Germany: A dream walk on the black side (+photos)

By Jim Eagles

I've just achieved one of my lifetime goals: I went for a walk in the Black Forest.

Of course there are other reasons to visit Germany's Black Forest besides walking.

In the course of my own visit there, I watched an old guy carving a cuckoo clock and saw a clock the size of a house; visited a picture-book pretty valley, dotted with gingerbread cottages; ate some scrumptious Black Forest cherry cake; and tried a shot of the local schnapps.

But it was the walk in the trees that really excited me.

Strange, yes, but it all goes back to an episode of the cult BBC radio comedy from the 60s and 70s, I'm Sorry I'll Read That Again - a precursor to Monty Python's Flying Circus and The Goodies - in which the team started a pirate radio station (as everyone did in those days).

Unfortunately, they had only one record so, after the usual meaningless burble from the DJ, he would have to say, "And now for A Walk in the Black Forest," and off it would go, "Dum dum de dum dum dum ..." After a dozen playings the tune rather stuck in my mind.

One day, I swore, I'll do it - I'll walk in the Black Forest.

I had almost forgotten that vow until 40 years on, as I was cruising down the River Rhine on the luxury cruiser Avalon Tapestry, we stopped at the beautiful French city of Strasbourg and on the list of tours available was a half-day tour across the river into Germany and the Black Forest.

All at once I heard that sound - "Dum dum de dum dum dum ..." - and I knew I had no choice.

The tune was still playing in my head as our bus left the outskirts of Strasbourg and headed through the sunny valleys of the Alsace wine region, dotted with delightful villages (and a few very ugly towns), neat rows of grapevines and the occasional castle.

After a time, way off in the distance, a dark shape loomed. "That," said guide Marianne, "is the Black Forest."

The name, she explained, applies to a forested range of hills rising up to a height of 1500m.

"It was the last area here to be settled because it looked very dark and mysterious. There were stories of ghosts and witches and fierce creatures. People preferred to live down in the valleys."

I can believe that. Even today, when its forests have been cut back by timber companies or farmers in search of extra grazing, it still has a mysterious look.

Marianne reckons wolves are no longer a problem, but lynxes are growing in numbers, huge eagles soar overhead and under the trees, apparently, live giant earthworms 60cm long.

Happily the only wildlife at our first stopping point was a flock of wooden cuckoos. This was the House of Black Forest Clocks, run by Adolf Herr - "Herr means mister," said Marianne, "so he's Mr Mister." - whose family has been making cuckoo clocks since the 1780s.

Outside was a giant clock the size of a house with 21 moving figures which signal the passing of time by dancing, drinking, walking the dog, grinding flour with a water-wheel and playing musical instruments.

Inside were hundreds of clocks - cuckoo clocks, pendulum clocks, grandfather clocks - all merrily keeping time, while at a workbench in the middle of it all the cheerful Herr Herr busily carved leaves and flowers, pine cones and cuckoos for the next lot.

It was an amazing sight, but I had no plans to buy a cuckoo clock. I have enough trouble sleeping through the early morning chorus as it is. Though, to be fair, you can turn these cuckoos off during resting hours, which you can't do with tuis.

What I was interested in was another Black Forest cliche on offer upstairs: Black Forest cherry cake, soaked in cherry brandy, laden with whipped cream and accompanied by a very nice cup of coffee. Just the thing to build up my strength for a walk.

Instead of heading for the forest, however, we stopped at the Black Forest Open Air Museum to explore a collection of traditional local buildings - farmhouses, labourers' cottages, storehouses, mill, bakery, shrine, forge workshop, apiary - dating from 1599.

It was interesting to wander round the houses with their thick walls to keep out the bitter winter cold, window boxes sprouting bright red geraniums and traditional vege gardens.

But the sun had almost sunk to the forested ridgeline glowering above and I still hadn't actually had my walk.

Then I noticed that over the back of the museum a thin finger of trees crept down the ridge between the houses and then expanded into a sort of miniature forest.

Eagerly I climbed the fence, jogged across the field, reached the edge of the trees and declaimed, "And now for a walk in the Black Forest." Then off I went: "Dum dum de dum dum dum ..." It felt great.

GETTING THERE
Air New Zealand's seasonal fares to Europe start at $2599 plus airport and government charges. Travel is on Air NZ and partner airlines Swiss and KLM. See www.airnewzealand.co.nz, call (0800) 737 000 or visit an Air New Zealand Holidays Store.

CRUISING THE RHINE
Avalon Waterways is offering eight-day Romantic Rhine river cruises, visiting some of Europe's most picturesque regions, from April to October 2008.

The cruises are available from Basel to Amsterdam or from Amsterdam to Basel, visiting the towns of Strasbourg, Heidelberg, Mainz, Coblenz and Cologne along the way.

Built in 2006, Avalon Tapestry features a lounge and restaurant at its front, as well as an outside viewing deck enabling passengers to enjoy the scenery as they cruise. Most staterooms have floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors for optimal viewing. All meals onboard are included, with wine complimentary with dinner.

MORE INFORMATION
See your licensed travel agent or visit www.avalonwaterways.co.nz for a brochure and free DVD.

Jim Eagles cruised down the Rhine as a guest of Air New Zealand and Avalon Waterways.

- NZ Herald

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