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Fairy-tale feast rewards Black Forest trekkers

Shirley and Otto Distler take in a three-course meal and Rench Valley views. Shirley and Otto Distler take in a three-course meal and Rench Valley views. (Susie Woodhams for The Boston Globe)
By Susie Woodhams
Globe Correspondent / October 17, 2010

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BAD PETERSTAL-GRIESBACH, Germany — When I called Hotel Dollenberg to ask about its weekly guided hike through a northern stretch of the Black Forest, I discovered my German was as poor as my fairy-tale knowledge.

“So you want to make ‘Tischlein deck dich’?’’ the clerk said.

“Uh, I was talking about the hike and lunch. The one that starts at your hotel and happens only on Tuesdays,’’ I replied uncertainly in English.

To quell my confusion, the clerk explained that “Tischlein deck dich,’’ which translates to “Little table, cover yourself,’’ is the title of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale known in English as “The Wishing Table.’’ In it, a young man receives a simple table, which produces a feast on command.

Only in this case, after snaking three hours through the forest backdrop of many Grimm tales, hikers stumble upon a feast at 3,200 feet. The idea is to reward participants with a three-course, sit-down lunch as they take in views of the Rench Valley and verdant highlands – and on a clear day, even Strasbourg’s cathedral 30 miles northwest in France. Refreshed, they then complete their 8-mile journey down to the five-star hotel.

For 45 euros, or $62.55, could this be my dream hike?

While not quite hard-core hikers, my husband and I often crave a good meal and pampering after long, weekend rambles. Conveniently, we live close to the border of Germany’s southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg — home to the Black Forest’s 15,000 miles of hiking trails, plus dozens of “wellness’’ spas and thermal and mineral baths, some of which include ruins from Roman times.

The Romans, in fact, first named the region “Silva Negra’’ because when they arrived 2,000 years ago they found the dense collection of trees virtually blocked out sunlight. Today, the name (Schwarzwald in German) doesn’t always fit the 120-mile-long, 37-mile-wide expanse, transformed in part by intense logging in medieval times to provide lumber for Dutch shipbuilding and fuel for mining.

While large patches of dark forest still tower over dramatically cut valleys, there are also wide meadows, a few glacial lakes, and cascading waterfalls. It’s also far more populated, with the jet-set crowd lured to the posh spa town of Baden-Baden; university students and city workers in Freiberg; and skiers flocking the forest’s highest peak (4,900 feet) in Feldberg.

Thanks to signage supplied over 130 years by the volunteer Black Forest Association, you could spend weeks walking from village to village without a map, relying on trail markers to find places to eat and sleep. But with less than a day to spare, we usually start our hikes within an hour of the Swiss border. When hungry, we used to stop at the first restaurant, where the fare ranged from schnitzel (breaded veal) and spaetzle (boiled and then pan-fried dumplings or noodles) to the traditional vesper, or snack, of sausages, cured hams, and bread, and perhaps, Black Forest cake made of chocolate, cream, and cherries.

Yet after one too many schnitzels, we decided to research restaurants first, and then find trails that surrounded them. The approach paid off near the southern village of Steinen, where the chef of Zum fröhlichen Landmann popped out of his kitchen during a busy Sunday brunch to loan us a map and point out an hour-long hike. Upon our return, our al fresco reward was a carpaccio of deer and wild boar, baked trout, and a trio of sorbets.

Satisfying, but could we find a more challenging hike with cuisine to match?

Chef Martin Herrmann at Hotel Dollenberg, tucked remotely in the forest’s northern nature reserve, earned his second Michelin star this year for the French-influenced Le Pavillion. While I didn’t expect his staff to deliver elaborately styled dishes 1,000 feet above its kitchen, I was curious enough to travel 100 miles for the hike and lunch.

The mid-September drive was stunning, as a thin wisp of fog overlapped vibrant green hues of rolling forest. Just beyond the villages of Bad Peterstal and Bad Griesbach, I zig-zagged two-thirds of the way up the Dollenberg road before spotting the sprawling, country-style hotel set against the hill.

While the lobby gleamed with marble and polished wood, all formality evaporated just outside when a white-haired man hopped from a van, hugged a woman, and then squeezed my hand. An employee quickly introduced him as opa (grandfather) Rudolf Schmiederer, whose son Meinrad developed the hotel from a family business over the past 40 years.

These days the elder Schmiederer, 89, drives guests across the lush valley to the hotel’s rustic lodge, tends the petting zoo, and makes his own schnapps. When he worked in the forest almost 50 years ago, he and his wife made extra income on weekends selling wine, beer, and vesper to neighbors and hikers passing their farmhouse — a venture that required the strength of their five sons.

“There was no street to get here, nothing, so for drinks they would have to go by the forest down to the main road and wait for [delivery] cars to come with the beer and wine,’’ explained Ulrike Herrmann, the only daughter, who is now married to the chef and helps Meinrad manage the hotel. “Then they’d wear the bottles on their backs and walk back up.’’

Our hike, which started at 2,100 feet, wasn’t expected to be nearly as grueling. “Just a few difficult areas,’’ promised Marc Heinemeyer, our guide, as he handed walking sticks to some of the 46 hikers — far more than usual despite a cool and cloudy morning.

While most were middle-aged vacationers from Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany, quite a few had mastered the same 8-mile route in previous hotel stays — including an 84-year-old Dutch man returning for his fifth hike.

Following a steep path once used by horse-drawn postal wagons, we passed under colossal pines and fir trees, stopping along bends to glimpse a rolling landscape that extended for miles. Later, we found etched in a rugged wall the year 1888, with a devil’s fork piercing a curled horn, symbol of the German postal service. A bolt of lightning, we were told, had once killed a worker near here, so villagers renamed the area Teufelkanzel — or Devil’s Pulpit.

While its curse just as easily could have been the next 500 feet of precipitous stone steps and wooden stairs, a reward came at the top. From a wooden hut, Heinemeyer pulled a crate of chilled champagne and flutes, signaling a chance to toast the outing.

Refreshed, we trudged into our third hour, snacking off blueberry and blackberry bushes until we entered a more barren section — remnants of the 1999 winter storm Lothar, whose 130-mile-per-hour winds destroyed hundreds of acres of the Black Forest’s highest ranges.

While the sight was sobering, the mood changed dramatically as we entered a clearing at 3,200 feet. Within steps of a cliff offering a spectacular view of the villages, we found 12 tables, adorned with white cloths, silverware, china, and stemware.

“This is what we were walking for,’’ exclaimed Thea Remmits, a Dutch woman who joined my table along with her husband, Ben.

For the next two hours, two waiters liberally filled our glasses with wines from the region. From a delivery truck and tarp-covered trailer emerged shrimp cocktail with melon served cleverly in preserving jars; veal in a velvety brown sauce; peas with bits of sweet ham and pasta; and to finish, a creamy mousse atop a plum ragout.

While waiters passed out blue hotel blankets during coffee, I thought all we lacked was sun. Wouldn’t you know, the Wishing Table delivered, with beams slashing through trees during our final, 30-minute decent. Next time, I’ll remember to wish for a massage to go with it.

Susie Woodhams can be reached at susiewoodhams@gmail.com.

If You Go

Hotel Dollenberg (www.dollen berg.de) is less than 40 miles from both the Strasbourg airport and the spa town of Baden-Baden; 67 miles from the Stuttgart airport. While its guided hike with three-course lunch usually starts at 10:30 a.m. on Tuesdays, the hotel staff often determines by late afternoon the day before whether to postpone it because of weather, so call in advance. Plan at least 5 1/2 hours for the outing (3 1/2 of hiking).
The hotel, which is at an altitude of 2,100 feet, also has five other route suggestions for guests ranging from one to two hours, passing through the Rench Valley or by a waterfall and tower ruins.
Black Forest Tourism (www.blackforest-tourism.com) offers several “Hiking Without Baggage’’ packages varying from one to two weeks, including along the 177-mile Westweg Trail that starts in Pforzheim, Germany, in the north to Basel, Switzerland, in the south.