Into the Forest
A CRUISE ALONG THE UPPER RHINE TAKES YOU INTO THE BLACK FOREST — AND A FAIRYTALE VERSION OF GERMANY.
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
Winery sign in Breisach
Arcades of Historic Merchants' Hall in Freiburg im Breisgau
Weekly market in Southern Black Forest
Vineyard near the Rhine Valley