Germany’s Black Forest and its Cuckoo Clocks

By Francine McKenna on Email

The Black Forest in Germany, the Schwarzwaeld, on the borders of France and Switzerland in the far south west of Baden Wuerttemberg, is a favorite destination for tourists. A wonderful mixture of wild and romantic landscapes, woods, meadows, vineyards, hills, mountains, lakes, waterfalls and thermal springs, it is scattered throughout with ancient wide roofed farmhouses, castles, palaces, baroque churches and monasteries.  And it is famous for traditional wood carving, including Black Forest Cuckoo Clocks, the carved wooden pendulum driven clock which, using small bellows and pipes, marks time by imitating the sound of a cuckoo and striking a gong.

When exactly the tradition of cuckoo clock making began isn’t really known, although there is a 1629 description of one belonging to a Prince Elector and a 1650 musical handbook features an illustration. However, although it is often said the first cuckoo clocks came from Switzerland which is just across the border, the Black Forest is where the cuckoo clock industry was established and developed in the 18th century.

Long and snowbound winters together with a plentiful supply of trees, initially even the clock’s parts were made from wood, made the making and carving of Cuckoo Clocks a profitable way for farmers, and others whose work depended on the seasons, to use the winter months.  When spring arrived the completed clocks would be sold from a rack mounted on the back of a member of the family, or a clock peddler, who known as Uhrentraeger “clock carrier” would wear the traditional smock and hat still worn by some guides in the Black Forest, traveling around selling them door to door.

Originally a clock maker needed a week for every clock but by 1780 teams of two were already able to produce ten clocks a week, and by the mid 19th century three people, two craftsmen and an apprentice, could make 18 clocks in the same time. A form of mass production had developed in an industry that by 1808 had grown to involve almost 700 clock makers and 600 clock sellers.

Germany is crisscrossed with theme routes, from The Romantic Road to sign posts of the life of Pope Benedict XVI, and one of them is the Deutsche Uhrenstrasse, the circular 320 kilometer “German Clock Road” which starts and ends in the city of Villingen-Schwenningen, along the route exploring and highlighting the Black Forest clock making traditions and history with workshops, museums, clock face painting studios and the worlds largest Cuckoo Clock.

It is a journey through the world of clocks but as it travels through medieval villages and beautiful areas of the central and southern Black Forest, as well as the eastern edge of the mountain range in the Baar area, it is also one of the most scenic of Germany’s routes.

There is the clear water lake Titisee, believed to be named after the Roman emperor Titus and formed by the glacier from the Feldberg, a 1493 meter peak and part of the region’s low mountain range. The largest natural lake in the Black Forest, a hundred years ago it was a settlement of just a few farm houses, now a popular health resort it joins the region’s long established thermal springs, valued since Roman times and a center for health cures and spa treatments for centuries.

A small river flows from Lake Titisee, the ‘Gutach’, and joins another forming the foaming ‘Wutach’, which travels through a gorge in an area which has been a nature reserve since 1928. A thirteen kilometer long trail passes ‘flora and fauna’ that died out long ago elsewhere. 1200 rare species are protected, with everything from mosses and ferns to more than one hundred different kinds of birds, 500 species of butterflies and 1,000 different beetles.

Triberg, a “picture book” old town, not only has spectacular waterfalls, which make memorable backgrounds to the annual Advent Christmas market, it is also possible to see the town’s only remaining clockmaker at work. He produces an entire cuckoo clock himself, from the clock’s parts to the making and carving of its brown stained case.

Old customs are still alive in the whole of the Black Forest, including the traditional costumes from throughout the clock making area, which are not just a part of the tourist industry but are also worn on Sundays, Christian holidays and special occasions. Although the Bollenhut, a hat decorated with large red pompoms, has become a symbol of the Black Forest officially it belongs to only three villages, Gutach, Kirnbach and Hornberg-Reichenbach, and the other villages have their own costume.

While just to make a change from clocks there are 14,000 “Kirschwasser” distilleries, the majority artisanal, making the sour cherry liquor which for centuries has been one of the district’s specialty fruit schnapps. While also originally made from wild cherries is the German confection “Schwarzwaelder Kirschtorte”, Black Forest Gateau, the glorious, if it is made correctly, layered combination of chocolate, cherries and cream.

It joins the other regional specialties to be found on the clock route, like genuine Black Forest Ham, Schwarzwaelder Schinken. Spiced and cured as it was in the days when salting or smoking meat was the only known way to preserve it to last throughout the winter, and fitting perfectly to traditional rye breads which are still baked in wood fired ovens.

The Black Forest and the Deutsche Uhrenstrasse, the German Clock Route, filled with tradition, history, scenery, thermal springs and old fashioned inns, and a feast for not only for the mind, eyes and health but also the appetite.


Source: Bella Online
Photos by Deutsches Uhrenmuseum, Furtwangen, Derflipper, and Snapshots Of The Past via Wikipedia

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Francine McKenna