Today is the first day in my two and a half week winter backpacking journey. From Paris’ Gare de l’Est train station, I boarded my first train to Germany. The route was pleasant and I had a window seat so I could enjoy the views of the French countryside buzzing past the window. Once the train had passed Lutzelbourg, the landscape visibly changed. Tunnels carved their way under craggy mountains topped with craggier castle ruins. I tried to imagine the stories of those who once lived there, and what tragedy forced them from these once formidable giants. Scattered manors were painted in dusty peach or yellow plaster and topped with black gothic spires. Leafy trees were soon replaced by skinny pines in the mountainous landscape beyond. Half timbered houses and their sharply gabled roofs hinted at past German influences as I neared the border. Within the hour, I would be in a new country. The anticipation was making me hungry.
The train slowed as it approached the bridge over the Rhine River, which divides Strasbourg, France and Kehl, Germany. A coastal guard boat anchored in the middle of the river marked the official divide. The first thing I saw once the train passed into Germany was the German flag. The second thing I saw was the young train attendant who said something to me in German and I had no idea what it meant. Yup, I was officially in Germany.
My first views of Germany were pretty unexciting. There were a lot of trees mixed in with a lot of fields and a lot of factories. I could have been anywhere. But then, in the distance, I saw the Black Forest. It was quite a ways away still and so the mountains were nothing more than gradient shades of navy and gray. At 248 km/h the train rushed along the tracks parallel to the Black Forest and its blue mountains, running north towards my destination.
I do believe that the Black Forest has earned its name. There is a visible darkness about it, even from the outside, and it certainly is black. Upon seeing it, it becomes instantly evident of how this one forest could inspire so many fairy tales over the centuries. There is a spookiness about it that has me yearning for adventure.
The first German person I encountered, I said “Merci” to, which I instantly realized was the wrong language now. I stumbled through a lot of “ja”, “nein” and “danke” for the rest of the day. The Germans I had my one-word conversations with were very friendly, and they all smiled even though I have no doubt that I was butchering their language intensely.
Once I had arrived in Offenburg, I couldn’t keep the smile off my face. I was beginning my German adventure! I happened upon Offenburg’s Christmas Market and suddenly the air smelled like warm gingerbread and fresh pine. The cobbled streets were just filled with people!
I started south towards a sleepy little neighbouring town called Ortenberg. Nestled into the very edge of the Black Forest, Ortenberg is a small village of just 3,400 inhabitants. The settlement has been inhabited since the Stone Age, and has seen Celtic, Roman and Frankish inhabitants. Today, the town has a strong viticulture, and hosts many mountain vineyards and small distilleries among its half-timbered houses. A village just outside of Offenburg, Ortenberg was about 5 kilometers from the train station and I could have taken the bus but I wanted to discover the two towns on foot. When I left Offenburg behind me and I approached Ortenberg, I suddenly saw it: the castle. At the top of Ortenberg rests the town’s impressive castle. The “Ortenberch” from 1166 and 1176 mention Lords Werner and Heinrich von Ortenberg, suggesting that the castle already existed. It was destroyed in 1678, but rebuilt and restored in 1838-1843. Perched high on its cliff, the medieval castle stands guard over its little village. Castles in Europe are a dime a dozen, so staying the night in one is, surprisingly, a very affordable option. Indeed, in many middle-of-nowhere villages, it’s often the only option. Located at the entrance to the Black Forest, Ortenberg makes a good place for me to stay for the night.
The Schloss Ortenberg, as the castle is known, definitely lived up to all expectations. After a steep hike up the windy road and past the local vineyards, I found myself looking out over the entire region with unobstructed views of the sunset. Inside, the castle is full of arched passageways and the dining hall is covered in beautifully carved wood panels. My room is located in the eastern tower. From my bed, I can look out my window over the entire village and to the mountains beyond. Yes, I could definitely fancy myself as a German princess!