In the end, the dithering was a colossal waste of time. At the end of a walk through the forest, we’re both wearing large grins. Buoyed by a deep sense of tranquility, we’re energised but calm, relaxed but alert and clear-headed – all at once. I’ve never been much of a one for meditation, but the Black Forest is a full-on sensory immersion. The autumn palette has relaxed my screen-weary eyes, the birdsong scrubbed away every last Tiktoker. The cold, crisp air seems to have deep-cleaned my insides, and washing away the weariness that has dogged me for the past year and clearing out every last cobwebby wisp of chronic stress cleared out.
This being Germany, there’s an untranslatable word for it: waldeinsamkeit. As a portmanteau of wald (forest) and einsamkeit (loneliness or solitude) the term is often used in a deeper sense, to refer to a connection with nature, a feeling of being one with the universe. Similar to the Japanese concept of shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, waldeinsamkeit is a spiritual experience all on its own.
The naturalist E O Wilson described phenomenon in the Eighties as biophilia, or a hardwired instinct to affiliate with other forms of life. Germans have recognised this urge since Roman times. The historian Publius Cornelius Tacitus wrote of how much the ancient Teutons loved woodlands as far back as AD98, describing horse-eaters, tribespeople in boar heads, and unicorns. Woods – and the Black Forest specifically – show up again and again in fairy tales and romantic literature: in the Grimm Brothers’ stories of Little Red Riding Hood, and Hansel and Gretel, or in Ludwig Tieck’s Der Blonde Eckebert (Fair-Haird Eckbert), where the term waldeinsamkeit was first used.
As travel opens up and we begin to get the measure of a new normal, nature and wellness holidays have been trending worldwide. Germany, where terrestrial protected areas comprise 37 per cent of the country, was the most-visited country in Europe over the pandemic. As vaccine roll-outs took effect and the most intrepid began to venture out, the country recorded six per cent more overnight visitor arrivals in July (48.2 million visitors) as compared to July 2020 (43.6 million). Arrivals do not yet compare to July 2019 but it be some time before tourists get the message that Germany is open to private travellers again and fully vaccinated travellers have been welcome since June – although the vaccine must be approved by the Paul Ehrlich Institut.
We certainly remained unsure about quarantine, tests and accommodation protocol during a trip to Germany. To go or not to go remained the question for several weeks – but the dithering proved pointless. For now, post-coronavirus travel is quite like life in the UAE. Hotels and restaurants will ask to see your vaccine certificate. Although masks aren’t required outdoors or when seated at a restaurant, everyone needs to wear one when walking around anywhere indoors. We’re all used to the constant uncertainty around health advisories, but tourists need to remain vigilant about changes. Airlines, of course, have specific rules. Not all travel suppliers offer full refunds on cancellations.
We picked a B&B on the northwest edge of the Black Forest, in the spa town of in Baden Baden, about 170km south of Frankfurt (less than two hours on the legendary autobahn, retracted roof optional). Our filters? Independent, self-catering, parking, a terrace with a view of the mountains – and contactless check-in and check-out. I took my work along, so the entire experience was just like #WFH, except for the bathing.
Besides the opportunity for waldeinsamkeit, this UNESCO World heritage town kurorte’s (health resort) reputation rests on the 12 curative hot springs that have attracted wellness seekers and the well-heeled since Roman emperor Caracalla reputedly first visited in the third century. The Caracalla Therme doubles as a sort of upscale waterpark. There’s a rocky grotto, a steam room, and indoor and outdoor pools heated to up to 38°C. The latter are pretty special in the winter, when the fog rises through the thermal waters.
Or try the naturist Friedrichsbad (Mark Twain once bathed here!). It puts you through a 17-step classical circuit that involves dry air bathing, soaking, steaming and scrubbing. Villa Stéphanie at Brenner’s Park hotel ups the ante with everything from facials and physiotherapy to digital detox and dietary consultations. The Heliopark Bad Hotel Zum Hirsch lets you book a private mineral bath at a more approachable price.
You’ll take your chances with city sights: some are temporarily shut, others like the Festspielhaus classical theatre and the Fabergé Museum are open. But nature experiences abound: outside the city, climb up to Battert Rock for a panoramic view over the Black Forest and the Rhine plain, and stop for a photo of the ruins of Hohenbaden Castle. It’s possible to sight deer and badgers while mountain biking through the Black Forest National Park, 35km away. Channel your inner Angel from X-Men to paraglide over the region from the Merkur mountain (22km away and up a funicular), or take a more sedate hot-air balloon from the city to the Vosges Mountains. There are vineyards and waterfalls, lakes and cuckoo clock museums. Or extend your stay at one of Black Forest’s 60 luftkurorte or air spas, where the climate and ambient air is maintained at optimum levels to promote healing – perfect for asthmatics, the allergy hit and anyone who’s had to wear a face mask for extended periods of time.
With so much to do, I’m a kid in nature’s candy store. In the end, we go with the flow. A series of rambles through this craggy city brings us into a gaggle of enthusiastic schoolchildren bursting out of school, racing against the clock to grab a sandwich while filling each other in on the morning’s earth-shattering events. We shiver under the glare of Otto van Bismarck, towering 13 metres high over the city’s market square and then grab a lounger by the city fountain for a bit of autumnal sunbathing. Couples connect on garden benches, and office dwellers rush past us, holding aloft slices of carby pizza on cardboard trays as they walk back to their cubicles. Shoppers – and there are plenty – mask up and down as dash in and out of the many emporia on the cadge for new-season designer clobber, or stop to stock up on antioxidants at the Lindt boutique.
We move a step, to huddle by the fire on a restaurant terrace, for the kässpätzle, a cheese-covered pasta, a gigantic meat platter and slices of indulgent schwarzwälder kirschtorte, (black forest gateau), to marvel at how stylish the average Badener is, chic but shorn of the bling so common to Dubai mall-walkers. For a moment, the coronavirus is a distant memory.