Pilgrims explore Black Forest along Way of St. James

For hundreds of years, curious pilgrims have trekked across Europe to visit the Spanish town of Santiago de Compostela, which, according to legend, holds relics belonging to Jesus’ apostle, St. James the Elder.

Today, people from all over the world still walk the historic pilgrim’s trail, called “the Way of St. James.” The trail winds through Germany’s Swabian Alps and Black Forest, eventually ending in Galicia, Spain.

For some, the pilgrimage is a religious event meant to be experienced alone.

“Pilgrimage means being on the move and, while walking, let[ting] go of old patterns,” said Peter Müller, a theologian and pilgrimage tour organizer. “[It’s] a way to focus on your own life by reflecting [on] your personality. It can be described as a travel toward your inner self.”

For other pilgrims, it’s a way to see several cultural and historical sites in the Black Forest.

In 1987, the Way of St. James was named the official European Culture Route, and became part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998.

One starting place is in Rottweil, a symbolic town for pilgrims. Here, visitors can see illustrations of St. James at the Heilig-Kreuz-Münster (Gothic cathedral), wearing pilgrim’s gear: a hat with a scallop shell, a long cape and a wooden staff.

“The scallop shell was an identification mark for pilgrims and was supposed to protect them during their pilgrimage,” said Dr. Winfried Hecht, former registrar for Rottweil.

Today, the scallop shell is the official symbol that identifies various routes and paths on the Way of St. James in Germany, France, and Spain.

Modern-day pilgrims also get their “pilgrim’s pass” stamped in the cathedral, which they use to receive a certificate of completion upon arrival in Santiago de Compostela.

From Rottweil, pilgrims pass the former rafting and tanners’ town of Schiltach. Visitors can still stop by the old tannery.

Today, this picturesque town is known for its timbered houses, built around 1600, with red geraniums flowing from every flower box.

“Schiltach’s residents take really good care of their houses in order to keep the city’s reputation as one of the most beautiful towns in the Black Forest,” said Hana Janecková, Shiltach tourist manager.

Another highlight in Schiltach is the Aquademie of Hansgrohe (Auestrasse 9), which houses an exhibit on bathing customs from the Middle Ages. Visitors can take a bath in Germany’s biggest bathhouse, the Shower World.

Following a bath, hungry pilgrims can stop by the the Ritterkeller (knight’s cellar) at Gasthof Sonne, in Schiltach’s Market Square. Here, guests can enjoy the “Spectaculum,” a hearty knight’s meal — with jugglers and special entertainment.

From Shiltach, the Kinzigtal Way of St. James leads in to the region of Baden (Badischer Jakobsweg) and passes the town Breisach at the Rhein River. Breisach is referred to as the “bridge to Europe” for two reasons: in 1950, Breisach’s inhabitants were the first to vote for a united Europe, and the town itself is located at the Rhein Bridge, which connects the German town of Breisach with the French town of Neuf -Brisach.

Breisach’s most famous landmark is its romantic- and Gothic-style St. Stephan’s Cathedral, at the Münsterberg, built during the 12th and 15th century.

Visitors can enjoy a great view of the city, along with the Rhein River, Black Forest, Kaiserstuhl and Vogesen mountains, from the Eckartsberg (Eckart’s Hill). Since 1826, the Eckartsberg has been well-known for cultivating wines typical to the Baden region, such as Grauer Burgunder, Weisser Burgunder and Spätburgunder. Visitors can sample all of these wines at the Vinothek (Marktplatz 16), which also offers wine hikes and tours to the Eckartsberg.

For fine Baden/Alsatian cuisine and the best chocolate cake in town, visit the Kapuzinergarten Restaurant at the Breisacher Münsterberg.

Cultural and historical attractions such as these keep drawing modern pilgrims from all over the world to follow the Way of St. James.

“Nowadays, mainly for the last 10 years, pilgrimage became a very popular trend for people of all ages,” said Bernhard Rüth, Rottweil registrar.

Peter Rissin, a 67-year-old pilgrim, is a prime example. “Walking the Way of St. James takes about 100 days, for 2,770 kilometers,” said Rissin, who walked the complete pilgrimage two years ago. “After three weeks [of walking], I felt unbelievably liberated.”

For more information, visit www.americanpilgrims.com.