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It takes the cake

Black Forest a magical, mystical tour off the beaten path

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As our family began the journey to Germany's Black Forest, or Schwarzwald as it is locally known, we felt a little like we were heading into the Bermuda Triangle.

When we entered the co-ordinates for the farmhouse accommodation we had reserved into our GPS, it indicated we would be travelling in a restricted access area and that we should simply follow the directional arrow while it computed a travel route. Unfortunately, the directional arrow was telling us to drive the wrong way down a one-way street.

Germany's Black Forest conjures images of a wild, isolated place -- a dense woodland where no GPS could ever have gone before -- a place where little girls encounter Big Bad Wolves and young women live happily with merry little dwarfs who work in diamond mines. Even though tales of the Brothers Grimm seem to indicate that the Black Forest is no place for the faint-hearted, once we finally managed to locate the remote farmhouse accommodation we had reserved in the heart of the region, we soon realized the Black Forest is neither as inaccessible nor as wild as we had imagined. This might explain why it is rapidly becoming one of the most popular family travel destinations in all of Germany.

Our farmhouse accommodation was located in the picturesque hills outside the village of Schonach and it seemed as if we were travelling back in time as we made our way there.

Quaint farmhouses supporting tiny farms were nestled in hollows between thickly forested areas. Each farmhouse we encountered was built entirely of Black Forest wood -- from the foundation beams to the wood-shingled roofs -- a style of building construction that has endured for centuries.

After unloading our gear, we explored the countryside on foot -- passing a few sheep and horses and wandering along trails inside the forest itself. It was easy to see why this beautiful landscape has inspired so many fairy tales.

The first travellers visited this region 19 centuries ago when the Roman emperor Caracalla and his army rested near the natural springs that later became BadenBaden. They referred to these thickly forested mountains as Silva Nigra, or Black Forest, because the dense growth of conifers blocked much of the light inside the forest. Little evidence of their visit remains -- except the name they gave to the woods.

Over several days, we explored the villages that support this region of the Black Forest.

The area near Schonach and Triberg is famous as the birthplace of the cuckoo clock and at one time half of all the clocks sold in the world came from the Black Forest. There are several museums that describe the history of clock-making and how the cuckoo clock evolved. The best of these museums is found in Furtwangen, where the younger visitors in our group not only learned about the history of timepieces, they had the chance to make their own.

In the villages near the area where we stayed, we explored local shops selling cuckoo clocks, wood carvings, music boxes and other crafts. We listened to oompahpah bands, tasted the original Black Forest Cake, ate Wiener schnitzel, played minigolf and swam in icy-cold local swimming pools.

To take in the natural beauty of the region, we rode on horseback through the hills, hiked to the top of Germany's highest waterfalls, and wandered along dark-forested trails.

Germany's Black Forest is not as remote as it once was, but is definitely unlike any other place you might visit in the country.

The region has managed to preserve its cultural identity in the wake of globalization and mass tourism. Even today, people are welcoming and friendly, but few speak English -- including the owner of our accommodation.

Internet access is tough to find, cellphone reception is sketchy and even though ATMs are available in each community, few businesses and restaurants take credit cards.

As we set the co-ordinates for the Black Forest into our GPS, we could tell that we were heading a little off the beaten path, but we could never have predicted just how much adventure lay ahead.

-- Postmedia News

IF YOU GO

We flew to Frankfurt and rented a car to drive to Schonach. The drive takes about three hours and a GPS is highly recommended.

The Black Forest region has plenty of natural attractions and is an economical destination for families. A package that includes seven night's accommodation and four passes to the Europa theme park (the German version of Disneyland in the Schwarzwald region) will cost just under $600 for a family of four and can be booked through Schonach Tourism at infoschonach.de.

Those who stay at any accommodation in the Ferienland Region (including the towns of Triberg, Schonach, Schnwald, Furtwangen, and St. Georgen) also receive a Konus Guest Pass for free use of public transportation in the region, free entrance to several key attractions, free minigolf at three different locations, and free swimming in the indoor and outdoor pools found in five towns in the region. In winter, the pass provides free access to area ski lifts.

For more information on visiting Germany, check out the official tourism website of the German National Tourism Board at: www. cometogermany.com. For specific information on the Ferienland region of the Black Forest, visit: www.dasferienland.de/e/.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 16, 2012 D4

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