I woke to the sound of distant church bells mingled with an early morning chorus of bird songs. The previous day's interminable delay in a stuffy St. Petersburg waiting room and the cramped flight to Frankfurt were like memories of a bad dream. Opening the window wide I took a deep breath of the cool, pine-scented air and looked out into the forest. At the edge of the clearing three deer, a buck and two does browsed on low-hanging branches, oblivious to the human presence around them. Except for the church bells chiming out the hour and the unfamiliar melody of the bird songs, it could have been a scene from almost any small B.C. town. But this was southern Germany, in the very heart of continental Europe.
It was our first morning in Bad Herrenalb where we interrupted our trip home from Russia to visit our friends Mary and Geri. Before returning to Europe to teach at Karlsruhe University, Geri worked as a geologist in the mountains of B.C. and Mary, a geography Prof. at Simon Fraser, was a keen backcountry hiker and camper. Like Betty and I they are mountain people and, after many years of teaching they chose the little town of Bad Herrenalb in Germany's Black Forest as the place to build their retirement home.
By Whistler standards, the Black Forest would be classed as hilly rather than mountainous. Even Feldberg, at 1,493 metres its highest mountain, is little more than a wooded dome rising modestly above the general level of the range. But what it lacks in double-diamond vertical the Black Forest more than makes up for in its harmonious blend of charming old world villages and tracts of wilderness. Laced with more than 23,000 km of trails it is a Mecca for hikers, bikers and cross-country skiers who have an infinite choice of routes between countless local inns and pubs. And while the runs are modest the Black Forest boasts more than 200 ski lifts. Depending on who you talk to its history of winter sports goes back to the very beginning of downhill skiing. According to our local guidebook, an enterprising Frenchman strapped on the very first pair of downhill skis and slid down the slopes of Feldberg in 1891.
Although Geri has retired from active teaching he continues to pursue his research with a passion that would exhaust most men half his age. He has a book in the works and endless stories about the Rhine Valley. Following him around for three days was a crash course in the local geology and history combined with a stiff physical workout and some excellent food. "The venison is great," he tells us as we pull in to one of his favourite restaurants, order a beer, and settle down for another of Geri's tales about the Black Forest.