Freiburg and District
Freiburg, Germany: Europe's huge secret gem
It has great food and scenery – why do so few Britons head to Germany?
(Photograph below:- Looking over the Black Forest: "So far, so thoroughly pleasing, and all the more mystery why there are so few Brits here")
“Germany? You’re going on holiday to Germany? But why?” I’ve been asked this often enough to feel that some kind of excuse must be in order. Like “the agent misheard when I booked - I asked for Chamonix”. Oddly, this question never arises if you travel to Italy or France. Or Nepal or Paraguay for that matter. No, there’s something about holidaying in Germany that requires an explanation. Or should that be, there’s something about British people that requires an explanation. The country is after all a close neighbour, and the biggest nation state in Western Europe. So why the kneejerk reaction?
I don’t know. Can it still be the unmentionable? We’ve had plenty more wars since then. There you go - it just slipped out. Oops. But if it is still the war, then surely it’s time we got over it. The Germans have. And - breaking news - they lost! Plus it’s plain undignified to nurse a lingering one-sided grudge about which the alleged offender is blithely carefree. So Germany it is.
To be precise, the city of Freiburg, among the mountains of the Black Forest. And as it happens I do have an excuse for coming here. Three excuses in fact: delicious food, wonderful scenery and family fun. The first two are easily ticked off in one go, by heading straight out to one of Freiburg’s Strausse.
"Straussi's" are local farms that turn into small pop-up restaurants throughout the summer, serving their own wine and food. Griestal Straussi is in a vineyard, several winding roads outside the village of Opfingen. A steady stream of families turns up, and people sit around on the grass waiting for space at the rough-hewn wooden tables beneath the walnut and cherry trees.
German cuisine goes way beyond beer and sausages. This menu has the local specialities Spätzle (home made egg noodles) Brägele (sauteed potatoes) and Flammkuchen (onions and speck with crème fraiche on a thin pizza base), and Bibiliskäse, a light quark with fresh herbs, on wood-fire baked bread. The portion sizes are epic, and the wine on the table comes from the vines right behind us. It’s a Monday evening, and the place is packed with locals - the family next to us says the place is always busy.
It’s balmy and friendly, the kids all play around chasing through the ripening vines. It’s like an Instagram moment, already memory-tinged even as it happens. Looking beyond the vines over golden cornfields lined with fruit trees, across to the Black Forest mountains, I wonder why so few tourists come this way. To those who ask “why Germany,” this moment alone can confidently reply “warum nicht?” So far, so thoroughly pleasing, and all the more mystery why there are so few Brits here. Travellers love to boast about their own discoveries - their precious gem of a secret foreign place: “We go to this marvellous village in Croatia - completely unknown!” And yet there’s a whopper of a secret gem right here.
But further into the trip we do encounter something that could vex the unsuspecting tourist: nudity. Or should that be nakedness, although this distinction doesn’t exist in the German language. In the correct setting, nakedness is considered neither embarrassing nor erotic: just natural. Frei Körper Kultur (free body culture) has been around for generations, and most lakes and open-air swimming areas have a dedicated zone.
I take my sceptical family along to the local lake, where people of all shapes and sizes strip off to enjoy the fresh air and water. “Why are they all naked?” says the nine year old anxiously. “Let’s just try it!” I urge. The price of the naked-swim thrill is the awkwardness of the furtive getting-in. The water is ankle-deep for some distance and there are sharp stones on the lakebed. This doesn’t generate a Bo Derek effect. But once in, it’s wonderful. And at the very least the kids have future grounds for therapy fees.
And then there’s the saunas. Your British gentleman traveller may well baulk at the French swimming pool dress code of budgie-smuggling speedos. But here in German sauna culture even those skimpies are a stretch of nylon too far. We visit the Eugen Keidel mineral baths sauna landscape, and are required to remove all swimwear. A range of saunas is set around a fresh spring pool, with soft grass between. We timidly enter the first one, and sit down between a gang of naked elderly Germans chatting about poetry and long-term memory.
Suddenly they all stop: in comes a stern fully dressed woman. It’s the Eiswürfel (icecubes) routine. She proceeds to pour water on the heating element and swing a towel vigorously for several minutes. The resultant wall of heat blasts us, causing a riot of sweating gasps and groans. I exchange a panicked glance with my husband. She’s blocking the door, there’s no escape. Just as it becomes borderline intolerable - I can feel my heartbeat in my skull and am surely about to die - she stops and passes round a bucket of ice-cubes. Everyone seizes a handful and, relieved, we all rub ice on our faces and bodies. The woman packs up and leaves, to a cheer and a round of applause from her puce and mottled victims.
The Eiswürfel is a ..memorable experience. But it’s not really one for the kids. Which brings me to the last of our excuses for being on holiday in Germany, that mythical experience called family fun. Or 'enforced family bonding’ as it’s known in our household. This can be quite challenging if your family ranges from toddler to borderline moody teenager. Luckily we have a very special destination in mind: Europapark.
Europapark, Germany's huge theme park
It’s Germany’s answer to Disneyland: a theme park run by the same family for generations, where distinct zones of the park are quaint representations of European countries. England of course has a red bus ride and traditional sweet shops. Spain has fountains, Flamenco, and horse-back jousting. There’s a snowflake ride in Russia, where an original Soviet space shuttle unit is also on display. No sign of bailout fatigue and austerity riots in the Greek village, it’s all pretty white houses and tavernas. We entertain a brief interlude of sneering - will the Italian zone be hosting a bunga bunga party? Where are the English zone’s pit bulls?
But Europapark is sarcasm-resistant: its enthusiasm and confidence prove irresistible. Different nationalities, living in sugary bird-tweeting folk-music harmony? It should be ridiculous. But it works. There’s an innocence in the old-fashioned rides and national stereotypes, but it’s married to sophisticated marketing, state-of-the art roller coasters, live shows and all-inclusive hotels. And business is booming. The park is regularly at capacity, and its hotels are fully booked throughout most of the peak season. A fleet of 3,400 staff including gardeners, dancers, designers, waterfall technicians, train drivers, and princesses in full regalia keep the park abuzz in every direction. Last year they clocked up 4.25 million visitors.
The two and the six-year-old love the fairy-tale trains, the water rides and the enchanted forest zone. The ten and eleven year-olds have only one concern: the Blue Fire megacoaster, boasting 360° rolls and “the highest loop of any launch-coaster in Europe”. All around and above us swoop rides, talking flowers, waterfalls, fairies, miniature trains, streams, and giant mice. The two-year-old stares around in stunned amazement.
We spend the night in Europapark’s Bell Rock hotel, newly opened in June by Roger Moore, who joins a host of other celebs, wags and sporting legends who’ve been Europapark guests. In a break from zealous Europeanism Bell Rock is American-themed. It’s big, fresh and audacious. Like all the themed areas, they pull it off. The attention to detail here too is extraordinary, with antiques and oddities including an original 1920s Coca-Cola bottling machine.
The Bell Rock hotel
Europapark does have a flaw: there’s no water to drink. None of the restaurants will serve tap water, even for kids, and only soft drinks or bottled water are available throughout the park. Given the lavishness of the whole enterprise this stingy policy comes as a surprise. The sheepishness of the staff who explain it to us suggests we’re not the first to ask. I trust that Roger Moore gave the matter a significant eyebrow-lift.
Despite this we’re all in love with the place. Not only have I lost the capacity for sarcasm, I seem to be in danger of full on conversion, if not to monetary union then at least to this curious embodiment of Germany: the bizarre Grimm fairy-tales, the workmanship and attention to detail, and the sense of being at the heart of Europe. A successful, harmonious, low-unemployment kind of Europe. The fairy-tale version. The official mascot, a large blue rodent called Euromaus, waves us off at the gates while coasters swoop overhead. We leave Europapark’s colourful spires behind us, and prepare to head back to Austerity-land with a heavy sigh.
www.straussi.net / www.straussen-kalender.de
Thermal Bad Eugen Keidel
((c) Daily Telegraph)