To many of us, the Black Forest conjures up images of dark and eerie woods, sunny fields, rushing streams, billowing winds, and perhaps a gnome or an elf peeking out from around a tree or a rock. With one or two obvious exceptions, that's a fairly accurate description. Der Schwartzwald, in the local vernacular, is one of the best reasons for planning a trip to West Germany.
One doesn't think of visiting Germany for the same reasons as England or France. True, the larger cities have major tourist attractions such as the Philharmonic in West Berlin, the modern art museums in Munich, or the cathedral in Cologne. But no single city in Germany has the concentration of attractions found in cities like London or Paris.
Rather, the value of a trip to Germany is found in the beauty and charm spread throughout the country. The land is dotted with grand cathedrals. Good museums may be found in some of the smallest hamlets. And most cities have symphony orchestras and opera companies.
The Black Forest combines all of these features with some of the loveliest scenery in Europe. A narrow swath of trees and hills nestled in the southwestern corner of Germany, the Black Forest is bounded on the south by Switzerland and on the west by France.
Late spring or early summer may be the best time to visit. From early June on into the summer months, however, wildflowers color the hillsides like subdued carpets. Mountain breezes gently follow the contours of the landscape, and the sun shines down in soft brilliance.
Summer is a perfect time to visit the hills and participate in a centuries-old German tradition -- die Wanderung.
Walking, or, more correctly, wandering through the hills and along time-worn paths in this picturesque region, is a sport, a pastime, and a hobby -- one which Germans gladly share with visitors.
Like a summertime version of cross-country skiing, wandering offers the chance to think, to appreciate the beauty of the surroundings, and occasionally to wish a Gr"uss Gott -- ``greetings of God'' -- to the people you pass.
Hundreds of walking paths and trails are carefully laid out along the hillsides. Some are well marked, with signs indicating the length and level of difficulty of the particular trail. Others are winding and seem to lead nowhere at all.
Following an out-of-the-way path one day, I began to wonder if I were merely getting lost deep in the dark wood. Without warning, the trail turned a corner and abruptly ended high up on a hillside. The narrow trail opened onto a quietly spectacular view of cow pastures surrounding a tucked-away village of five houses.
Conveniently placed at the end of this remote path was a wooden bench -- just the right setting to enjoy my picnic lunch. As I ate, the sound of cowbells clanged in the distance.
Most wandering trails are easy to find, well marked, and not too strenuous. And because the average German doesn't just like to wander without a destination, there are often small restaurants and rest houses situated at the junction of larger trails.
A perfect base for a visit into the reaches of the Black Forest is the city of Freiburg, ``the Pearl of the Black Forest.'' This city combines the history of a medieval fortress with the culture of a gracious European city.
Freiburg is itself a fine place for wandering. Meandering through the streets of the inner city, you'll come across remnants of the great walls that girdled the city centuries ago. You can stroll through one of the remaining city gates, built when Germany was a tribal state, or walk barefoot through the B"ache, the brooklets coursing along city streets.
The focal point of Freiburg, now as in medieval times, is the M"unster, or cathedral. On Saturday mornings, market day, farmers sell their goods to townspeople at the base of the M"unster, much as they did in past centuries. Only now, instead of using oxen, many pull their produce-laden carts with the family Mercedes.
The cathedral is considered one of the finest examples of German high Gothic architecture. The intricately carved open spire, like a bit of lacework, towers above everything else in the city.
The dedication of the cathedral's builders shows in every detail. It is inspiring, if a little staggering, to realize that in five centuries of construction, few of the cathedral's thousands of workers ever saw the finished edifice.
You may find yourself standing in front of the historic structure imagining what life might have been like in the walled city during the 12th century, when construction on the M"unster began. Or what the day's fashions were in 1789, when Marie Antoinette passed through on her ill-fated journey to France. Or what challenges the citizens faced as their fortified city fell again and again to foreign invaders. The region has been held by German, French, and Austrian forces over the centuries.
Across the square from the M"unster is the Kaufhaus, a 16th-century merchant's hall with red walls and a roof of multicolored crescent-shaped tiles.
Nearby, Freiburg's Augustiner Museum has a large collection of carefully preserved medieval art, and although much of it reflects a somber religious mood, the stained glass is magnificent.
Freiburg is steeped in history. Even the University of Freiburg was founded in the 12th century. But the city doesn't linger in the Middle Ages.
More than half of Freiburg was destroyed by heavy bombing during World War II. The M"unster, Kaufhaus, and several other historic attractions were spared, but much of the city has been rebuilt since 1945.
Hotels, restaurants, and shops will please the most demanding traveler. And, as in all moderate size German cities, there are an opera company and several professional theaters.
Two of Freiburg's better hotels are the Colombi Hotel and the Novotel Freiburg, both near the city center. The J"agerh"ausle, a more modern hotel, is a short distance out of town on a hillside overlooking the city.
Among the city's restaurants, two deserve special note. Zum Kleinen Meyerhof makes a mean Z"uricher Rahmgeschnetzeltes -- a veal dish with cream sauce, served over the heavy German pasta, Sp"atzle.
The Schlossburg restaurant is situated on a hill, offering another commanding view of the city. It's accessible by car, but the most direct route is by the small cable car that runs from the city park to the restaurant. (Or you can reach it by climbing the many steps up the hillside.)
After a satisfying lunch, the hills outside are a perfect place to begin a Wanderung.
Other attractions nestled in and around the Black Forest are these:
The Dorotheah"utte in nearby Wolfach, which provides a fascinating look at the art of glass blowing. Beautiful crystal products are available at reasonable prices.
The hilly village of Triberg, which has Germany's highest waterfall, and surely its largest number of cuckoo-clock makers.
Strasbourg, with its monumental cathedral, and France's Alsace region, a short drive across the border to the west.
Basel, Switzerland, with a smaller cathedral and a major zoo, is an hour's drive to the south.
Although the warmer months may be the best time to visit Freiburg, other seasons have their charms. The foliage in autumn doesn't exactly rival New England's, but autumn is a peaceful time to revel in the hills' beauty.
Winter promises more beautiful scenery. Snow seldom falls in Freiburg, but snow in the higher elevations brings out the local skiers. The Black Forest slopes are uncrowded but are also tame compared with the Alpine slopes 100 miles south in Switzerland. Practical information:
Freiburg is a three-hour ride from Frankfurt on Germany's efficient train system. It is also easily accessible from Basel.
Forays into the depths of the Black Forest are best accomplished with a rental car. There are rail and bus connections available to many small hamlets, as well as to cities over the border in France. But you can waste a lot of time waiting to make connections.
Freiburg is relatively unknown to American tourists. While the city does draw a fair number of European tour- ists, it is refreshingly uncrowded even in the summer months.
For more information, contact the German National Tourist Board, 747 Third Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10017.