This article was first published in the October 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine
Growing up in the Midlands in the 1980s, my only knowledge of the Black Forest, in south-west Germany, was that it spawned an impossibly glamorous cake eaten by adults at dinner parties: a cream-laden chocolate-and-cherry confection, resplendent in supermarket freezer cabinets. I’m still keen on what the Germans call Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte, but I love the Schwarzwald, or Black Forest, even more.
While researching the first book in my trilogy (The Storms of War) about a part-German family in England from 1914 to 1939, I spent a lot of time in the Black Forest – perhaps the most beautiful region of Germany and one of the loveliest places in Europe. Many of the stories collected by the Grimm brothers in the early 19th century were set there, and much of the forest is a fairy-tale setting: every other cottage looks like the gingerbread house of Hansel and Gretel, and you feel Rumpelstiltskin might pop up at any moment to spin straw into gold.
Situated in the state of Baden-Württemberg, the forest is roughly rectangular – nearly 100 miles long and 37 miles across at its widest. The mountainous landscape is dramatic – but for me it’s the trees, decades-old pines and firs, that are the real draw.
The forest has been popular since the Romans first spotted the health benefits of the waters welling up from springs beneath the Florentiner mountain. There’s even a Black Forest Spa Route linking spa towns from Pforzheim to Freudenstadt.
One of my favourite towns is pretty Staufen im Breisgau, where the legendary Dr Faustus reputedly lived and died. But nothing can rival the magnificent tourist magnet Baden-Baden, (known as Baden until 1931).
Baden-Baden’s visitor numbers collapsed after the ravages of the Thirty Years’ War – a series of conflicts fought by various European nations between 1618 and 1648 – and its fine baths languished, little used and decaying. But in the early 19th century the queen of Prussia paid a visit and the resort took off as an international destination. Tourists from across Europe flocked to the town to take the waters and enjoy the theatre, races, restaurants and cafes.
The founding of the German empire in 1871 prompted a surge of investment and, in 1877, a new spa was completed: the grand neo-Renaissance Friedrichsbad, the most fashionable place to find a cure for aches and pains. No visit to Baden-Baden is complete without a dip in the Friedrichsbad’s thermal waters; rising from deep springs, they reach the surface at up to 68°C. Once you’ve dried off, I recommend a look at the ruins of the Roman baths, which provide a fascinating insight into Roman bathing culture.
Baden-Baden was the place to go for any 19th-century girl looking for a husband – as long as she avoided the sharpers who frequented hotel lobbies on the hunt for heiresses. It also became a centre for artists and musicians. Berlioz was a keen visitor; his opera Béatrice et Bénédict was composed for the opening of the Theater der Stadt (City Theatre) of Baden-Baden in 1862. Johannes Brahms composed some of his greatest music at Baden-Baden, where he spent each summer between 1865 and 1874. You can visit his house, Lichtental No 8, which has been turned into a museum celebrating his life and works.
But the most popular attraction is the Kurhaus, built in 1824. When gambling was banned in France in the 1830s, thousands arrived to play cards within the opulent walls of its casino. Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote The Gambler after losing all his money at the tables there in 1863.
And the gâteau? It’s serious business. There’s even a law in Germany: if it doesn’t contain Kirschwasser – liqueur distilled from tart cherries – it can’t be sold as Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte (Black Forest cherry cake). In 2006, at an amusement park near the Black Forest, a baker made the biggest such cake in history, spanning 80 sq metres and using 5,600 eggs and 120 litres (210 pints) of Kirschwasser. You’ll find various pudding combinations of cherries, cream and Kirschwasser all over the area.
I’ve tried to make my own Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte a few times, but nothing beats the cherry-liqueur-soaked version served proudly in dozens of cafes in the Black Forest.
Kate Williams has presented a number of BBC documentaries, including Young Victoria (2009). The first book in her new trilogy, The Storms of War (Orion), is out now. Read more about Kate’s experiences in the Black Forest at historyextra.com/blackforest