The dirndl was an impulse purchase if ever there was one. We had just arrived in the Black Forest town of Triberg, Germany, and were on the hunt for a bathroom, when Astrid spotted it hanging on a rack outside a shop on the main street. With a puff-sleeved blouse, laced bodice and checked apron, the red and white pinafore dress conjured images of flaxen-haired milkmaids and Alpine meadows, instantly capturing the imagination of our eleven-year-old daughter. Suddenly able to “hold it” a bit longer, Astrid hurried us all into the store to try on the dress.
Though she had never before expressed a desire for such an ensemble, Astrid was certain that this traditional Bavarian folk costume was the souvenir she wanted from the Black Forest, a part of the world that we were visiting at her request. Beautiful, if impractical, she assured my husband and me that she would get a lot of use out of it, and not just for Halloween.
Triberg, known for cuckoo clocks, Germany’s highest waterfall, and, for our family from this day forward, Astrid’s dirndl, was the second stop on our two-day visit to the Black Forest. After leaving Basel, Switzerland that morning, we’d driven first to Kleines Wiesental in the Southern Schwarzwald, an area of thickly forested hills and scattered farms that my husband and I discovered some thirteen years earlier. There we had lunch — including a decadent slice of kirsch-infused Black Forest Cake — at the same roadside inn we’d been to on our previous visit and hiked to a pretty little lake hidden away in the woods nearby. Apart from the occasional buzzing of a chainsaw and the crash of falling trees, the pine forest was eerily quiet and deserted, like a scene out of a Brothers Grimm story.
After the hike, we drove northeast in a light rain shower, heading up and over the Black Forest’s highest peak, Feldberg, and along the shores of the Titisee, clouds, like puffs of pipe smoke, hanging low over the black-green mountains. It was then north to Triberg and, from there, northwest to the Kinzig Valley, where we’d rented an apartment at a pig and cow farm on the outskirts of Zell am Harmarsbach.
Like the other farms we’d seen on our journey through the Schwarzwald, the Mattenhof”s barn cum farmhouse combined living and working areas for the farmer’s family and animals all under one massive, steeply sloped roof that descended almost to the ground on all but the front side. Our apartment, along with several other holiday rentals, was in an adjacent building looking out on fields and forest in one direction and the pig-pen side of the farmhouse in the other. At around $56 per night for three small bedrooms, a bare-bones kitchen/living room and bathroom, plus all the cats and kittens our daughters could ever hope for, it was an inexpensive way to experience a bit of Black Forest farm life, smelly manure and all.
We spent our second day in the Schwarzwald visiting Gengenbach and Schiltach. Small storybook towns with picturesque market squares and half-timbered buildings, these were wonderful places for aimless strolls and leisurely lunches. With no major tourist sites to tick off the list, we took our time soaking up the atmosphere and noticing the kinds of subtle details we’d probably overlook in destinations with more going on.
In Gengenbach, we especially enjoyed walking up into the vineyard-terraced hills above town, where we peaked into the 13th-century chapel, Jakobskapelle, and watched a bare-chested vineyard worker drive up and down the neat rows of vines in a tiny red tractor.
On our last morning in the Schwarzwald, Astrid put her dirndl back on for a few final photos around the farm. Looking back on this trip, I’ll certainly remember the dense green pine forests, charming villages and Black Forest Cake. But above all, I’ll recall the image of my daughter in her red and white dirndl, on the edge of adolescence but still very much a young girl who loved dress-ups, fairy tales and kittens; a most beautiful Black Forest souvenir.