Friday, June 19, 2015

Germany's Baden-Württemberg is More Than Cuckoo Clocks and Chocolate Cakes

Imagine that you’re in a classic Mercedes-Benz, top down, for a wind-in-the-hair ride through the Black Forest. Your route overflows with castles, cuckoo clocks and cobblestone alleyways. In short, it is fairytale perfect.

Where, you might ask, is this scenario? The answer: Baden-Württemberg.
Located in Southwest Germany, this is the country’s third largest state. Blessed with close to 2,000 hours of annual sunshine and an enviable trifecta of borders – France to the west, Switzerland to the south and Bavaria on the east – the region has abundant amenities. It’s a hospitable combo of cosmopolitan cities, a variety of villages and heavenly hamlets, all showcasing their back-in-the-day beginnings – but with a 21st century twist.   
Have you ever felt you’re living a dream? That’s the premise here . . . in this land many call the “authentic” Germany.  
Red and white signage, “Welcome in Germany” (no, this is not a typo, just a lovely lost-in-translation greeting) signifies your airport arrival in the state capital, Stuttgart. It’s been said the pulse of Baden-Württemberg is strongest in the heart of this city. Spread across a mosaic of undulating terrain, from hills to valleys to parks, its acres of within-the-city-limits vineyards meld with such internationally-recognized headquarters as Hugo Boss, Porsche and Mercedes-Benz. But though renowned for its top industrial feats, its peoples’ roots are ever present.
Called Swabians, this populace is “never short of an excuse to celebrate” – with evidence found in its innumerable celebratory wine and beer festivals, classic musical events and festive Christmas markets.
Pleasures of the pedestrian define Stuttgart’s city center. Anchored by Palace Square, it’s surrounded by cafes, wine bars and beer gardens. A stroll through the area reveals New Palace, the Baroque-style former residence of the kings of Württemberg; Old Palace, now a museum with the atmospheric ambiance of a knight’s castle and the Museum of Art, an imposing glass cube with a bird’s-eye view from its top level. And don’t miss the historic Art Nouveau Market Hall, the city’s lively food-and-farmers market and magnet for culinary connoisseurs.
On the opposite end of the architectural spectrum are Stuttgart’s luxury car museums. Open in 2009, the Porsche Museum building’s illusion of suspension makes a bold statement. Germany’s only car museum with an auto shop, visitors can watch skilled mechanics in action. The company’s one-of-a-kind philosophy is echoed by Ferry Porsche: “In the beginning, I looked around but couldn’t find the car I dreamt of, so I decided to build it myself.” Since 2006 Mercedes-Benz Museum has presented 120 years of auto industry history on nine descending circular levels. Designed to project mobility, among the museum’s most popular exhibits is Level 4’s collection of celebrity cars, including John Paul II’s Popemobile and Princess Diana’s M-B 500 SL red sports car. If game, save time for the racing-experience simulator (I declined after seeing one participant’s I-can’t-wait-to-get-off-this-ride look upon emerging).
Food finds: Known for such Swabian fare as roast beef with onions and beef bouillon with pancake and chives, make dinner plans at Alte Kanzlei Restaurant, ideally located in the charming square of Schillerplatz. For a regional drink, order Trollinger red wine.
Weil am Rhein is where Switzerland and France rendezvous with Germany. Three Countries Bridge, the world’s longest cantilever pedestrian and cycling bridge, crosses the Rhine River and is a prime representation of this architecturally-astute city. Called the “City of Chairs” for its throughout-the-city displays of oversized chairs, a visit to Vitra Design Museum is mandatory. Showcasing the world’s largest collection of modern furniture throughout its four floors, start on the top level and leave ample time for the Museum Shop, where miniatures of the chair collection can be purchased.
Food finds: Its idyllic climate produces such seasonal specialties as white asparagus. Our late-March timing translated to a meal featuring the local delicacy.
“So nice they had to name it twice,” said President Clinton of Baden-Baden. Situated in the foothills of the Black Forest, its neo-baroque Old Town remains as it was pre-World War II. Long known for its bathing tradition, the first facilities of this 2,000-year-old spa city were erected by the Romans. Today’s primary draws include Friedrichsbad (attire: no swimsuits), a historic 125-year-old bathing temple featuring Roman and Irish spa traditions, of which Mark Twain said: “Here you lose track of time within 10 minutes and track of the world within 20.” By contrast, the more modern Caracalla Spa (attire: swimsuits) has 12 natural springs within a setting of marble columns and an interior surrounded by glass. 

Though a noted enclave for spa, beauty and wellness, the luxury of Baden-Baden additionally extends to premier hotels, world-class museums, a lavish casino, seasonal horseracing and around-the-calendar entertainment. Walking in the footsteps of Queen Victoria and Napoleon III, a stroll along Lichtentaler Allee, the famous avenue running alongside the Oos River, passes many of these pleasures.     
            Food finds: As the recipient of two Michelin stars, the seven-course gourmet menu selection of Chef Paul Stradner with Brenners Park-Restaurant warrants a leisurely stop.
One of the world’s most romantic cities is Heidelberg. Straddling the Neckar River, a medieval castle towers over its Old Town, streets buzz with the energy of college life (it is home to the University of Heidelberg, established in 1386) and past visitors include Thomas Jefferson, Mark Twain and General Patton. In this city, it’s almost a requirement to visit family-owned, fifth-generation Knösel Chocolaterie for its famous handmade confection called Student’s Kiss and place a love lock on Heidelberg’s Old Bridge. But though a portion of Heidelberg endearingly represents the past, such annual events as January’s Cabaret and Comedy Festival and June’s Literature Days propel the city forward.

Food finds: One of Heidelberg’s oldest student pubs is a popular haunt of locals, too. Restaurant Zum Seppi serves up such specialties as garlic soup, accompanied by (what else?) beer.
The Black Forest is a land of lacy curtains, hillside homes and forests so dense the color at times appears black. You’ll pass orchards, meadows, farms, placid lakes and rushing streams in route to such villages as Bad Wimpfen, known for its half-timbered houses and Triberg, home to one of the world’s largest cuckoo clocks. Set high in this region is Titisee-Neustadt, a popular resort village that centers around Germany’s pristine 130-foot deep Lake Titisee and its warm weather offerings – fishing, windsurfing and sailing.
Food finds: A typical meal of cold cuts and beer can be found at Rothaus, a brewpub that evolved from a small monastery operation to a renowned state brewery. The perfect complement for mid-day coffee is Black Forest Cake – alternating layers of dense chocolate, real cream, Morello cherries and a hint of Kirsch.

Continuing your road trip, Ortenau Wine Route is a 75-mile trail that links prolific wine villages with historic taverns. Castle Road, a 750-mile path from Mannheim to Prague, leads you to such castle homes as Burg Guttenburg and its possibility that your tour will be conducted by resident owner Baron von Gemmingen who represents the family’s 17th generation.
 Photos by Cynthia Dial

Fairytale finale: Should you crisscross Germany in search of a home for Hansel and Gretel, begin in Baden-Württemberg. Until next time, auf Wiedersehen.

By Cynthia Dial for

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