The first thing Americans need to know about Best Western Hotel Hofgut Sternen Höllsteig is that in Europe, Best Western is not a chain. It is a marketing alliance of independently owned and usually upscale hotels and resorts, many of them also historic properties. It was our curiosity about its past that made us choose this hotel set deep in a valley of Germany’s Black Forest, instead of the resorts on the shores of nearby Lake Titisee.
The road dropped through the forest in precipitous switchbacks into a narrow valley which the hotel’s four buildings seemed to almost fill. Behind the main building rose the stone arches of a railway viaduct stretching high across a deep wooded ravine. This somewhat forbidding setting accounts for the hotel’s rich history and only heightens the sense of warmth and welcome inside. The main building radiates hospitality, built in the traditional style of local farmhouses with a long roof that encompasses the top several stories, and rows of carved wooden balconies outlined in red geraniums.
The minute we stepped inside, we were encompassed in an atmosphere that Germans have a word for: gemuchlichkeit. The lobby was decorated by a mural of the valley, and delicious aromas wafted from the dining room; a smiling young woman greeted us and we were checked in, had dinner reservations and were directed to our room in less than five minutes.
The room was in the newest building, and the hallway outside looked down through large windows into the bright studio of the resident glassblower. The gallery was filled with beautiful glassware, and we watched him at work from above and later as we browsed downstairs.
The large room was in a pale-colored wood, chrome and white contemporary style, bright and airy with windows in the slanting wall (although this is a new building it is built in the traditional deep-roofed design) with good reading lights over the king-sized bed. After a day of winding Black Forest roads and sweeping views, the bed looked inviting, with its fluffy down comforter and deep pillows encased in high-count linens.
Comfortable and convenient details included a large flat-screen tv, make-up mirror, safe, coffee maker, hair dryer ,free wifi and a long desk with ample outlets for using and charging electronics.
Our building was added in 2010, but the oldest was there when Marie Antoinette spent the night before she was met at the French border the next morning by the brother of Louis XVI to escort her to Paris -- and the ill-fated throne of France. The road we’d just descended was once the main road from Vienna to Paris, running right through Hell’s Valley. This narrow passage through the mountains was a favorite spot for brigands to lie in wait for travelers, who had to pass through a 40-foot cleft in the cliffs that made them ready targets. So many robbers plied the pass that eventually the court moved to the inn so these could be brought more promptly to justice.
We learned a lot more history on a tour the next morning, after a hearty breakfast in the same cozy dining room where we’d enjoyed an excellent dinner featuring fresh local asparagus and lake fish. Writers Goethe and Trollop stayed in the oldest building, Mendelsohn honeymooned here, and Napoleon III stayed.
Originally a farm, Hofgut Sternen Höllsteig’s early innkeepers made money by providing extra horses needed to pull carriages on the steep climb out of the valley. The landlord followed the carriage on foot to the top, unhitched his horses and led them back to the stables below.
Hofgut means farm, Sternen means star, hence the old sign with the star design that hangs above the door of the most historic of the four buildings. The star symbolizes a burning light in the window, signifying that guests are welcome, as they have been here for more than 400 years. The circle surrounding the star meant that there were also stables for the horses.
The next morning was gloomy and threatened rain, so we abandoned our plans to take the 20-minute walk to a waterfall and the 2 ½-hour loop trail up the canyon. Instead we visited the little church of St Oswald, built in 1148 and the oldest in the Black Forest.
We were surprised to find, along with the glass studio (glassblowing is an old tradition in this southwest region of Germany) one of the largest selections of the most famous Black Forest craft – cuckoo clocks. The fourth building of the complex houses a craft center featuring a variety of local arts, but mainly clocks. A clock-maker is working at one corner, and various mechanisms are on display, including the piece that accounts for the familiar birdsong. A full wall is covered in clocks of all sizes and style, all by local makers and each with its traditional wagging pinecone weights.
Between the craft studios, historic sights and walking trails there is plenty to keep guests busy in Hell’s Valley, not to mention the allure of water sports, boat tours (which the hotel can arrange), and other activities at Lake Titisee and the miles of scenic roads through the farmlands and photogenic villages of the Black Forest.
Best Western Hotel Hofgut Sternen Höllsteig is in Breitnau, about four miles from Lake Titisee, in the heart of the Black Forest region of Southwest Germany. Lufthansa flies to Stuttgart, from which the Black Forest is best toured by rental car.