A weekend break in Germany’s breathtaking Baden-Württemberg region, taking in Heidelberg and Freiburg, makes a pleasant change from the usual tourist traps.
There probably isn’t anyone who hasn’t dreamed of a weekend break in Tuscany, with its hillside vineyards, cypress filled landscape and shamelessly picturesque villages. But what about visiting Baden-Württemberg, Germany’s most beautiful and dynamic region? You would hear a pin drop in the room for the embarrassed silence.
Perhaps it is a good thing that Baden-Württemberg remains a relatively unknown destination in the UK. Everything Baden-Württemberg has to offer the visitor can easily rival, and on several important points beat, the likes of the much more fashionable Italian regions.
For starters, there are far fewer annoying tourists, and you can enjoy its many charms in relative peace. And, ok, there is a distinct lack of olive trees, but there are vineyards, in addition to warm, friendly people, who usually speak impeccable English. And then there’s the region’s magnificent scenery, luxurious resorts and rich cultural and religious history, ensuring that culture vultures will not go hungry.
Our Baden-Württemberg adventure started in Heidelberg, which is undoubtedly one of Germany’s most attractive small cities. Moreover, it takes just over one hour to carve a journey from Frankfurt airport to Heidelberg, thanks to Germany’s excellent public transport network.
On arrival, we were whisked away to our first destination – the Crowne Plaza Heidelberg. An excellent hotel in every respect, the Crowne Plaza is also ideally situated in the city centre, being close to both the train station and Heidelberg’s charming Altstadt, or old town.
Admiring the hotel fully, however, would have to be postponed as we were late for our exploration of Heidelberg’s Altstadt, which on a Friday evening buzzed with revellers out for a good time. Full of cafes, bars and restaurants, the Baroque Altstadt makes for a very lively evening; it’s about a 15 minute stumble back to the hotel, so taxis are not required. After dinner, we allowed ourselves time to discover Germany’s most precious resource – beer. Although the country produces many fine wines, it is for their beer that the country has arguably won worldwide renown.
Bavarians probably win the beer guzzlers award – their annual intake is 240 litres per head – but judging by our experiences, Heidelberg’s populace gives them a good run for their money. During our bar hopping, we noticed that Pilsner is ubiquitous, a light lager-style beer produced by bottom fermentation. However, other styles are stronger and more interesting; only available in spring, Maibock is a particularly pungent and strong beer, although my favourite is the Weizenbier, a drink made from wheat rather than barley.
The following morning afforded an opportunity to get acquainted with Heidelberg in daylight. Situated on the banks of the Neckar river, it is surely one of Europe’s most handsome cities. For centuries it was a centre of political power, with a lively and influential cultural life. It also boasts Germany’s first university, founded in 1386. But, the postcard emblem is the mighty Heidelberger Schloss, which towers over the town, rising above the city’s Old Bridge.
We took a spectacular cable car ride to its entrance, which was included in the price. Originally a supremely well-fortified Gothic castle, it is now a vast residential complex that was built and repeatedly extended between the 13th and 17th centuries. It is well worth a look, but make sure to give yourself at least a few hours to appreciate it fully.
In the evening we travelled to Freiburg, a similarly attractive city in Baden-Württemberg that offers a gateway to the Black Forest, which is what originally drew me to the region. We spent all of Sunday hiking in the shamelessly picturesque Schwarzwald, which is a walker’s paradise. Densely planted with tall firs and spruces, the mountainous Black Forest is a place that tests a writers’ ability to temper the use of endless clichés. You instantly reach for spectacular, idyllic and captivating, before quickly realising that many writers have done so before you.
Instead, let me say that you should try and visit Todtmoos, a charming small spa resort that boasts a pretty Baroque pilgrimage church, which dates from the 17th-18th centuries.
Returning to Frankfurt that evening, we decided to postpone our departure, instead treating ourselves to a night at Hotel Villa Kennedy in Frankfurt, owned by the Rocco Forte hotel group. Originally a family residence built in 1904, the hotel has long been one of Frankfurt’s grandest addresses, a byword for unsurpassed luxury and glamour in the city.
What set it apart was not so much the amenities – all 5-star hotels have spas and top-flight restaurants, etc. – but the service, which went that extra mile and was unfailingly exemplary throughout. There are 163-rooms – including some very impressive suites – and our abode was furnished to the highest standards, with soft, neutral décor and acid-green patterned pillows on neutral natural-fibre couches and chairs, along with beds with heavy linen sheets.
Its crowning achievement is undoubtedly, though, the plush, garden facing spa, with a large indoor pool, mixed saunas, steam bath, gym and Jacuzzi. It was almost impossible to leave.
Sadly, the hotel’s restaurant was undergoing a refurbishment during our stay, so instead we explored Frankfurt’s charming Altstadt and found a lovely little Italian restaurant, run by an animated couple from Naples. Housed in the Romer, which is a collection of 15th to 18th-century houses, Frankfurt’s old town stands in stark contrast to the majority of the city, which is industrial and not particularly attractive.
The headquarters of many major banks and publishers are based here, so there is plenty of money sloshing around Frankfurt, but Cologne and Hamburg generally leave it for dust when it comes to architectural heritage and style. In fact, the best thing about the city is definitely the Villa Kennedy and its plush spa.
But then looks, as they say, is not everything. Walking back to our hotel along the river Main, we got very lost and ended up in the financial district, some distance from our hotel. Phone batteries depleted, we started to panic until a stranger approached us, and in perfect English asked if we needed any help, dispensing clear directions in a manner that I always find impossible.
It rather destroyed the stereotype of Germans as standoffish and cold; wherever we went, we were warmly greeted by multilingual, friendly people. And so I would wager that Germany, like its inhabitants, is both misunderstood and underrated – I urge you to visit soon, before hoards of tourists discover just how wonderful the country is, and then subsequently ruin it.
Crowne Plaza Heidelberg City Centre
Kurfuerstenanlage 1, Heidelberg 69115
Hotel Villa Kennedy
Kennedyallee 70, 60596, Frankfurt am Main