This blog is supposed to be about France, of course, but living in Strasbourg means daily contact with the German culture, whether through contact with its people (the crowds of German tourists downtown or the local business owners of that nationality), food (restaurants specializing in sauerkraut dishes, soft doughy bretzel in every bakery…) or language (the Alsatian dialect that is heavily influenced by German). It’s not that I lack an interest for the German culture- quite the contrary- but my busy schedule for the past year has made it impossible to take a real vacation there (the few afternoons I’ve spent in Kehl, our neighboring German city, doesn’t really count as a cultural immersion).
But over time, after filling my stomach with delicious bretzels and kougelhopfs every week, I decided that this country deserved further exploration and I made up my mind to venture beyond the ten-minute car ride to Kehl.
So, on a sunny May weekend, I took off to Baden-Baden and the Black Forest with a friend for a weekend of travel, relaxation and hiking… With my three favorite leisure time activities combined into one weekend, I knew it couldn’t go wrong.
And it didn’t. Baden-Baden, an hour away from the French border, is an adorable, well-kept, medieval-looking town interspersed with bright modern apartment buildings, 19th-century stone mansions and steep winding hills.
Its most attractive feature, however, is its thermal spas.
Upon arrival, we headed right away to the Caracalla Spa, the most popular in town, where we were greeted by a huge domed hall with a choice of bathing pools in all different shades of sparkling blue and varying temperatures. A rock grotto and an aroma steam bath as well as the massage and wellness center extend off to one side and more pools extend into the outside gardens where whirlpools, fountains and a waterfall offer excellent natural messages with refreshing mineral spring water.
For the more adventurous types, an upstairs sauna area is available on one condition: nudity, which is not uncommon in the German and Nordic cultures for sauna and spa areas. In fact, several other spas in Baden Baden are completely nudist (thus our choice of Caracalla where bathing suits are required in the pool area!).
For 15 euros for a two-hour visit, 18 for three hours, or 21 for four, the price can’t be beat and the benefits are impressive. We made our way to our hotel in a slightly dazed state of mind, already feeling far away from our daily lives in Strasbourg and feeling physically refreshed, all the way from our shoulders that labor over computer desks during the week to the smallest muscles in our feet, worn and tense from running from tram to bus every morning in our busy urban lives.
For a hotel, we had received a great deal on a 4-star hotel, the Hotel am Sophienpark, right on one of the main streets, the Sophienstraße. Not only is the level of comfort excellent but the beautiful interior decor and its private park and sunny terrace makes for a nice meal setting or a relaxing stroll.
However, adventurers that we are, sticking around a hotel while in such a beautiful town was out of the question, so after hanging out our bathing suits and towels to dry, we set out in search of an authentic German dinner, which we found three streets over in a quaint but modern-looking bistrot with an impressive beer counter (50-cent drafts !) and a menu packed with more varieties of wienerschnitzel than I can remember but thoroughly enjoyed.
The next morning, Sunday, it was time for a tour of the rest of the downtown area. We admired the buildings and fountains of this town whose population amounts to just 54,000, but we also were impressed with the well-kept streets and peaceful, calm atmosphere that goes hand-in-hand with the spa theme. It’s no wonder that it draws not only tourists but an extensive number of retirees hoping to benefit from these features.
Then we were off to spend the rest of the morning and afternoon on the road, making our way south through the winding roads of the Black Forest- whose color turns out to be a rich green in many hues- and pausing occasionally for photo ops when a beautiful green valley would spread out below us from our vantage point on the road.
We arrived at the Mummelsee in about 30 minutes, and after encircling the gentle lake that sparkled under a strong midday sun, we deciphered the hiking maps posted at the entrance by throwing together the little German we knew between us. Then, we headed upwards.
We had chosen the shortest circuit of 4.7 kilometers (about 3 miles) called the Mummelsee – Dreifürstenstein – Hornisgrinde – Katzenkopf. In the end, though, it took us about three hours to complete since we stopped so many times to take pictures or to simply stare out into over the rolling hills and the tiny towns clustered amongst them, barely visible in the trees. Friendly Germans stopped to take our pictures before we even asked and serious hikers and mountain bikers in their colorful sports gear trudged away onto the more challenging trails that can take up to 5 hours to complete.
At the very top, an observation tower provides even more altitude and a short walk through a field of golden waves of grain led me to doubt that I was still on earth but was rather being drawn into another dimension of the universe that could only be accessed by falling into an oil painting of a lazily flowing landscape.
The descent proved much more rigourous, but after a 20 minutes of tiptoeing over boulders, clutching tree branches for support and almost losing our footing more than once, we arrived right back at the lake. We chose a restaurant with a patio overlooking the lake and watched other tourists making their way around it on the hiking path or across it in little green pedal boats.
In the distance, we could see the peak of the mountain that we had just descended. We marveled that we had managed to climb so high, proud of our athletic efforts. Combined with the effects of the thermal water, we made our way home feeling quite healthy but also wondering if Strasbourg and everything we had left behind in France would still be there upon our return, as the outside world had seemed to crumble away during our stay in Baden-Baden and the Black Forest.
For more information:
Click here for more on the Caracallas Spa of Baden Baden.
Click here for more on the Hotel am Sophienpark.
Click here for more on The Mummelsee.
Click here for Mummelsee lakeside dining.
Click here for the Baden-Baden tourist website.
Click here for the Black Forest tourist website.
Click here for a Black Forest Cake recipe (also popular in Strasbourg !)