Travel 2019 – Alsace and Baden, Day 15, Waldkirch-Buchholz, Schonach, Triberg, Vaals

Friday, 27th September 2019 – Waldkirch-Buchholz, Schonach, Triberg, Vaals

Most of the day was spent in the car on a variety of German autobahns, peering into clouds of spray and trying not to crash but before that we managed both a small amount of shopping and some sightseeing. First though, one more very good breakfast at the Hotel Schlossmühle, before a comprehensive repack of the car boot to make sure everything was secure and wouldn’t rattle too much, and that the grape vine I’d bought at Naturoparc, a Gewürztraminer, wasn’t going to get crushed or otherwise damaged.

After I’d done that I took a short walk into town and stopped off at the butcher’s to buy half a kilo of Black Forest ham, and a large pack of maultaschen that would go into the freezer when we got home. The lovely man behind the counter also handed me a present of couple of large slices of paté-en-croute which would do for our lunch for the first two days after we got home. From there we drove over to Waldkirch-Buchholz to Weingut Moosman to buy a couple of cases of the wines we had drunk the day before at the Alte Wache in Freiburg. And again I was given a present, a jar of local fruit jelly. I was going to struggle when shopping on my return home, because I’d be wondering why no one was giving me a gift along with my shopping.

I then spent a few minutes having a fight with the SatNav. Before we set off I had worked out how to add a driving route to its memory and was able to call that up and set it to navigate us along the way. What it didn’t seem able to handle was taking me to the nearest point on the route, rather than the absolute starting point, and as a result we ended up navigating round the centre of Freiburg more than once in several different directions before I gave up and entered a way point and told it to take us there! I had wanted to cover some of the Black Forest Road but we wasted so much time on trying to achieve escape velocity from Freiburg that we ran out of time. Instead we decided to head for Triberg and Germany’s highest waterfall.

On the way we were sidetracked, as we so often are, by Schonach, which is a pretty odd little place all told. It has around 4,000 inhabitants and is known for winter sports, with a number of famous athletes coming from the town, which explains why one of its advertised attractions is the Langenbach ski Jumping hill, which you can visit every Wednesday between 14:00 and 16:00 and climb up to the jumping point. It doesn’t explain the giant living advent calendar which of course we didn’t see, it being the wrong time of year. The Church of Saint Urban seems standard enough, but then there are two cuckoo clocks, and these are not just any cuckoo clocks. One is the world’s biggest cuckoo clock, and believe me it is big, and then there’s the first world’s biggest cuckoo clock.

This was built by Jürgen Dold and is 3.60 metres wide, 3.10 metres high, and 1 metre deep, and is housed in a small Black Forest style house. It’s open daily from 09:00 – 12:00, though we arrived just after 12:00 and were still invited in. It cuckoos on the hour and the half hour so we settled in on a bench in the garden to wait.

After that we headed into Triberg and parked up. Triberg as a name is first mentioned in any document in 1239 when Peter of Triberc is listed as a witness to a transaction, and in 1330 there is the first mention of an actual place called Triberg which seems to have had a castle as well. The Hohenbergs, who had held the castle for four generations, died our and the property passed in the hands of Duke Albrecht of Austria. It remained an imperial fief of the Habsburgs for around four centuries, and seems to have been a pretty miserable time for the townspeople. In 1654 they finally reached breaking point after years of suppression, poverty and being sold off to the highest bidders, and they raised 30,000 guilders to buy their independence. As a result Archduke Ferdinand Karl of Austria issued an edict that confirmed that the privileges of Triberg could never be pledged or sold.

By 1720 the town consisted of 422 inhabitants, living in 35 houses. By 1800 the population had pretty much doubled to 792. Shortly afterwards, the locals began to try and develop the waterfalls as a tourist attraction, setting up pathways to let the visitors get closer. A year later, after the Peace of Pressburg, 16 German princes joined forces under Napoleon’s military and political protection to form the Rhine Confederation, and Triberg became part of the new Grand Duchy of Baden. After Grand Duchess Stephanie visited the waterfalls in 1815 more and more visitors arrived and Triberg was established as a tourist attraction. A serious fire in 1826 burned down most of the town which is why it’s not packed with half-timbered buildings. The rebuilding was of course done in what was a contemporary style at the time. In 1864 further steps were taken to turn the town into a Spa, with the a beautification committee being set up. They were assitsed in their efforts when the Black Forest Railway opened a decade later. Modernisation continued apace and Triberg was the first city in Germany to erect publicly owned electric street lights.They were keen on the new in Triberg, and also set up the world’s first electric ski lift in the early 1900s, kicking off the area’s development as a winter sports centre.

We didn’t have a lot of time, but we wanted to take a quick look at the waterfall, especially as they would likely be at their best after a couple of days of heavy overnight rain. First though we found ourselves face to face with the second set of Easter island-inspired sculptures of the trip, after the strange ones in the Parc Malraux in Illkirch-Graffenstaden. These five sculptures on the waterfall path are the work of German-Brazilian multi-artist Woody Woodnock, also known as Michael Nock. They started life as the largest Douglas firs that could be found in the city forest, and weigh around 1.8 tonnes each, with a circumference of up to 2.70 metres. They were named Edekaner after a naming competition and they are just subtly insane, wearing, as they do, Bollenhuts, the women’s hats with red pompoms on the top that were worn by unmarried women from just three villages in the Black Forest but which are now regarded as representative of the whole area.

We crossed the road to the waterfall, thinking that the town looked attractive, for another time. The waterfall drops 163 meters down via a series of cascades and pools, as the River Gutach finds its way down to the valley floor. As with may German towns that have some sort of dramatic water feature, the locals will try and convince you that the water is good for your health, and that because it ionises the air, it is beneficial if you have bronchial asthma or a cold. That aside, they really are most impressive, and can be viewed at all times of year, including at Christmas when they are part of the Triberger Weihnachtszauber. They’re also lit up at night, so it would be hard to miss them!

The paths are steep, and slippery and the “easy” path was closed off so it was a case of slipping and sliding my way up about halfway, looking out for the friendly squirrels that are now so used to visitors that they just hang about begging for food. Maybe it was too damp, but I only saw one, and it wasn’t hanging about for a photoshoot, perhaps because I didn’t have anything to give in return.

We ran out of time so I scrambled back down again (which was a lot harder than going up had been) and we headed to the car to set off for the Belgian/Dutch/German border which was rather further away than I really liked the look of but would make Saturday a very easy day in comparison to today. We were staying just inside the Netherlands in a small town called Vaals, where I had managed to find a very nice looking place to lodge for a night. It was also just a short drive from the centre of Aachen so we could have a day there before we headed for the overnight ferry. Vaals is in the extreme southeastern part of the Dutch province of Limburg, in the southeastern part of the Netherlands and borders on both Belgium and Germany. The three borders meet at the Drielandenpunt, close to the highest point in the Netherlands, the Vaalserberg. Around a quarter of the population is actually German, and many of them work in the nearby German city of Aachen. Tourism is now a major source of income, though its fortunes were founded on coal and textiles during the industrial age. It seems to have been occupied by the Romans, and is one of a handful of places in the Netherlands with a name that comes from the Latin. Certainly the Limburg area was densely populated during Roman times, with a focus on Cologne (Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium).

Vaals is first mentioned in documents in 1041 when Emperor Henry III donated land to the Abbey of Saint Adalbert and made a distinction between the city of Aachen and this land by referring to it as “in Vallis” (in the valley). Given its geographical position it saw a lot of action during the various wars, including the time, in 1568, when the forces of William of Orange looted the church. In 1661 Vaals joined the Republic of the United Netherlands and as many wealthy citizens moved in, it became a prosperous industrial hub with numerous famous visitors. The Conference of Vienna assigned Aachen to Prussia and Vaals to the Kingdom of the Netherlands though when Belgium declared independence in 1830, Vaals became part of Belgium for 9 years. Afterwards it returned to the Kingdom of the Netherlands, sitting on four national boundaries (Prussia, Belgium, the Netherlands and the Neutral Territory of Moresnet). As a result of the less than nation-state of Moresnet, there was a Four-Border-Point, but not a Four-Country-Point although the Viergrenzenweg (“Four-Borders-Road”) still exists in Vaals. After 1919 Moresnet was absorbed into Belgium.

After 1840, when the various borders were closed, Vaals turned from a wealthy industrial town into a leisure and holiday destination complete with casinos. The Germans referred to the town as the “Vaalser Paradies” and a tram was built running to and from Aachen, via Vaals. During World War II the town was very isolated and post-war many of the townsfolk found jobs in Aachen legally while illegally smugglers’ routes across the border abounded as the “Owls of Vaals” plied their trade.
Nowadays the town can best be regarded as Dutch suburb of a German city and it is even well integrated into Aachen’s transport system with rerular cross border buses.

We were staying at the rather swish Hotel Kasteel Bloemendal, built in the late 1700s for the Aachen cloth manufacturer Arnold von Clermont. A very rich man, with clients that included the Tzar, set about building a palace opposite his new weaving mill. In fact both Peter the Great and Napoleon Bonaparte have stayed in the castle, the latter much later on of course. Arnold died before the work was complete, and it was left to his son to carry on both the business and the building work. After the recession caused by the French Revolution the house was sold to the Aachen City Councillor Johann Wilhelm van Lommessen, who donated the building to the order of the Sacred Heart, a women’s religious order that his two daughters, Anna and Caroline, joined.

It became a renowned Catholic boarding school, both in Europe and beyond, with pupils that included Rose Kennedy. During the occupation of 1940-1944 it became hospital with 350 beds, but reverted to being a boarding school after 1947, continuing until the 1970s when the number of both pupils and nuns started to decline. In 1976, almost 130 years of monastic life came to an end and by 1978 the building was owned by the municipality of Vaals. After slightly more than a decade, the municipality, along with van der Valk hotels, in collaboration with the province of Limburg and the Netherlands Conservation Agency, decided to restore the complex and reopen it as a luxury hotel. It really is glorious and it would have been a shame if it had been left to decay! After a series of irritating delays on the motorways, and a number of detours to avoid it, we were later arriving that we had planned to be, so they moved our dinner booking back, giving us time to clean up. They also gave us an upgrade to one of the castle rooms, free of charge so we were very happy (and very comfortable).

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