The little grey haired German man sitting behind the rental car counter at Stuttgart Airport seemed to know much better than us. “Good luck” he said after handing Mitch the keys. Good luck? What is that supposed to mean?
The last weekend of November saw us in our favourite winter country – Germany. This time in the southwest province of Baden-Wurttemburg, more commonly known as the Black Forest.
Back in New Zealand, we associate Black Forest with Cadbury milk chocolate filled with cherry candy and biscuit pieces, or the layered cream and cherry gateau. They have none of the chocolate, but a lot of the cake.
On arrival we were greeted by near negative temperatures and as we drove into the hills were greeted with the first snowfall of winter. The snow dusted the perennial pine trees and coated the deciduous birch.
After hours of driving through the snow and Mitch pulling up lame with an old back injury we found our accommodation in Staufen; Gastehaus Kaltenbach. We chose the place partly because it was right on the edge of the Black Forest overlooking an ancient castle, but mainly because the had a Bernese Mountain Dog.
Luis, the dog, was named after Portuguese football player Luis Figo. He could actually play the game too! In the morning we tired him out, kicking the ball back and forth in the driveway beside the stables. We left him stretched out on the lawn making another journey into the Black Forest mountains.
Here we found a lot more snow had fallen. This was fresh, ice crystals sparkling in the sun. We found a truck shoveling large quantities of snow off the road and many locals out walking their dogs. Everyone really gets into the first snowfall.
Driving into Todtnau, near the peak of Feldberg, we were looking for mountain bike rental. With the forecast it looked as though this wouldn’t really be possible as tracks were already under a foot of snow. We did however, find a Nordic Ski Centre. Walking into the Ski School we found three bored teachers waiting for customers and ironically for the ski hire shop next door to open. For us to learn to ski we would have to come back tomorrow and hire equipment from the next town.
Tam made an enterprising find at a local Lidl. Gluhwein at €1.85 a 1L bottle. Not having a pot meant we would have to improvise heating it up with an electric jug.
Triberg was a quick stop to see the town of 1000 cuckoo clocks. Mitchs’ grandparents had a beast of a clock tower that used to give loud and long echoes throughout the house. It was never in time when he and his brother went to stay as they used to play with the weights. The clocks on display here had more elaborate designs: Little houses, with scenes ranging from nativity to people logging wood. Each little house was worth a small investment and some would require a mortgage to purchase.
A quick jaunt on the way home to Freiburg for dinner actually ended up with us wandering into the European Outdoor Film Tour, where we saw explorers freeride remote Russian volcanoes, descent tarmac on longboards, ride horses from Mexico to Canada and climb K2 without oxygen. Inspiring stuff – we would see how it would compare to our cross country efforts the next day.
With a large dump of snow, over half a metre, an early morning drive quickly became hard. It was one of those moments you really wish you had chains for your tyres, although Mitch managed well to use momentum and block Tam out for the ascent. Once the grit and salt took hold the roads became much better.
Nordic skiing is divided into two disciplines, the traditional “inline skiing” looks a bit like a funny run, where you slide forward. We chose to try the “skating” method where you skate side to side in a “V” shape to move forward. There is some variation between the ski design, but both are much lighter than downhill and have hinges on the toes so your heels separate from the ski.
We were too late for the ski school due to the weather, so decided to go at it cold turkey. Within 5 minutes of getting started Mitch’s bindings broke, so he needed to return the skis for another pair. Tam meanwhile got bored of waiting and decided to venture off on the course. Mitch got back about 40 minutes later and after a quick practice, set off after Tam on the track.
Skating is a lot harder than it looks, getting the motion right and the push off with your ski poles in sync was difficult on the flat, let alone going up hills. Tam got lost taking a detour but eventually ended up back in the carpark, cold and miserable waiting for Mitch. About an hour later, he emerged after the 6km course, exhausted. Tam managed to busk for hot water and a seat in the cafe – she left the wallet in the car.
For our last night in the area, we decided to cross the border and stay in France. Recent terrorist attacks in Paris, saw borders policed within the EU for one of the first times in modern history.
Passing through the flatland flood plains of the Alsace region of the Rhine, we found the town of Colmar. Dubbed “Little Venice“, due to it’s gondolas and canals. We however thought it looked like a more colourful version of Stratford on Avon with its wooden beam and plaster houses.
Strasbourg, the major eastern French city has changed hands between the French and the Germans several times. The city has distinct German traditions such as beer brewing, but the language we noticed swiftly changed to French as soon as you crossed the Rhine. It wasn’t as much of a buffer zone as we thought. Within the city were large numbers or army personal, making sure of public safety. It was somewhat intimidating, but reassuring. The recent events caused an anticipated downturn of up to 30% of all tourism. The Christmas Markets were almost bare and closed early at 8pm. Stalls selling baguettes, vin chaud and cheesy potatoes all vanished once the cathedral clock tower struck. Disappointing, but hopefully a temporary measure.
We saw a stall selling the very same Lidl gluhwein Tam picked up at €4 a 100mL cup. That’s profits of €38.15 a 1L bottle, about 2000% markup! We thought that we were on to a goldmine here!
Our apartment in Strasbourg was probably the worst designed living space we had ever come across. Without much thought of given to space, lighting, electrical sockets and uneven floors. Mitch scraped the edge of the car reversing out the tight dark exit. Fuming, he pictured the face of the little grey haired German Man…”Good luck”.
Back in Germany, Tam was really keen on going to Baden-Baden, famous for being a spa town. The town was very rich, probably since Roman antiquity with travellers and the elite coming to bathe in its warm mineral waters.
Now, we had two options:
- Take the Caracalla public baths at a high price. Swim a few laps before heading out for the afternoon
- Take the even more expensive Friedrichsbad bath. Where nudity was mandatory and you get taken through a 17 stage, 3 hour, bath process.
Surprisingly after an hour of deliberation we went for the Friedrichsbad. Now, we don’t want you all imagining us in our birthday suits, but there was one hell of a story, so will go into as much detail as possible. All photos were not taken by us and clearly are advertising models, not the kind we saw.
To start with you were given an electronic arm band. This was the only thing you were allowed to wear. This got you in and out and then locked away your warm, protective clothes.
We found a couple of sheet/towels, wrapped them around us and walked into the first stage – the showers. An attendant noticed us and whipped the cover off us off both.
On even days they run separate men and women, on odd days mixed. This day was a Sunday, so we saw everyone else cleaning themselves up, preparing for the first heated rooms. The general idea is to take you up to about 50 degrees before later bringing you back down to an 18 degree plunge.
A small Chinese man joined us. He looked lost and his glasses kept fogging up. He looked completely vacant wandering around the flesh. He disappeared, guided by an attendant in white uniform to the next room.
Lying back nude on benches you felt a bit exposed. Everyone else in the room either had their eyes closed, or was staring at the ceiling. You really appreciate finer points of architecture when you have nowhere else to look. In the hottest room, a farmyard motif depicted a large cock crowing in the morning sun and two pheasants copulating on a wooden gate.
Our Chinese friend came back in with his friend. A large sumo wrestler build. Maybe he was Japanese? His glasses again fog up. He wanders off.
We ended up also getting a little lost. In the next room we saw a large German woman soaping down an old man. She started directing us back to the showers and then to the next room, gesticulating with her right hand, while lathering his tackle with the other – all in plain sight. This must be the deluxe package…
When you walk between the geothermal baths completely stark naked, you actually develop good posture. It’s awkward to go around hiding your private parts. That would mean you are uncomfortable. So no matter how uncomfortable you are, everyone walks tall, avoiding awkward eye contact. Making eye contact here is about as off-putting as staring into the eyes of someone eating a banana.
A spa bath with bubbling jets was the most popular pool. In here we found a lot of people, all shapes and sizes. One woman was particularly fond of the main jet feature in the middle of the pool -sitting on it with an expression of pure unbridled ecstasy. Tam couldn’t stop giggling. Our Chinese friend entered and left the room again – being directed back to the changing rooms.
The feature pool was where the real exhibitionists went. Situated under the high orange dome, natural light filtered down on those doing backstroke, doing handstands and wrestling on top of each others shoulders.
The plunge pool to finish was probably the worst part. 18 degrees being a lot colder than expected. Tam was too shy of the recommended 80 seconds, while Mitch positioned himself awkwardly getting out. Everyone shrinks.
The final room after you dried yourself out was probably the most confusing. In the Relaxing Room had you lie naked on your back while a young blonde man in white orderly clothes first wrapped you in a sheet, then a brown microfibre blanket – taking special care to tuck your feet in. Once in this cocoon it got really comfortable. The heat escaping your body was trapped. One guy across the room was so comfortable, he snored for the next ten minutes.
Once emerging from the Roman Spa, we felt warm, dehydrated, incredibly clean and also a bit dirty. Lucky we didn’t come here with friends. We’d never be able to look at them again…
Arriving back at Stuttgart airport, none other than the little grey haired man was there to greet us. He was actually very sincere, concerned about the damage and didn’t appear to remember us. We didn’t need his luck, but we sure as anything needed his insurance!