When I was in Peru, one of my Spanish teachers observed that it would be an absurdity to say that I had “seen Peru,” as if the entire country could be checked off a list with the swoop of a checkmark and a satisfied, self-congratulatory pat on the back. That’s what my brother and I tend to do in our ceaseless and increasingly cut-throat contest to visit the most countries. But there’s so much more to a country than its largest cities; there are so many histories and fables to be told about the smallest of towns. You can live in a country for months without even scratching the cultural surface. For that matter, you can live your entire life that way. Every country is just so big – even if it’s one twenty-seventh the size of the US, as Germany is. And I know that. In my mind I know that so far I’ve only seen the tiniest of tiny pieces of Germany, but two weekends ago I took a day trip into the Schwarzwald, and it started to properly sink in.
The language institute (SLI) through which I’m taking my intensive language course this month organizes various trips and outings for us students. The weekend of March 8th – yes, I know, I’m way behind – the trip for Saturday was into the Black Forest to see various churches in various towns, a popular lake, and a ski museum. Since travel would be provided by means of a private bus – and, I presume, a tour guide – it cost €35 or so. Disinclined to spend so much money on a trip that sounded rather uninteresting, I planned not to go. And then, some people I met on the hike up to the top of Schlossberg hill the previous weekend, invited me along on their own little excursion on Saturday. I love it when that happens: other people make the plans, and I just come along. Coincidentally – or not so coincidentally – we ended up going to most of the places on the SLI trip. Indeed, we ran into that group two or three times. But! Our trip was free. Ha!
The handy-dandy “Regiokarte” train, tram, and bus ticket we students purchased for this month of language classes allows for free transportation to a large swath of the Black Forest outside of Freiburg. So, at 9:15am, we met at the main train station, and off we went!
After a brief train journey – say, less than 25 minutes – we disembarked in a small town where we caught a bus a few minutes later. In about 20 minutes this had brought us through several other little towns and up further into the hills of the Schwarzwald to the village of Sankt Peter, and, more importantly, its cathedral. We hopped off the bus into the chilly shadow of the church and made our way up the hill to its ornate door. I say ornate, but all church doors I’ve come across in Europe are beautiful and ornate to some degree or another. Really, this was just another church door. And inside was just another downright gorgeous, stained glass-windowed, towering stone columned, ancient church with the massive paintings of biblical scenes winging their way across the walls and ceiling, as usual. Confession: I’m a cathedral snob. I’m way past the point of saturation when it comes to churches and lofty architecture and awe-inspiring art. It’s a tragic reality.
We breezed our way through the cathedral, and then returned outside to look for the historic library that the SLI group was also going to visit. We circumnavigated the church ground – it used to be a monastery or convent – not once but twice before asking for directions in a little souvenir shop off the plaza in front of the church. She confirmed what I had suspected after seeing some signs inside the cathedral: no public tours of the library on Saturdays. The SLI group had gotten a private tour. I think my traveling companions were rather more disappointed than I was, even though we soon ran into people from the SLI group who informed us that the library was, and I quote, “really cold.” They showed us some pictures of – big surprise – more arched rooms and paintings on walls, along with some old books. Yup, no big loss.
Of course, now we had a bit of a problem. Our bus out of town wasn’t going to come for another hour and a half, we had no library to visit, and it was cold and blustery outside. So, we found a sunny bench overlooking the nearby hillside and pastures, and I started at my map of the Schwarzwald while other two girls consulted (sort of argued?) over the bus schedule and the guy just sat there. I suppose this would be an opportune time to inform you that I was on the trip with two girls – an American exchange student from up north and a Swiss girl from Geneva – and a guy, who’s an American from the northeast. They’re all in the same level of German, which is about two times higher than mine. And we spoke only German.
Eventually, when we had about 45 minutes left before our bus would come, we made a painfully hesitant move to a cafe down the street. Our group ambivalence was becoming slightly maddening. But, inside the cafe, the other three warmed themselves with hot chocolate, and I finally thawed against the warm pane of the sunny window behind our table. We discussed the foods particular to each of our home towns, the upcoming semester, and so on. And then we headed back to the bus stop.
The long-awaited bus took us to another small train station, where we caught a 6-minute ride to the Titisee stop. A 10 minute walk down a road lined with wide sidewalks clearly constructed to accommodate large groups of ambling tourists and the racks of kitschy souvenirs that spilled out from the shops along the way. The lake itself, once we arrived at its breezy shores, was smooth and clear and surrounded by forests and the rising foothills of the Schwarzwald – quite picturesque, and, I’m sure, excellent for swimming in the summer. We found a bench in the sun and ate our lunches: in my case, a giant roll of oddly pungent and sharp smelling but delicious and crusty potato bread, some brie, and an apple.
Our leisurely lunch completed, we concluded that there wasn’t much to be seen in the town, so we wandered back up to the train station. On the way we poked our heads into a touristy shop or two. In one which sold chocolates, all three of my friends insisted that I try a Mozartkugel chocolate, which they claimed were a very traditional sweet made of a chocolate-filled and chocolate-covered marzipan ball. I consented, of course, and felt a bit silly as I purchased my single piece of chocolate from the store. It wasn’t a very impressive sweet. Mostly just sweet, as if someone had compressed a tiny sugar cookie into a ball and then coated it with chocolate. The most notable detail was the foil wrapper, which showed Mozart’s face. Hence the name, “Mozart ball.”
Before we arrived back at the train station, the other two girls had another session of bench sitting and schedule discussing, which concluded with the decision to go to the nearby town of Neustadt – because, why not? So we did. The town was quiet and nearly empty. I suppose everyone was enjoying their Saturday afternoon by staying home. After passing an amusing pair of sculptures of an ear and a mouth – you could speak into one and hear out of the other, like those playground speakers – we ascended a hill up to the town’s church. Though still just another beautiful church, this one’s architecture was unique. Its smooth, curved lines and two-toned stone color scheme seemed modern, but on the ceiling were faded remnants of ancient paintings. It was an odd combination.
After visiting the church, we were essentially finished with Neustadt. We listlessly strolled partway down a street in hopes of finding something of interest but soon turned back and returned to the train station. Our train arrived soon enough for our 40-minute ride back to Freiburg, where we arrived sometime around 5:00pm, tired but content with our day of haphazard exploring one little corner of the Schwarzwald.
That, ladies and gentlemen, was my first little adventure of this grand adventure of being an exchange student.
Next up: Paris, where I went last weekend.