Cuckoo Clocks of the Black Forest

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE FEBRUARY 2015 EDITION OF LONELY PLANET TRAVELLER (lonelyplanet.com/magazine)

Pünktlichkeit (PUNCTUALITY)

One cold winter long ago, when the pastures were smothered in deep, fluffy snow, the farmer folk of the Black Forest were bored. It was a boredom particular to winter days trapped indoors – in a time before jigsaws and TVs – where the only thing to do was watch snowflakes gather on the windowsills and await spring’s thaw.

It was on one such tedious day in the 18th century that an unknown farmer decided to pass the time messing around with bits of wood and metal in his workshop. This, legend tells, was how the glorious tradition of Black Forest clockmaking started out – and from it was born a sacred German icon: the cuckoo clock. It is curious to think that every 15 minutes around the world – across time zones, continents and date lines – a giant flock of wooden cuckoos emerges, cuckooing to an audience of millions the virtues of German punctuality, before disappearing into their dusty homes. No-one knows precisely when, why or by whom the cuckoo clock was invented. Many, however, have fled the nest from the workshop of Oli Zinapold in the town of Triberg, deep in the heart of the forest.

Oli Zinapold

Oli Zinapold

‘For me, a ticking clock is a comforting sound,’ explains Oli, pausing as he crafts a brand new clockface out of linden and maple in his workshop. ‘It says that all is well with the world.’

For 20 years, Oli has been part of the two-century tradition of clockmaking in the Black Forest. At one point, a third of all clocks in existence ticked their first second in this region, and though industrial-scale clock manufacturing is long gone, artisans like Oli still thrive. Timekeeping has, of course, always been the secret to German genius – from winning international football matches in the last seconds of stoppage time to the crisply-timed quavers opening Beethoven’s 5th Symphony (da-da-da dum).

‘It is true what they say – we are a punctual nation,’ says Oli, inspecting the swirling grains of wood before him. Aside from the basic components of two tiny bellows (producing the cuc- and the -koo respectively), designs for cuckoo clocks take many forms. Some feature intricate hunting motifs, castles or cabins. Others feature toadstools, rabbits or even the Virgin Mary. But most of Oli’s clocks take inspiration from the landscapes outside the workshop.

Sankt Roman in the Black Forest

Sankt Roman in the Black Forest

More than anywhere else in the country, the Black Forest resembles the Germany depicted in fairytales, on biscuit tins and Christmas cards: higgledy-piggledy villages where the Pied Piper might have skipped through the streets, green landscapes of beehives and barns where cotton-wool clouds snuggle into the dimples of valleys. It’s not a place of grand, vaunting mountains like the Alps (which often appear as a smug silhouette on the horizon) but humble, minding-their-business hills that rise and dip gently, seemingly in kind consideration of the rivers and the railway lines that pass through. And, of course, there are the woods – vast and mighty, resonating with the chorus of birdsong.

I ask Oli if he’s ever heard a cuckoo chirruping outside his window. ‘Actually, I don’t think I’ve ever heard one,’ he says with Teutonic matter-of-factness. ‘I do believe we are too high for cuckoos in the Black Forest.’


Freizeit (LEISURE TIME)

Every spring, cuckoo-clock-makers would emerge from farmsteads across the Black Forest, passing a winter’s worth of freshly made products on to travelling salesmen. Sporting knee-high socks and top hats, the clock salesmen roamed the backroads of the Black Forest and out into the wider world in search of custom. They walked from the Russian steppe in the East to English downs in the West. They slept in barns as their cargo tick-tocked and chirruped manically throughout the night. Wherever they made a sale, they left behind heirlooms that would count down the lives of many generations.

Centuries on, the habit of wandering in the region endures, not least with the walkers who descend on the trails from spring. Among them are Annika and Johanna – students from Freiburg with the curious, supernatural ability of German hikers to look pristine, irrespective of how much mud they’ve stomped through. On the spur of the moment, they resolved over breakfast to ditch a day writing their dissertations, jumping into their car and driving to the wooded hills near Mummelsee. ‘The first word is always the hardest to write,’ says Annika. ‘So we decided we’d rather be up in the countryside. The forest feels cosy – you feel you belong here.’

The Black Forest

The Black Forest

Striking away from the busier trails, it’s very feasible to find yourself quite alone in the Black Forest – deep in the domain of red deer, boar and lynx, in places where there is no sound but the rustle of leaves underfoot. It’s said the Black Forest got its name for the darkness beneath the canopy, and it’s easy to see why. Mighty trees tower overhead as I walk through – trees whose ancestors might have been chopped down and fashioned into cuckoo clocks long ago. Only sometimes does the sunlight wink through the boughs, casting a spotlight on the ferns below.

Forests, it has been said, cast a powerful spell on German culture. It was in the forests that Wagner set Siegfried, where the Brothers Grimm had Hansel and Gretel follow a trail of pebbles by moonlight. It was in very real forests not far from here that Germanic hordes sprung from the foliage to defeat invading Roman centurions in the 1st century AD. Perhaps more than any other nationality, Germans feel an inner gravitational pull to the woods.

Soon my trail arrives at a small glade, dotted with withered tree stumps. The path meanders vaguely amongst puddles and bracken, before vanishing altogether – and suddenly there comes a brief, childlike-sensation of losing one’s bearings in the woods. This experience is more surprising given the location of the Black Forest, close to central Europe’s industrial heartland. On the edges of these forests are autobahns with supersonic speed limits. Not so far away are production lines making lightning-fast German sports cars in Stuttgart, and manic stock exchanges in Zürich. And yet, preserved in the midst of all this is the Black Forest – a place where time itself seems to pass in slow motion.


Ingolf Haas

Ingolf Haas

Zeitgeist (SPIRIT OF THE AGE)

‘Sometimes I wish I could go back in time to the 18th century,’ says Ingolf Haas, looking out of his workshop window in the late afternoon sunshine. ‘Then I could have seen reactions to the very first cuckoo clocks. Did people think there was something alive in there? Was it a living, breathing thing?’

Ingolf Haas is the closest the cuckoo clock community has to a revolutionary in its ranks. A member of the fourth generation of a venerable clockmaking dynasty in the town of Schonach, Ingolf admits to experiencing a minor crisis of confidence in his creations back in 2006. ‘I started to ask myself whether the cuckoo clock was still relevant to people,’ he says, inspecting the spring-mounted mechanism of one little cuckoo. ‘I wanted it to be something cultural, not something kitsch.’

Ingolf Hass' cuckoo clocks

Ingolf Hass’ cuckoo clocks

The result of many sleepless nights was a new, radically different generation of clocks. Ticking and tooting on the wall of his workshop are minimalist cuckoo clocks; Bauhaus-style cuckoo clocks; cuckoo clocks painted neon pink or green. A few are studded with diamonds, and a few are shaped like pyramids. The new designs surprised locals. They offended traditionalists (‘You are killing the emotion of the cuckoo!’ exclaimed one critic). But, more importantly, they took off. Where foreigners once accounted for the entire cuckoo clock market, the new designs have seen a boom in domestic sales.

Among the proud owners are World-Cup winning football coach Joaquim (Jogi) Löw and Chancellor Merkel herself (she offered one as a gift to President Putin, which now may or may not be chirruping reproachfully in a corner of the Kremlin). Amid all the noisy cuckoos in Ingolf’s store, one bird stands out: a silent imperial German eagle emblazoned on a clock. Local journalists have hailed the new clocks as an emblem of a 21st century Germany. A new identity that has risen above World War shame and Cold War division, reasserting itself with economic might, cultural brilliance and a profound, discreet ‘cuckoo’. ‘When I was growing up we were ashamed to say we were German, or to fly our flag,’ says Ingolf. ‘Now this is changing.’


The town of Schiltach

The town of Schiltach

Vergangenheit (OLDEN TIMES)

There was a time before clocks tolled the hours in the Black Forest.

From the Middle Ages to the beginning of the 20th century, announcing the time was the job of nightwatchmen – citizens who would wander the town walls under darkness, singing the hours to the burgers who slept within its confines (they also had a sideline looking out for drunken scoundrels). It’s a tradition that’s been revived in Wolfach – a Black Forest town full of medieval townhouses that look like giant cuckoo clocks – where nightwatchman Kurt Maurer takes an evening ramble armed with a hefty spear and a bugle.

‘Keeping good time will get you far in life,’ he says, glancing impatiently at his watch. ‘Being 20 minutes early is better than being one minute late!’

Countryside outside Wolach

Wolfach

Perhaps more than anywhere in Germany, this is a region that fiercely guards its traditions. In this same village are men who have resurrected the Black Forest art of timber rafting – tethering together mighty logs to form a raft, originally a way of transporting wood downstream, and doing their best to stay on top as it rushes over perilous rapids. In the neighbouring village, women can, on certain special occasions, be seen wearing Bollenhüte – pom-pom topped-hats which have been in use since the 18th century. For a region that has exported timekeeping to the world, the Black Forest does its utmost to resist the passage of the years.

Kurt ambles the cobbled streets to announce the hours (keeping an eye out for ruffians on the way). In truth, it’s hard to imagine somewhere that would yield fewer civil disturbances.

Seen in the dwindling evening light, the Black Forest looks every bit as ordered as a model railway. Little red trains burrow into hillside tunnels and whoosh on the other side. Cars glide along mountain roads – tarmac that might have been precisely custom-built for an Audi advert, riding the spines of the green hills before plunging majestically to the valley floor. Not far away watermills are turning, cable cars whirring along hillsides. All are features in a landscape that seems to tick along as rhythmically as clockwork.

Kurt Maurer

Kurt Maurer

Soon the sky turns grey, and Kurt blows his bugle to make the last announcement of the day to the burghers of Wolfach. ‘I won’t sing too loudly because people have to go to work tomorrow,’ he says, before bellowing out in a deep baritone:

‘Listen all you gentlemen

Our clock in the tower has struck ten

Ten Commandments did the Lord decree

That we should stick to faithfully…

Lord in your strength and might

Wish us all a good night!’

And with a quick glance at his watch, it is time to go home.

PHOTOGRAPHY: MATT MUNRO