By ALEX CAVIEDES
Special to the OBSERVER
Those who keep track of economic news are aware of the financial woes of the European Union, which is struggling as certain indebted countries find it increasingly difficult to borrow money. Amid continental unemployment and low growth stands Germany, Europe's largest, and currently most economically vibrant, country. On our family's recent trip to Southwestern Germany to visit a few of my relatives (uncles, aunts and cousins), we spent a few days in the Black Forest (Schwarzwald) region, which borders France's Alsace region. Beyond catching up with relatives, we were able to explore some of the region's history, food culture and current economy.
Top photo — Black Forest Countryside overlooking Freiburg. Above — Characteristic town center of Staufen. Below — The Castle of Burgeln.
The relatives we visited on this part of our trip all live in close proximity to Freiburg, which is centrally located at the foot of the Black Forest mountain range in the German province of Baden-Wurttemberg, about 45 miles north of Switzerland (Basel) and 30 miles Southeast of Strasbourg in France. While many associate Germany with lederhosen (leather pants) and Oktoberfest, which hail from Bavaria, perhaps the most coveted area to live in Germany is near Freiburg, where one finds the warmest temperatures in Germany along with mountains that are ideal for summer hiking and winter skiing. Due to its proximity to France, there is much shared culture leading to a strong emphasis upon wine and cuisine. Some emblematic regional specialties include Black Forest Smoked Ham, Flammkuchen, Maultaschen and Black Forest Cake. Flammkuchen is a flatbread pizza variant topped with sour cream, onions and bacon that is common to both the German and French Black Forest regions. Maultaschen, which originated in Swabia on the eastern side of the Black Forest, are large raviolis with spinach and/or meat filling covered by bacon and sauteed onions. They are rumored to have been devised by monks seeking to hide the meat from the "eyes of the Lord" inside a layer of pasta dough to avoid transgressing Lenten meat-abstinence requirements. Our family had already been eating well in Italy, but one added German bonus is the custom of afternoon Kafee (tea-time), which entails a variety of cakes such as the Black Forest cake, which features whipped cream and cherries in a wine sauce under chocolate sprinkles. A particularly suitable locale for enjoying many of these dishes are the Strausswirtschafte, which are eating establishments run by winegrowers on their own premises (thus, outside of towns or cities), who designate their special status by hanging a large straw broom over the front door. Beyond offering their own wine, in order to avoid being licensed and run like normal restaurants, they only offer traditional meals deriving largely from their own farms and livestock, and only during certain times of the year.
Our trip was largely for visiting family, yet we managed to see one of the Schwarzwald's castles, Schloss Burgeln. It has a somewhat unique history in that it was initially established in 1126 as a monastery in the order of St. Blasius until the latter 18th century, when it has "secularized," and it has since passed through the hands of various private individuals. Thus, unlike most European castles, it was never the property of nobility. In 1920, the local community members united in an association to make a bid for the castle to ensure that the general public would continue to enjoy access. While this collective action proved sufficient to purchase the castle, funds were lacking to renovate the castle to the degree that it could be opened to the public. At this point, Richard Sichler, the general director of the large Dresden company that manufactures Germany's No. 1 mouthwash, Odol, stepped in to add his considerable wealth to the renovation effort, in exchange for the private use of the castle for the extent of his life. Since 1957, the citizen association and its historical board have managed the castle, using the proceeds from tours and rental fees for weddings, concerts, and conferences to maintain the castle. Though it lacks broader historical relevance, it remains a museum of the furniture, porcelain ovens, architecture, and art of the 18th and 19th century, and it is a testament to the power of civil engagement in Germany during a century when the country is not famed for its democratic credentials.
The modern Schwarzwald is not home to heavy industry, but instead it has remained economically vibrant through its mix of agriculture, tourism, and modern technology. Freiburg is known as Germany's green city, because of its commitment to environmentalism and alternative energy, which has enabled it to produce more energy than it consumes. Windmills and solar panels dot the countryside, with the latter also fully integrated into the cityscape. My cousin's house is an exemplar of these principles, as it is heated entirely through a combination of solar energy and geothermal heating requiring the drilling of a 130 meter-deep well which circulates water heated beneath ground to the surface where it heats the house throughout the winter months. Some of these sustainability-minded construction decisions were by his choice, but in large part they are also mandated by zoning laws. This commitment to the environment will ensure that the house (and larger community) leaves no carbon footprint, but it also produces high construction costs that will only be covered economically after decades.
Our visit to the Black Forest helped highlight its rich and diverse local cuisine, as well as its natural beauty in the form of pastoral meadows and forests upon which castles and fortresses are perched overlooking rolling vineyard-covered hills. The current emphasis on technology and conservation have propelled the region to global prominence as a model of economic sustainability, and are part of the answer to the question why Germany has continued to prosper even during uncertain economic times.
Alex Caviedes is a professor of political science at SUNY Fredonia. Send comments on this column to firstname.lastname@example.org