Ettlingen is the gateway to the Alb valley, the northernmost of the valleys that lead into the Black Forest from the Rhine plain. The river Alb has a total length of 51 kms. Its source is at an altitude of more than 700 metres. The stream runs through a rather narrow valley first. This upper part is really remote, it has neither roads nor settlements and can only be explored on foot or by (mountain)bike. Bad Herrenalb, the spa town, is the first settlement. From there downstream the valley widens. It becomes an important axis of traffic in northern to northwestern direction for the villages in the surroundings, both by road and commuter tram. At Ettlingen the river leaves the Black Forest hills and enters the Rhine plain. It then runs along the southwestern edge of Karlsruhe until it reaches the Rhine near the suburb of Knielingen.
The forests of the Northern Black Forest won‘t match the image that visitors have in their minds. It consists of mostly deciduous trees, firs and spruces are the minority, so it is not „black“. International tourists rarely make an appearance. For the inhabitants of the Karlsruhe agglomeration, though, it is a popular destination for day trips, hiking and biking. The whole lower part of the Alb valley up to Bad Herrenalb is well connected to Karlsruhe's tram network. The line S 1 runs from Bad Herrenalb via Ettlingen to Karlsruhe, passes both Karlsruhe central station and the city centre and continues to the northern suburbs. Important stops are „Marxzell“ for the car museum and the village, and „Frauenalb-Spielberg“ for the ruins of Frauenalb convent.
The historical border between Baden and Württemberg ran through the Alb valley between Bad Herrenalb and Frauenalb. It crosses Klosterpfad, the hiking trail between the two former convents, about halfway. The sentry box and explaining signs on the path to Frauenalb are a recent addition, I saw them for the first time today (February 2015). One side is painted red and bears the coat of arms of the 19th century Grand-Duchy of Baden, the other site is painted blue and sports the royal coat of arms of Württemberg.
Tram S 1, the Alb Valley Line
The whole lower part of the Alb valley up to Bad Herrenalb is well connected to Karlsruhe's tram network. The line S 1 runs from Bad Herrenalb via Ettlingen to Karlsruhe, passes both Karlsruhe central station and the city centre and continues to the northern suburbs. Important stops are „Marxzell“ for the car museum and the village, and „Frauenalb-Spielberg“ for the ruins of Frauenalb convent.
The dead-end railway line up the Alb valley is not used by Deutsche Bahn any more. It has been entirely taken over by Karlsruhe's tram network, so the yellow trams of the S 1 now do the whole passenger transport. Besides, on some summer weekends an old steam train does tourist rides up there.
When coming from Karlsruhe, check carefully because the S 1 runs every 10 minutes in the city, but not all of them do the whole way, every second one ends in Ettlingen. Two trams per hour (daytime hours on weekdays) continue to Bad Herrenalb, the interval is 20 and 40 minutes alternating. In between there is one S 11 per hour which takes a different route through Waldbronn and Karlsbad to Ittersbach. In the evening and on weekends there is one tram per hour. Have a look at the timetable before starting your trip to avoid long waiting periods (lesson learned the hard way). And don't confuse S 1 and S 11.
From the train station in Bad Herrenalb at the end of the line, several bus routes start that connect Bad Herrenalb with the villages further up in the mountains. There is also a line across the mountain ridge over to the Murg valley and on to Baden-Baden. The train station is not manned any more, tickets have to be obtained from ticket machines. The station building now hosts Bad Herrenalb's tourist information office.
Fares: A single ticket from Karlsruhe to Bad Herrenalb or back (5 zones) is 4.80 € (spring 2017). Groups up to five people travel cheapest with the Regioplus ticket for 19,60 € which is valid for one calendar day of unlimited travel in the whole KVV area.
Hiking and Biking
The Alb valley has lots of options for easy to medium outdoor activities on foot and by bicycle. A network of marked hiking trails cover the whole Black Forest. From easy short walks to all-day hikes across the mountains, options are endless. The trails have little signposts at crossings, stating the destination and distance, and are marked with coloured symbols. You can start walking everywhere along the valley and select a short or long tour just as you like. Any path in the forest is a hiking trail that leads somewhere.
Traces of „Lothar“ are still visible, in particular on exposed ridges. Mentioning „Lothar“ in the Black Forest causes rather scary memories. „Lothar“ was the name of a gale that hit the Southwest of Germany and the Northwest of Switzerland with full force on Boxing Day 1999. The exposed heights of the Black Forest were heavily affected. The storm broke trees like matches and uprooted complete forests. The traces of destruction are still visible on the hilltops around Bad Herrenalb and elsewhere. „Lothar“ is a lesson to take global warming and climate changes seriously.
Thanks to Karlsruhe's extending tram network you can plan one-way hikes across the mountain chains to the adjacent valleys and return by public transport. The tram network allows one way hiking tours over the hills from one valley to the next. Arriving on the Alb valley tram S 1 you could either hike south to the Murg valley and take the S 8 or S 81 back, or north to Ittersbach or Langensteinbach and return on the S 11. The Murg valley line (S 8/S 81) connects to the Alb valley line (S 1) at Karlsruhe central station, the S 11 already in Waldbronn-Busenbach.
Hiking can be done throughout most of the year. In rainy periods and when the snow is melting the trails become muddy in some parts. In winter, snow is no hindrance, but if there is ice on the ground, take care. Having a detailed hiking map of the region is useful - these can be obtained from bookstores and from the tourist information. Comfortable walking shoes are essential. Ankle-high hiking boots are not absolutely necessary, the paths are generally easy to walk, but if you have them they won't be out of place. Depending on weather conditions, rain gear can be needed any season in these parts of the world. If you plan longer hikes, carry a drink and a snack.
For an easy bike tour, there is a bike trail along the whole valley. Bikes can be transported for free (on weekdays after 9 a.m., on weekends all day) on the trams, so you can take your bike up to Herrenalb and comfortably cycle back downhill along the river. Mountain bikers and hardcore cyclists will find roads and marked mountainbike trails up and down as many hills as they want.
Bad Herrenalb - Spa, Abbey Ruins, and Forests
Bad Herrenalb is a tiny spa town cuddling into the upper end of the Alb valley among hills and forests. Herrenalb’s history begins with the foundation of a Cistercian monastery in the 12th century. Later a settlement grew around the abbey. Only ruins are preserved. The place is a nice option for a day trip, some hiking, seeing the remnants of the two monasteries, a walk in the Kurpark, a coffee and cake and a visit to the spa. Being stuck there for a four-week health treatment, however, might become a bit boring after a while...
A Kurpark, a beautiful park with paths that are easy to walk, many benches, pretty trees and lawns and flowers, often fountains and a duck pond and sculptures, is an indispensable part of a spa town. All of them have one to provide an area to walk for their visitors, also for the sick and disabled among them. Bad Herrenalb is no exception. The Kurpark along the Alb river invites for walks and relaxation. The park has many beautiful big old trees of native and introduced specieses, planted as solitairs surrounded by wide lawns so they had space to grow into full splendour.
The fountain behind the Kurhaus must be a natural warm spring. Any artificial fountain would have long been turned off in wintery conditions with temperatures far below zero. The water is still springing and has formed an ice cone that looks like a little volcano.
Another indispensable institution in a spa town is the Kurhaus which contains the administration and therapeutic facilities and a cafe or restaurant, often also a ballroom, casino or similar - not sure about Bad Herrenalb in that respect. The Kurhaus in Bad Herrenalb is not big but the town is not big either... The backside of the building hosts a cafe with a big terrace facing the park. Sitting there with a coffee or tea must be an enjoyable pastime in summer.
The healing water from Bad Herrenalb's springs can be sampled for free. There is a fountain in the octogonal pavillon by the Kurhaus (open daily 11.00 - 18.00) where you can help yourself. Glasses are available for free but you can also bring your own glass, cup or bottle.
Important to know: „Saubere Gläser“ = clean glasses; „gebrauchte Gläser“ = used glasses. Grab one from the counter next to the first sign, and please return it after use to the second sign.
Recommended maximum consumption is 1 liter per day. Please don't ask me what the water is good for, or against... The taste is nothing unusual (not as bad as the waters of Baden-Baden).
The Cistercian monastery of Herrenalb was founded in the 12th century. Having been an independent imperial abbey in the middle ages, it became property of the Dukes of Württemberg before 1500. It was destroyed during the 30 year war. The part of the church that was still intact became the parish church of the village which developed round the site. The separated monastery area is still visible although the surrounding buildings are mostly younger. Of the abbey church, the choir is preserved (which was included in the new 18th century parish church) and also the ruins of the Romanesque vestibule, the so-called „paradise“. A statue of a monk has been put up in the grounds. He is a big hit for photos…
The site of the abbey church is now occupied by the protestant parish church which was built in 1739. It is much smaller than the original church. The gothic choir of the abbey church has been maintained and included in the new building. The interior of the nave has been redesigned in 1903. It got a vaulted, wood-panneled ceiling, ornamental frescoes, a new organ and new stained glass windows in the choir. Behind the altar there is a showcase with a model of the monastery as it used to be in its active times.
The medieval choir contains several tombs and epitaphs, among them the tomb of Margrave Bernhard I. of Baden, which fills the arcade between the choir and the left side chapel. It is dedicated to Margrave Bernhard I. of Baden who died in 1431 (date mentioned in the gothic inscription on the choir side of the tomb). He is depicted in full armour, accompanied by angels who hold his helmet and crest. The tomb is actually a kenotaph, i.e. a fake grave: It is and has always been empty - Bernhard was in reality buried in the collegiate church in Baden-Baden.
The monastery area can be visited any time for free. The church is open in the daytime hours.
Bad Herrenalb holds an artisans market in the grounds of the monastery every year on the Pentecost (Whitsunday) weekend. Artisans offer their products, there is a wide variety of pottery and jewellery and woodwork and hand-made paper and knitting and... If you are in the area that weekend, this is nice to look at, and maybe you'll find a special souvenir. I would not travel long distances only for this market, though. Entry is free (it's a market, after all) but the prices of the products are not cheap, as can be expected for individual hand-made items of quality craftwork.
The beautiful half-timbered house by the passage to the abbey grounds is a historical inn. A piece of 18th century pub wisdom can be found over the door. The Klosterschänke on the edge of the monastery area was built, according to the inscription above the door, in 1739, the same year as the protestant church. Note the text of the inscription, these are the wise words of an experienced innkeeper...
„Herein herein ihr lieben Gest / Wer Geld hat, ist der Allerbest.“ (Come in, come in, you dear guests / who has money is the very best)
A thermal spa is also a must. The one in Bad Herrenalb is named Siebentälertherme. It offers swimming in thermal water from a natural spring, sauna and steam baths, also treatments like massages, aqua healing, water gymnastics and similar. For several years there have been talks about an upcoming renovation of the spa. I am not sure how far they have proceeded in the meantime.
The indoor pools' temperature is 30 °C and 35 °C, the outdoor pool has 30 °C.
I have to admit that this is not the best spa I've ever been in. The pools have some massage jets but that's about it, none of the bubbly water toys one finds elsewhere. I have not used the sauna but found the pool area rather boring after a while. The average age of the visitors must be close to 70.
Advantage 1: it was quiet and uncrowded, lots of space for a relaxed swim and no queues to get one of the jets.
Advantage 2: even a 40-something fattie like me can feel young and beautiful in there, I had a pleasant chat with a charming pool attendant ;-)) I was by far the youngest among the females present (except the employees, that is).
Frauenalb Convent Ruins
Frauenalb used to be a convent of Benedictine nuns, founded in the late 12th century. Its history consists of a series of destructions and rebuildings. In 1598 the convent was closed down due to the all too worldly ways of life of the inmates. During the 30 year war it was reopened and a new convent established. Around 1700 the nuns first erected new convent buildings (1696-1704), then a magnificent baroque church (1727-1736).
The secularization of 1802/03 brought the final closedown. Church and convent buildings decayed afterwards. In the following years fires damaged the empty buildings, other parts were torn down to reuse the material for other building projects. The remaining ruin has become a remarkable landmark of the upper Alb valley. Open air (or better: open roof) concerts take place here in summer.
Visiting the ruins is free, they are accessible 24/7.
From the tram stop „Frauenalb/Spielberg“ it’s a walk of merely 3 minutes to the grounds of the convent. There is a good restaurant on the way, named „Landgasthof König von Preußen“, should you want to combine your visit with a hearty meal, or a coffee and snack.
Frauenalb is 5 kms from Bad Herrenalb, which is an easy hike along the valley along the so-called Klosterpfad - easiest downhill starting from the far end of the Kurpark, but uphill it is no big deal either because the ascent is very gentle. You can also include Frauenalb in longer hikes over the hills.