By Katrine Carstens
Like many other cities in Europe, the German town of Freiburg was bombed to the ground in World War Two. But unlike others, it decided to rebuild itself as a green town before ‘green’ was cool. For example, the roads were widened to allow for trams and bicycle lanes. Much of the town centre is now pedestrianised, making it a great place to walk undisturbed by fumes and engine noise.
Throughout, there are communal green areas shaped by ideas generated by locals to suit their specific needs and desires: the district power station is surrounded by the equivalent of a free range petting zoo, with chickens and other animals running around, giving local children the opportunity to interact with nature. The entire area is also fitted with a natural rainwater drainage system providing a diverse habitat for many creatures helping to keep the ecosystem balanced. For anyone interested in sustainable living this area offers a dream mix of concepts to explore, from biogas production to passive houses.
But tourists will be delighted by the region, too. There’s a wonderful watering hole to break up your meanderings on Munsterplatz right in the centre of town. Here you can sample the delights of local wine makers whilst soaking up the city’s atmosphere. Based on a cooperative model, Alte Wache provides the perfect platform for vineyards in the area to get their wines in front of a wide audience. One of the more exotic offerings is iced wine: essentially a wine slush puppy. On a hot summer’s day it is the perfect refreshment! A skip across the square from Alte Wach is Oberkirch, a cosy restaurant serving traditional food with a firm focus on seasonal and locally sourced ingredients. This is where the locals go – always a tell tale sign that quality is on the radar.
Slightly out of the town centre lies Vauban. In the past, this area was an enclave of army barracks, but it’s been transformed into a civic zone embracing alternative living and sustainable architecture. The shift in use is an interesting reflection of how Freiburg has turned its back on a past polluted by war and proposed nuclear energy and instead chosen to face the future armed with solar panels and community spirit.
Vauban is home to several pioneering eco buildings, such as the Heliotrope and the Sun Ship both designed by architect Rolf Disch. These innovative structures were the first in the world to harness more energy than they consume with the surplus being sold back to the main grid. The Heliotrope rotates on its axis to follow the sun, making it highly effective at capturing energy. It is now regulation that every building in Vauban reaches at least Passivhaus status, meaning that it only uses the amount of energy it can produce itself.
The Green City Hotel Vauban immaculately mirrors the ideals of the area with a sustainable and functional yet stylish design, infused with a lime green theme throughout. The hotel’s personnel policy is geared at social inclusion and half of the staff are disabled. This creates a unique atmosphere, one that takes nothing away from service levels yet adds a feel good factor, an entirely different slant on luxury. An alternative eco-friendly place to stay in Freiburg is the Hotel Victoria in central town. Its glamorous interior has been fully retrofitted and it uses only green energy.
It would be a shame to visit Freiburg and not make a sojourn up into the famous Black Forest Highlands. Take the train from the central station and watch as the urban landscape slowly gives way to woodland. It might not look like it, but most of the forest is a result of a drastic initiative to reverse the effects of deforestation that led to widespread poverty and starvation in the area in the 1830’s. By that time, most of the original trees had been fed into the industrial hunger for coal during the industrial revolution. This project was far ahead of its time and who knows, perhaps the very idea of sustainability was sown right here, along with the seeds of the new Black Forest.
My visit to the area was one of electric firsts: I lost my electric car virginity and was very impressed with how smooth, safe and controlled it felt. I also rode an e-bike which transformed the whole bike-riding experience. Yes, it might seem like cheating to some ardent cyclists, but for the rest of us it enables us to cover a much bigger distance in a day. You can easily cycle 60 km in 3 hours, so covering a lot of ground is a breeze. I cycled around a sizeable lake in a couple of hours, zooming through the woods in dappled sunshine at 25-30km/hour. And yes, I did have to pedal, so there was some exercise involved too. If hiking is your thing, take a trip to the Feldberg Nature Park. The option of taking a cable car to the top and walking down through a variety of habitats should also make it palatable for the reluctant uphill walker.
Eco mobility is high on the agenda as is co-operation and collaboration between hotels, restaurants and attractions. With the Schwarzwaldhochland Card thrown in for free when you book accommodation with one of the 300 or so partnership hotels and guest houses you get free access to a plethora of benefits such as smart cars, e-bikes, boat trips and cable cars. Of course, in winter, chair lifts are added to this list: skiing is a popular activity when the snow falls.
This part of Germany–especially the Black Forest highlands–truly envelops you in nature, allowing you the rare experience of breathing in air and drinking water that hasn’t been this pure since pre-industrial times. It is no surprise that the locals want to preserve and protect this resource that is the very source of life and livelihoods for themselves, and a source of wondrous beauty for all.
How to get there
Fly to Stuttgart, Zurich or Frankfurt, then take the train to Freiburg.
All images Wikicommons except those of the hotel and Heliotrope building