Is this the most eco-friendly city in Europe?

Costa Rica

Freiburg is Sun City In Germany’s Deep South, on the borders of the Black Forest. I took a short break in this keen contender for the crown of environmental capital of Europe, and found a restored medieval masterpiece with pavements made from river Rhine pebbles, 13th century stained glass windows and little canals narrow enough to step over in narrow streets, together with a solar-powered car park and one of the world’s first zero emission hotels. And all the Black Forest Gateau you can eat. (Picture credit:

Miracle Cathedral

There were tubs of geraniums half way up the Cathedral’s 377 ft spire on my visit. One way to celebrate a miracle, perhaps, because that’s what people here will tell you happened when 1,900 tons of Allied bombs rained down on the heart of Freiburg on November 27th 1944, killing many and destroying 80% of the medieval buildings in 25 minutes. Yet not a single bomb struck the cathedral, one of the great masterpieces of Gothic art in Germany, although it was encircled with destruction. There’s a simpler explanation for the survival of the glorious 13th-century stained-glass windows, which could not have survived the terrible heat. When war broke out they were removed and stored. The colours remain as astonishingly vivid as when they were installed – they cannot be cleaned, as old paintings are. Look for coats of arms of local trades, the bakers, cobblers , coopers and carpenters.

Black Forest Strolling

I walked out of the medieval city at the city gate just beyond my hotel, and, as in a Grimms’ fairy tale (this is the setting for many of them) and straight into the Black Forest, deep and dark on the hillside above. This is the western flank of the wooded mountain range, running 90 miles north alongside the Rhine valley. I inspected a multiple choice signpost. Lake Constance was the most ambitious destination, 110 miles east, well signed all the way. Inhabit this place with whatever you imagination sees - trolls and goblins, wolves and monsters - or just smile at the people you meet, out for a brisk stroll. The other way in is by the Schauinslandbahn cable car. The longest in Germany, 2.25 miles up to a nearby mountain, it begins in town. And it’s a short step to the recently restored Schlossberg lookout tower, a 93 ft high platform surrounded by massive Douglas fir trunks, near its namesake restaurant. There’s a Nordic fitness park there too. Recover with a piece of Black Forest gateau of. The original version is several severely wicked layers of chocolate cake, with whipped cream and cherries between each layer topped with yet more cream, maraschino cherries, and chocolate shavings.

Sun City

If you visit by car, and you aren’t using the excellent public transport system – trams go everywhere, and about €5 gives you unlimited trains, trams and buses for 24 hours - you could use the multi story car park in Vaubon suburb. It doubles as a solar power station. The photovoltaic panels on the roof power the lighting; the remaining energy is sold to the German national grid. They’ve seen the solar future in Freiburg, one of the sunniest places in Germany, and they know it works. Vaubon is all very bright and clean and futuristic. Solar panels are everywhere. The Schlierberg Solar Settlement is an ensemble of multistory townhouses and a commercial building. The 59 homes, designed by architect Rolf Disch ( are all 'PlusEnergy' rated, producing more energy than they consume. Their supplementary income heavily outweighs the low additional costs.
Other homes here top up with energy from a wood-burning power station. Even the local football stadium has solar cells. Catch the no 3 tram down here (destination Vauban) and look around. Or take a tour with Futours. Ask to see the solar powered farm.

Great Bear

This is how ancient the Red Bear hotel is. If our Henry I had been travelling down the Rhine the year it opened, he might has chosen to stay here – and that was in 1120. An estimated 60 generations of landlords later, Gasthaus Zum Roten Bären is claimed as Germany’s oldest hotel. (Even considering the many venerable hostelries destroyed in the war, that’s still an impressive boast.) Behind a 19th Baroque façade (it survived the 1944 bombing) it is neat and comfortable and doesn’t play on its great age. See the old cellar, dating from the time when the road outside was 9 foot lower. Ask for a room in the older front. I was in the modern wing at the rear. There was consolation: sweet birdsong, rather than trundling trams, woke me. (No. 1 tram from the station.)

An alternative is the Best Western Hotel Victoria (built 1875) Freiburg’s carbon neutral hotel. It produces its energy from solar panels, wind turbines and a unit that burns wood pellets.

Eat like the farmers

You prepare for the typical Freiburg menu by touring the six-days-a-week Farmers’ Market in the Minster Square. Local producers pile their stalls high with whatever is in season – from asparagus to chanterelles, game and Black Forest ham to local honey. And those famous sausages. All you have to do is ask for those same ingredients when you order (most waiters speak English, and menus are in English menu) at a dozen or more traditional restaurants. The 200 year old Oberkirchs Weinstube, next to the market, is typical - panelled and mirrored, with a ceramic stove made with old tiles. As well as set lunch and dinner, they do a Vesper Menu, with good, old-fashioned fare such as juniper-smoked trout fillet, Alsatian sausage salad, and smoked pork shoulder, all with the local pasta, Spatzle. The 1 Michelin star Zur Traube is one of the best in town. There’s unfussy dining at Cafe Atrium and La Cicogna. For a pre-prandial, Bar Hemingway does some good non-alcoholic cocktails.

Making music.

While crossing Minster Square at dusk I heard a sound like musical thunder. And I was heading straight for the storm. A performer was raising a crescendo on the cathedral organ –- there are actually four organs, over 1000 pipes, played together from a single console. I joined the marvelling group outside the great, closed cathedral doors, transfixed by just about the biggest sound a single musician can make anywhere. The cathedral’s regular organ recitals are one small piece in Freiburg’s musical jigsaw. Great jazz trumpeter Miles Davis once performed in the Jazzhaus – hear live music there most nights. Germany also throws big money at classical music. The Freiburg Baroque, performing only C17 and 18th music, such as Bach and Vivaldi, is one of the world’s best.

The writer flew with Easyjet fly from London Luton to Basel. Direct coaches to Freiburg (55 minutes, around €35 return) run from the airport.

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