Into the For­est


Porthole Cruise Magazine - - What’s Inside - BY FRAN GOLDEN

A cruise along the Up­per Rhine takes you into the Black For­est — and a fairy­tale ver­sion of Ger­many.

Iam sail­ing on the 106-pas­sen­ger, high-de­sign Crys­tal

Bach on the up­per Rhine River, en­joy­ing all the lux­u­ries you would ex­pect of top-end line Crys­tal River Cruises. Din­ing is ex­tra­or­di­nary, suite ac­com­mo­da­tions are ho­tel-like with views and a but­ler who brings treats. I’m pleas­antly plump and happy.

Ex­cept, I am a lit­tle wor­ried that some­one around the cor­ner may want to eat me.

This thought oc­curs on a shore ex­cur­sion, as I stare into a tar-black kitchen with large oven in a 17th-cen­tury farm­house in Ger­many’s Black For­est. Sud­denly, I am Gre­tel, try­ing to come up with a plan to save my­self and Hansel.

Most river cruis­ers are rightly at­tracted to the Rhine for the amaz­ing cliff-top cas­tles and half-tim­bered towns, es­pe­cially in the river’s 50-mile mid-sec­tion, where you can eas­ily imag­ine a Cin­derella or Sleep­ing Beauty sce­nario. But for the darker side of the Brothers Grimm fairy­tales, you’ve got to head up­river and into the low-ly­ing moun­tains.

Cake, Cuck­oos, and Wilder­ness

The vast Black For­est, which like the im­pres­sive midRhine is a UN­ESCO World Her­itage Site, is a sparsely pop­u­lated por­tion of South­west­ern Ger­many. The area re­ceived its name from the Ro­mans based on their im­pres­sion of the dark hill­sides, where dense pines block the sun. Much of the area now is pro­tected for­est, with a lit­tle farm­ing — mostly graz­ing of cows and such.

You prob­a­bly know more about the Black For­est (or Sch­warzwald) than you think you do. For one, the area’s culi­nary con­tri­bu­tions to the world in­clude Black For­est cake, avail­able at vir­tu­ally any café or restau­rant in the re­gion — with the re­quired in­gre­di­ents of kirsch (schnapps made from lo­cal cher­ries) and choco­late. There’s also the tasty treat that is dry-cured smoked Black For­est ham.

The area’s other big cul­tural con­tri­bu­tion is the cuckoo clock, which in its purest form is a hand-carved, wooden pen­du­lum clock that makes the sound of a cuckoo bird. Who ac­tu­ally in­vented the clock is un­clear. But it was 19th-cen­tury farm­ers, look­ing for some­thing to do dur­ing the long win­ters, who took the idea, wound it up, and ran with it. You can buy clocks that look like chalets and other shapes in most shops in the re­gion.

Shore ex­cur­sions into the Black For­est head up­hill from the Rhine, and in­volve at least an hour or two in a bus — in the case of Crys­tal River Cruises, a spe­cial lo­goed bus car­ry­ing only about 20 pas­sen­gers. Think: “Over the river and through the woods, to ….” You’ll see dark hill­sides, coun­try lanes, and farm­houses — the old­est with thatched roofs that sweep right down to the ground floor to help warm the walls in win­ter.

It was like snack­ing on the set of the old TV show San­ford and Son, with a Ger­man twist.

Eu­ro­pean Coun­try Liv­ing

We left the pleas­ing, coun­try-club at­mos­phere of our ship, docked in Basel, Switzer­land, for a com­pli­men­tary “Trek & Tastes: Coun­try Life in the Black For­est” ex­cur­sion. First stop was a farm­house for lo­cal fare — ham and sausages with beer or cider, served out­doors on long ta­bles. Sur­round­ing us was the quirky farm owner’s odd col­lec­tion of mem­o­ra­bilia/junk. It was like snack­ing on the set of the old TV show

San­ford and Son, with a Ger­man twist.

Well-for­ti­fied, we headed deeper into the for­est for a quick hike on a coun­try road to view the serene scenery from a hill­side and feel one with na­ture. Then it was on to the amaz­ing house of Berta Sch­nei­der.

The Sch­nei­der­hof was built in the 17th cen­tury and has barely changed. Berta, who died in 1986 at age 91, spent all but her last year in the house, liv­ing alone from 1944 on­ward. She may not have been a Brothers Grimm char­ac­ter, but she was cer­tainly an ec­cen­tric who lived a tra­di­tional, old-fash­ioned life­style with a lit­tle help from her neigh­bors. Af­ter her death, an as­so­ci­a­tion was formed and the di­lap­i­dated house was lov­ingly re­stored, com­plete with rye-thatched roof and a two-story kitchen black­ened by smoke. In a back room is an area re­served for dis­till­ing schnapps.

Gate­way to the Sch­warzwald

Our cruise also stopped in the Ger­man river town of Breisach, which rises on a hill­side above the river. It’s home to one of Eu­rope’s largest wine cel­lars and pro­claims it­self gate­way to the Black For­est re­gion. You can buy cake, ham, and clocks and drink Black For­est wines while wan­der­ing the wind­ing streets.

Com­pli­men­tary Crys­tal Bach ex­cur­sions here in­cluded one to the Black For­est Open Air Mu­seum in Gu­tach. The trip in­volved a few hours in a bus, but re­warded those who did it with close-up views of rolling mead­ows and thick pine forests and in­sight into how peo­ple have lived in the re­gion for the past 400 years or so. The liv­ing mu­seum has cos­tumed “res­i­dents” and many trans­planted farm build­ings, in­clud­ing six fully fur­nished farm­houses moved here from dif­fer­ent parts of the Black For­est. There are an­i­mals in the sta­bles, you can sam­ple cook­ing from the “black kitchens,” and there are hand­i­crafts for sale. If you visit on a hol­i­day cruise, the Christ­mas Mar­ket here is a must-do.

Some river lines also take guests into the Black For­est for eBike ex­plo­ration. Crys­tal River Cruises did not of­fer this on our sail­ing (though the line did of­fer eBike ex­cur­sions in some other ports).

Look­ing to stretch our legs, my hus­band and I took ad­van­tage of the ship’s free In­ter­net to find a few-mile walk­ing route from Breisach. We ended up head­ing across the river and the bor­der, into France’s Al­sace re­gion. Our walk took us into a UN­ESCO World Her­itage site —Neuf-Brisach — an oc­tag­o­nal, 17th-cen­tury for­ti­fied city laid out by Vauban, a French mil­i­tary en­gi­neer. We didn’t en­counter any fairy­tale char­ac­ters, but we did find some re­ally good wine and cheese — and a look into a Eu­rope that many trav­el­ers never get to ap­pre­ci­ate.

River cruise lines of­fer ac­cess to the Black For­est on var­i­ous itin­er­ar­ies in­clud­ing 7-day Rhine cruises be­tween Am­s­ter­dam and Basel, round-trips from Am­s­ter­dam and spe­cific sail­ings fo­cused on the Up­per Rhine. Most itin­er­ar­ies in­clude sev­eral Ger­man ports and a visit to the famed his­toric city of Stras­bourg, cap­i­tal of France’s Al­sace re­gion and home to an im­pres­sive Gothic cathe­dral, canals, me­dieval bridges, and bistros serv­ing lo­cal cui­sine and vin d’Al­sace.

Up­per Rhine Plain

Cuckoo clock Black For­est cake

Crys­tal Bach

The Sch­nei­der­hof

Win­ery sign in Breisach

Ar­cades of His­toric Mer­chants' Hall in Freiburg im Breis­gau

Weekly mar­ket in South­ern Black For­est

Vine­yard near the Rhine Val­ley

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