Thursday, 8 April 2010

The Black Forest

This weekend I was able to see firsthand the effects of a number of European environmental policies I’ve been reporting on while taking a scenic drive through the Black Forest in Southwestern Germany.

I’ve lived in Europe four years now, yet every year I seem to forget that we get a 4-day weekend for Easter here. So every year I end up scrambling to find some impromptu thing to do, which usually ends with me heading down to my dad’s house in Zurich and we go on a road trip somewhere. One year in was Venice, another it was Geneva. This year we decided to drive up through the Black Forest in Germany to Baden-Baden and Freiburg.

The Black Forest, or “Schwarzwald” in German, is popular tourist destination known for its hiking and skiing. It gets its name from the closely-packed pattern of the trees, which makes the forest look very dark when you look into it. Because they get no sunlight in the interior, the trees have no leaves on them for most of the bark, creating this eery world within the forest. It sits on a low-level mountain range over the Rhine valley, so it also commands astounding views. The vast majority of the tourists who go there are German (though when we were there I overheard a lot of French Alsatians), and English was in short supply. I’ve heard from my German friends that they can’t understand any of the local Swabian dialect there, and they even have trouble understanding people in the forest when they speak high German because of their strong accents. Incidentally, the Black Forest is also the birthplace of the cuckoo clock, and of course, black forest cake.

It was a really beautiful drive. The first stop was Villingen, a historic village in the Southeast of the forest ringed by a remarkably preserved medieval city wall. It was early on Easter morning when we arrived, and the city streets were understandably deserted. So we walked around the cobblestoned streets searching for any signs of life (and breakfast!). From there we drove north to the Triberg waterfalls, perhaps the most recognizable symbol of the Black Forest. It’s supposedly the tallest waterfall in Germany (that’s what the sign said at least, but I think this is disputed) and created a really stunning welcome to the forest. We also got to sample some black forest cake from the restaurant still using the original recipe, where the cake was born. I have to admit, I didn't really care for it. But I'm not a big fan of cake. Yes I know, I'm a weirdo.

From there we headed along the horseshoe-shaped Kinzig River, which flows through the forest into the Rhine. We stopped at this little town called Schiltach which was definitely one of the highlights of the trip, it was just about as fairy tail Germany as you can get. It's small, but really pretty. It was set up by logging merchants who would send their timber down the river toward Strasbourg. The town hall had some really interesting illustrations on it which looked a lot like Soviet Realism to me. A socialist village perhaps?

After that we drove along the scenic Schwarzwaldstrasse which comanded some gorgeous views across the Rhine Valley (I could even see Strassbourg!). We made a brief stop a the Mummelsee, which was bizarelly packed, but we made it a quick stop because it was freezing cold and hailing. We then finally made it to Baden Baden, which is a historically famous spa town (and also where some pretty significant treaties were signed). We had a lovely dinner and then a nice relaxing evening in the spa, but neither of us were too impressed with the city, it seemed like there wasn't much to do there. I'm not sure why Bill Clinton decided it was "so nice they had to name it twice".

Freiburg, on the other hand, definitely lived up to all the hype. It's a pretty big city, with a tram system and everything. It's got some really beautiful architecture and two preserved city wall gates. We walked up to the top of the cathedral tower and had some pretty great views of the city with the Black Forest mountains as a backdrop. Then we drive up to the Titisee, a very popular lake in the middle of the forest which always makes Anglophone visiters giggle. It was absolutely packed, and we just could not figure out why. It was too late in the season for skiing, but also too cold to do any hiking without sever discomfort. But it was absolutely mobbed. Go figure. We then took a rather meandering drive south through the countryside, and then my dad dropped my off at Zurich airport to fly back to Brussels. All in all lovely, until I got to Brussels airport. I am predicting that this airport is going to quickly become my least favourite in Europe. What is the story with all the escalators?? During the walk from the plane to the exit you must go up and down different levels about 8 times.

Coincidentally, when i returned to work the next day I had to go cover a European Parliament committee meeting on illegal timber. It was interesting considering I had just come from a drive which showed the obvious effect of logging and land use change. The Black Forest is estimated to be just a fraction of its size a few hundred years ago. That's changing now, and in fact in the EU deforestation has stopped and forests are actually growing. But the issue on the table at the environment committee meeting was how to stop timber tha has been harvested illegally in other countries from coming in to the EU. All of the MEPs at the meeting (except one rather bizarre rant from a member of the Europe of Freedom and Democracy group) agreed that illegal logging is not a problem in Europe. But if Europeans keep using timber that has been illegally harvested in other areas of the world, it doesn't do much good to have stopped it here. Forests act as natural carbon sinks, and cutting them down resutls in an increase of CO2 in the atmosphere.

Another area I've been covering recently is reneable energy, specifically the new government subsidy schemes for home solar power systems. Germany has had subsidies for solar power for some time, in the form of feed-in tariffs for people to export the excess energy they generate during the day into the grid system to then take back at night when the sun isn't shining. This allows them to avoid buying batteries, which are prohibitively expensive for householders.

The German state of Baden-Wurttemburg has been on the forefront of these subsidy programs, and you could clearly see the result as we drove through the Black Forest. It seemed like almost all the farm houses we passed had solar panels on them, it was incredible. I've never seen so many solar panels in any area of Europe, and it was a great illustrative example of the statistics I've been hearing for awhile concerning Germany's preeminence when it comes to solar power in Europe. It was impressive to see how the solar panels were integrated into the various buildings too, some in very creative ways.

Overall it was a great trip, This weekend I'll be away again. I'm taking a drive through the Netherlands and stopping in Rotterdam, Amsterdam and The Hague. We're looking for other possible places to stop along the way so if anyone has any ideas I'd be happy to hear them! I'm thinking of stopping at Kinderdijk as well.

On one hand t's nice that it's so wasy to get away from Brussels on the weekends, but on the other I'm acutely aware that I will have been away from the city three weekends in a row. In fact since I moved here I've only been here two weekends. I'll have to work at striking a balance between staying in the city long enough to really get to know it and feel at home here, but also to get away often enough to not let the small size of the city make me feel restless!


Funmatien said...

I don't live ar away from the Black Forest and barely made it there. During spring it said to be really beautiful so I should definitely find the time for a trip. Thanks for the post.

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