FOR all of my adult life I have wanted to visit the Black Forest in Germany. And no, not just for the famous cake, although admittedly that was a big attraction.
I can’t pinpoint what caused my desire to see this place. But it has a reputation that precedes it. There is a mystique about it – a magical vision of thick forest, and maybe wolves.
So being driven on a large bus through rolling green hills where you could almost smell the richness of the milk produced from fat cows grazing on the best grass in the world (except there was not a cow in sight, more about that in a minute) came as a little surprise.
The Black Forest wasn’t a thick forest as I’d imagined, with the menacing gleam of wolves’ eyes behind every tree, but a series of fairytale towns and villages sprinkled among undulating and idyllic countryside where the enchanting houses all had long sloping roofs that almost reached the ground.
It was magical, beautiful, serene. And the absence of cows? It was the end of winter and farm animals live inside during the bitter cold Black Forest winters. And the roofs almost reaching the ground? So they don’t collapse under the weight of heavy winter snow.
We arrived at the town of Gutach, famous for The Black Forest Open Air Museum, a collection of original ancient farmhouses. There was something disconcerting about this place and I can’t identify what or why.
Maybe it was the main house, Vogtsbauernhof, built in 1612 and until recently (the 1960s) lived in by one old woman who eschewed all mod cons.
What was unnerving about it was the large size and darkness of its interior. Windows were tiny to keep out the cold. Unfortunately they also kept out the light.
The front room was the only room heated, and that was by a big awkward stove/oven operated from a flue in a small room behind it, appropriately called the smoke house. The entire family huddled in this front room around the stove, hung their clothes on it to dry, mother cooked on it, grandmother embroidered near it by the light of a candle (which was just a piece of slow-burning wood), and the kids did their lessons by it.
Mum and dad slept in a room above, the only place in the big house that could be regarded as anywhere near warm from the stove below. The kids slept in icy bedrooms and the animals slept above them in the loft. See what I mean about disconcerting?
The other homes in this living museum were all similarly dark with low ceilings and big beams and water tanks and wood piles outside, and enormous lofts for the animals. You could not even begin to imagine the hardship of the farmers who lived there in days long gone.
The farmers in the Black Forest still do it tough today, although almost all of them have solar panels on their sloping roofs. Most farmers cannot earn a decent living from their farms, and have to have a second job in the city where they travel each day. One entrepreneurial farmer planted fir trees by the hundreds and now has a thriving seasonal business selling Christmas trees because no one in this region would dream of having a fake Christmas tree.
The Black Forest did not disappoint despite its lack of wolves. It’s a lush and green part of Germany – and there is always the famous cake somewhere nearby.