Standing in the shadow of Freiburg‘s massive 13th century cathedral, swarms of hungry, determined Germans lined up at dozens of sausage stands, waiting to gorge themselves on long, skinny encased meats in round little rolls. I made the mistake of wading into the carnivorous, frenzied crowd and got pushed around like a child in a stroller sucking on a pacifier.
When in Germany, it is generally a good rule of thumb to avoid standing in between Germans and grilled meats. Some of the men were eating double decker hot dogs – two really long dogs stacked on top of each other with just a small little roll to carb up the fleisch. ‘Twas the afternoon before Easter but the deprivations of Lent already seemed like a distant memory in the heart of the Black Forest.
Travelers visiting the US during the Easter weekend might not even realize there was a major holiday, as most Americans don’t have either Friday or Monday off from work. But most Europeans take a four-day weekend and shops in many countries, Germany included, are closed on Friday, Sunday and Monday.
Freiburg is a beautifully preserved medieval town with a university founded in the 15th century. It’s a town of long, narrow gurgling canals, quiet gliding trams, street musicians, scarf-wearing blondes, serious looking people in titanium eyewear and packs of nocturnal, singing drunks.
Freiburg bills itself as a “Green City” and the old town is a pedestrian paradise that is completely closed to vehicular traffic. I live in a suburb of Washington, D.C., where walking can be hazardous so the huge crowds of pedestrians owning the streets feels a bit like a visit to another planet. The town, once controlled by Austria and then France, hosts an outdoor Saturday market and with the impending holiday, the entire city was bursting at the seams with shoppers, stocking up for Easter.
I didn’t want to queue up for the grilled meats, but I did have some incredible Schwarzwälder Schinken, known in the US as Black Forest ham. Within the EU, only Black Forest Ham from the Black Forest can be called as such, but in the US all bets are off, and companies are allowed to call any old crap “Black Forest ham,” even if it was made in Hackensack, New Jersey. What I tried in Freiburg was unlike anything I’ve ever had before. It was intensely smoky, very salty and melt-in-your-mouth delicious.
Aside from the outdoor Saturday market, Freiburg also has an incredible indoor food court called the MarktHalle, which has everything you could want, including Persian, Brazilian, Argentine, Indian and Thai. There’s no Auntie Annie’s or Orange Julius but you get to eat on real plates, using real silverware for a song. But braving the Saturday afternoon crowds is not for the faint of heart. (see video)
Freiburg is also a place where you will want to drink beer – lots of it. There are several small breweries in the area but my favorites were Martin’s Brau and Hausbrauerei Feierling, where small mugs of otherworldly beers can be had for less than 3 euros.
In “A Tramp Abroad,” Mark Twain wrote, “Where and how did we get the idea that the Germans are a stolid, phlegmatic race? In truth, they are widely removed from that. They are warm-hearted, emotional, impulsive, enthusiastic, their tears come at the mildest touch, and it is not hard to move them to laughter… They hug and kiss and cry and shout and dance and sing.”
They do indeed sing, after dark, when their bloodstreams are flowing rivers of beer. The Romans called this region the Black Forest because the dense forests blocked all light, making it difficult to see. But in Freiburg, one need not look very hard for good food and drink. Follow your nose and listen for the roving drinkers in song.
If you go: Freiburg (formally known as Freiburg im Breisgau is a two-hour train ride from the Frankfurt airport. It’s known as the sunniest, (1800 hours of sunshine!) warmest city in Germany, but that isn’t saying much. I stayed at the Hotel Kreuzblume, a small, stylish hotel with very nice rooms and good service, starting at 85 euros, located on a quiet pedestrian street in the old town.
[Photos and videos by Dave Seminara]