A Swabian summer

A Swabian summer
In the southwestern corner of Germany, where the living is easy,
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In the southwestern corner of Germany, where the living is easy

Latha Anantharaman
September 18 , 2014
14 Min Read

In the southwest of Germany, the Swabian Forest, ruled by beech and oak and carpeted with dandelion, merges into the Black Forest like a symphony falling from a major to a minor key. In this more sombre realm, the light is shut out by close ranks of silver firs, and it is easy to see why it once inspired tales of lost children. But these acres are tended now, and the farmers have cut swathes through the firs to give the oaks, larches and maples a sporting chance. There used to be many kinds of trees once, as you can see from the famed cuckoo clocks of the Black Forest.

The craftsman at a wooded resort near the small town of Titisee conjures fairy-tale pictures for us, of the snowed-in farmer whittling leaves and birds from linden wood, and the pedlar trudging through towns in the summer to sell the dozen clocks strapped to his back.

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The waters of Lake Titi are so clear that our host, who has taken us out in a boat, dips a glass into the lake and offers us a drink. Students like to hike from here to Feldberg, the highest peak in the Black Forest, and this has been a popular holiday spot since the railroad made it affordable to get here. The line runs past our hotel, the Hofgut Sternen. A much older inn survives from the days when the place was called the Höllental or Hell’s Valley, for the robbers who lurked in the shadows to loot travellers. An Austrian princess named Marie Antoinette stopped at this inn on her way to her wedding. Goethe, Napoleon III and Anthony Trollope also slept here, severally. Red geraniums and warm pine panelling light up the new hotel, and good roads ensure there is always cheery company, but the forest itself remains cool and mysterious.

The forest and lake are just a few of the many beauties of the state of Baden-Württemberg, but green prevails over all. Immaculate woods snuggle up to impossibly tidy towns. In the state capital, Stuttgart, the cabbages grow right up to the runway, and you are always just a yodel away from a vineyard. From the city’s television tower, the oldest in the world, you can see all of Stuttgart lying in the embrace of the forest.

The old city is crowded with the towers of its two palaces, its many churches and the pre-war railroad station. In its centre, the Schlossplatz, medieval monuments jostle 21st-century glass boxes around generous open spaces that draw everyone and his pram out into the sunshine.


On the uppermost layer of the city’s history, for now, is the Mercedes-Benz museum, housed in a building inspired by the double helix. Inside, visitors ride to the top to genuflect to the early Daimler motors and spiral down to lust after today’s edgiest racecars. The museum opened two years ago and has drawn two million visitors. There is history and context enough to engage everyone, with evocative photos and the goggles, hip flasks and other stylish impedimenta of road travel in its wonder years.

To gawp at more historical good living, we went to the residence palace at Ludwigsburg, a short ride from the city. The building was first conceived as a hunting palace and then scaled up from baroque to rococo, ultimately exploding in Napoleonic grandeur. The rooms are richly decorated in the Empire style and there are eye-popping vistas in the palace and grounds. At the end of one avenue is Favorit, a pleasure palace to which powder-wigged couples sneaked off for extracurricular love-making, and the fashion museum features embroidered shoes, ivory buttons and other essentials of princely life.

In the charming smaller towns around Stuttgart, medieval streets and houses are lovingly preserved. The 8th-century town of Esslingen, a short train ride away, has a town hall ornamented with astronomical clocks. The cobbled square in front of it is a relaxed setting for a slow coffee. The town is also the home of the Kessler winery, Germany’s oldest producer of sparkling wine, and a wine tour takes us through chilly caverns lined with cobwebbed bottles of sekt, riesling and chardonnay.

Some 44km away from Stuttgart is Tübingen, a medieval university town. Here we can still see fragments of a 13th-century city wall, the 16th-century Hohentübingen Castle, the Protestant Seminary where Hegel and Kepler swotted, the bookbinder’s shop in which Hermann Hesse apprenticed and the workshop in which Goethe published Faust. Even the wall against which Goethe threw up is duly marked by a plaque.

Its illustrious names aside, Tübingen is perfect for idle walks. It has a richly painted city hall and other half-timbered buildings of the 15th century, solemn cathedrals and a lively market square. The Neckar River is divided at Tübingen by a longish island crowned by an avenue of plane trees. Punting on the river is a blissful meander past drooping willows and the back gardens of medieval and modern houses. It’s not always so mellow. The boat races held every July are “like rugby on the water,” according to our boatman. More than 50 boats get on the river at once and they must round the island and come back through a narrow gap called the needle’s eye. The winning team gets 100 litres of beer and a roast pig, and the last team to finish must down half a litre of cod liver oil.

Further afield, the Hohenzollern Castle, ancient seat of the Kings of Prussia, is high on drama. From a distance the castle looks like a magnificent stand of firs on top of a hill, and each subsequent view is so grand, there seems to be an overture playing in our heads as we close in. The present building was constructed in the mid-1800s, less as a residence than as a monument to honour a family that was by then ruling from Berlin. We walked through its splendid salons, bedchambers, ancestral hall and library, and peeked into the chapels. There is a museum packed with treasures of the Prussian kings, including a sea-blue gown stitched with pearls and diamonds. The tower is everything a castle tower should be, with views out to forever.

Even the amusement parks in Germany have real castles. Overlooking Europa-Park, which was first started by a fabricator of park rides to display his works, is the Schloss Balthasar, a smallish castle that was his family home. The park is still a family-run business, and it is fun without being frenzied. Its streets and squares from ‘Sweden’, ‘Portugal’ and other recreated countries are filled with real transported chapels and shops as well as authentic wood and stone reproductions. We bypassed the fjord rafting ride, where we might get drenched with one well-timed push of a button by any six-year-old bystander. Since we insisted on staying dry, we were led instead to the Silver Star. As a press group, we were cut to the front of the queue, hustled into our seats and pinned down by safety bars before I got a good look at Germany’s highest roller coaster. By then the cars were ratcheting up a 60-degree slope, and in the next seven minutes, I died a thousand deaths.

The spa town of Baden-Baden has been fashionable since the 19th century, when the casino was introduced here. It was the stamping ground of dukes and kaisers then and still has an aristocratic air. There are tourists in horse-drawn carriages and seductive shop windows filled with strange hats in preparation for the autumn’s International Horse Races. I wondered briefly why European women can’t watch horses run without raising edifices of feather and tulle on their heads, but in the summer sunshine, amid the fountains, petunias and apple-cheeked toddlers of this happy town, I was in no mood to pursue riddles.

There are any number of pretty walks in parks and cobbled streets, and venerable pillared halls, but the main attractions after the casinos are the spas, where you can get rubbed down with bananas, chocolate, coffee, pomegranate seed oil or yogurt. The popular Caracalla Spa can hold 600 in its extensive halls. Ruins of the ancient baths are preserved nearby, where Roman soldiers used to bathe even their horses in the thermal springs to keep them in top condition. I had no swimsuit and didn’t feel like stumping up 100 euros for those on the racks, so I considered the Friedrichsbad, where one bathes in the buff in a gorgeous old building. But there were seven of us in the group. The altogether was one thing, but all together?

Back at Stuttgart, the Wine Fest has begun in the lanes around the old palace. The stalls are dressed up with gingham and lace and each serves its own wine. An accordion player encourages the singing of drinking songs. The food is traditional German fare — red meat, flour dumplings, and pork grease to dip your pretzels in. Beefsteak and four glasses of wine are the way to a man’s heart, according to a Swabian saying, and early in the evening we are all already in a fug of happiness.

The information

 Getting there

Lufthansa has flights to Frankfurt from Delhi (from Rs 33,000 return on economy, inclusive of taxes; www.lufthansa.com), with connections by air or rail to Stuttgart. There are rail connections from Stuttgart to Baden-Baden and Titisee. 

 

STUTTGART
Where to stay
We stayed at the stunning new Mövenpick at Stuttgart Airport (€130-425; +49-711-553440,
www.moevenpick-stuttgart-airport.com) and also at the Hotel Rieker, which has spare but well-designed and spotless rooms (€107-132, lower weekend rates available; 221311, www.hotel-rieker.de). It is opposite the railway station and near the sights. It has no AC rooms. The concierge suggests you open a window.

 What to see & do
> The Mercedes-Benz Museum (Mercedesstrasse; entrance: €8, Tue-Sun, 9am-6pm;
www.mercedes-benz.com/museum) must be visited for a fascinating glimpse into the German chapter of automation history.
> Ludwigsburg Palace (entrance: €6 to palace, €3  for museums with audio guide, Tue-Sun, 9am-6pm during mid-Mar to mid-Nov, otherwise 9am-5pm; Schlossstrasse, Ludwigs-burg, www.ludwigsburg.de
), 12km north of Stuttgart, is one of Germany’s largest baroque palaces.

 Where to eat
The Cube Restaurant, on top of the Museum of Art, has superb views of the city square and the food is served very haute. The nearby Ochs ‘n’ Willy serves excellent gourmet fare and the salad bar is generous. Equally chic is Plenum, set near the opera house and galleries. The more traditional Stuttgarter Stäffele features onion soup crusted with cheese and actually served in an onion. You can tour the wine cellar, where the owner maintains a private collection of more than 270 wines. More homey fare of doughy spätzle, pork grease and lard sandwiches can be found at beer places everywhere. The Kessler Champagne Factory in nearby Esslingen has a bar and offers tours of its cellars. Stuttgart also has 11 Indian restaurants.

BADEN-BADEN
Where to stay
We stayed at the five-star Dorint Maison Messmer (€152-378 for rooms, and suites up to €999; 7221-30120, www.dorint.com/baden-baden) on Werderstrasse. The hotel used to host the kaisers and is still fit for royalty.

Where to eat
The Restaurant Kurhaus, right next to the casino, serves pan-European cuisine at tables set with beribboned bottles of pink bubbly. There is also an upscale Indian restaurant, Namaskar, in the centre of the town.

What to see & do
> The main level of the Casino Baden-Baden (Kurhaus, www.casino-baden-baden.de), with black jack, roulette and poker tables, is maintained in its 19th-century splendour (open daily 2pm-2am Sun-Thu; 2pm-3am Fri and Sat). Traditional games, day pass €3. Slot machines, day pass €1.  Dress is formal. You must be 21 years or older to enter. Bring your passport.
> Caracalla Spa (Romerplatz,
www.caracalla.de) has two outdoor saunas, six indoor saunas, rock grotto, aroma steam baths, saltwater inhalation rooms and pools. Entrance: €13 (2hr), €15 (3hr), €17 (4hr). Children under seven not allowed, but childcare available for children over 18 months. Open daily, 8am-10pm. You need a swimsuit.
> Friedrichsbad (Romerplatz,
www.roemisch-irisches-bad.de) has 17 stages of showers, scrubs, and dips in warm, hot and cold water, ending in an ornate domed hall. Visitors can also opt for various treatments with herb poultices and the newly introduced huna hana, a Polynesian massage using conch shells. Open daily, 9am-10pm. Entrance: €21 (3hr, just bathing), €29 (3.5hr, with massage). Children under 14 not allowed. Visitors bathe in the nude and on Sundays men and women mix in all stages.
> There are guided tours of the historic premises every 30 min., €4 per person.

BLACK FOREST
Where to stay
The Best Western Hofgut Sternen in the forest (€49-79, family suites available; 7652-9010) has snug rooms and overlooks a 15th-century inn, a medieval toll house and a cuckoo clock workshop. This and the Alemannenhof Hotel on Lake Titi are owned by Drubba Hotels & Tourism. See
www.drubba.comfor details on special accommodation packages, tours and boat cruises.
Europa-Park (1805-868610) has a number of themed hotels, including a monastery, with rooms from €120. Various family and group deals are available, and there are less expensive guesthouses and rooms outside the park. There are also campsite cabins and parking spaces for 200 caravans.

Where to eat
The restaurant at Hofgut Sternen features trout and other delicacies from the pure lake waters and of course the incomparable Black Forest cake, flavoured with schnapps.
For die-hard dal-chawal families, Chef Govind provides authentic Indian fare.

What to see & do
> Europa-Park (Rust, near Freiburg,
www.europapark.de): entrance €31.50 (adults), €28 (children 4-11 yr and seniors over 60 yr). Two-day tickets and annual tickets available.
> Hohenzollern Castle (Burg Hohenzollern,
www.burg-hohenzollern.com): entrance €8 to join regular tour, open daily, 9am-5.30pm (Mar 16 to Oct 31), 10am-4.30pm (Nov 1 to Mar 15). Guided group tours in English must be booked in advance.


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