolls no doubt (it was common practice apparently for landowners in the area to charge tolls to any ship wanting to pass along this important waterway).
Evening blog fans! We had a great day exploring Koblenz’s historical sites today, and relaxing along the shores of the River Rhine…
To help us recover from last night’s birthday celebrations our first stop this morning was a lovely little coffee shop in the Marktplatz (translation = central square). Once we were duly fortified with caffeine and doughnuts the day could commence (Note: Germany is great if you’re looking to pack on a few pounds by the way – there’s more doughnuts, beer, schnitzel, pretzels and sausage here than you could possibly desire!).
Properly prepared for our day now we started our stroll through the altstadt (translation = old town) at Münzplatz (translation = Mint Place). This is one of the oldest squares in the town, and is named after the Alte Münz (translation = old mint), where Koblenz coins were minted from the 14th to 18th century. The buildings around this square are all from the 14th century and it is truly charming.
More aimless wandering through the altstadt led us past some more lovely medieval buildings, all really well restored. And then, out of the blue, we came upon a fairly nondescript church, tucked away in the corner of a square. Going inside we were amazed at how lovely it was; later we discovered it was the 14th century Church of Our Lady, Koblenz’s main Catholic church. One of the joys of exploring a town without maps, I think, is stumbling across places like that. We were there fairly early and it was so quiet and peaceful inside the church that we were reminded why they used to describe churches as places of sanctuary.
Continuing we found our way out of the maze of streets in the old town and headed out towards the River Moselle. On the banks of the river we came across the Alte Burg (translation = Old Castle). First built in 1185, this was the residence of the Dukes of Koblenz for centuries. Today it houses the local library and poses prettily for tourists like us.
Further around, along the River Moselle, is the Basilica of St Castor, the oldest church in Koblenz. First built in 836 this magnificent cathedral has been added to and extended extensively during its 1200 year history, first in 1208, then in 1498, and most recently in 1812.
Coming once again around the bend to the Deutsch Eck, we discovered you can actually climb up into the statue of William I that adorns the point there, so we did! The views from inside the monument were great and close up the sheer scale of it was even more intimidating. They REALLY wanted to ensure that statue could be seen by anyone and everyone coming down the river didn’t they?!
From the Deutsch Eck we continued on along the riverbank, down the Rhine now. Here we found the station where you can catch the cable car across the Rhine and up to Ehrenbreitstein Fortress. This massive fortress dominates the landscape and is the most obvious reminder of Koblenz’s military history. Being at such an important cross-roads (or cross-rivers), Koblenz has been repeatedly besieged, invaded, conquered, retaken and defended. From Roman times the strategic advantages of having a fortress perched atop Mt Ehrenbreitstein were obvious and the current fort, built in 1817, sits on top of 3 or 4 former incarnations. The views across the Rhine Valley from Mt Ehrenbreitstein were great and we had a great afternoon exploring the museum that is now housed within the old fortress.
Once back down in Koblenz we decided to whittle the afternoon away, relaxing along the riverfront with a couple of good books. A very mellow end to a very pleasant day of exploring. Having pretty much seen everything the town has to offer, we’ve decided to move on from Koblenz a day early and are going to spend tomorrow cruising down the Rhine instead. Can’t wait for that! Tell you all about it tomorrow evening…
Today is my 37th birthday and what better way to celebrate a birthday in Germany than with beer and schnitzel, right?
It’s a terrible cliche, I know, but I can’t believe I’m 37! I certainly don’t feel any older than I did 5 or 10 years ago, and goodness knows I’m no wiser than I was 10 years ago either; in fact, I would venture to say I’m actually more immature now than I was back then! Not that I put a lot of standing on how many years people (including myself) have been alive for. I staunchly believe the number of years you’ve been on the planet has nothing to do with your age – physical, mental, emotional or otherwise. That’s my story anyway and I’m sticking to it….
The day of my birth started mundanely enough, and continued on in that vein as we boarded a train for Koblenz. We travelled from Berlin to Rhineland today, right over the other side of Germany. It was a 6.5 hour train journey all up; a journey that took us through hundreds of kilometres of farmlands of golden wheat and past postcard-perfect villages. We met up with the River Rhine in Koln (Cologne) and followed it down through the Rhine Valley to Koblenz, our home for the next few days.
Koblenz is a relatively small town (population 100,000) built along both banks of the Rhine, right at the point where the Rhine meets the Moselle (the name Koblenz, or Coblenz, comes from the Latin confluentes, meaning “where rivers meet”). It is an important transport hub for goods going up and down these two rivers and was an important military out-post for many centuries. The Romans were the first to recognise the value of Koblenz’s strategic position and built a fort on Mt Ehrenbreitstein, overlooking the town. Over the centuries (as Koblenz was first a part of the Holy Roman Empire, then a Frankan colony, and finally, part of Prussia), that first fortress was rebuilt and expanded. Today there is a 19th century Prussian fortress atop that hill, built over the top of the previous, older defensive edifices.
Koblenz is a popular holiday destination for German families and sees a fair number of international tourists as well, mainly thanks to the fleet of river cruise ships that stop in here every year. Tourism is, in fact, one of its main industries; along with wine (Koblenz is at the centre of both the Moisel and Rhinish wine regions). We walked all along the riverfront area, enjoying the wide, grassy promenade and admiring the handsome waterfront mansions.
Right at the point where the Rhine and the Moselle meet is the Deutsche Eck (translation = the German Corner), where there is a colossal statue there of Emperor William I. Erected in 1898 the monument commemorates King William I’s coronation as Emperor. Under the leadership of William I and his Prime Minister Otto von Bismarck, Germany was united and the Prussian Empire formed, a grand moment in Germany’s history that is commemorated in Koblenz by a rather grand monument!
We arrived in Koblenz fairly late in the afternoon and so didn’t spend much time getting to know the city before heading off for a celebratory birthday dinner. We stopped our walking tour at the Deutsch Eck and then wandered into the altstadt to find dinner. In the old town we quickly managed to find the Königsbacher brewery, Koblenz’s oldest brewery (established in 1689). There is a restaurant just nearby that serves schnitzel and Königsbacher beer, which seemed like the perfect place to stop, celebrate my birthday and enjoy sunset. A lovely end to a great birthday!