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The Black Forest capitol is a university town with a network of narrow, winding streets lined with restaurants and shops, where fresh, clear water runs in narrow channels.

Black Forest Metropolis
Black Forest metropolis

Though this old Freiburg saying that may be a bit of an exaggeration – "There are two kinds of people in this world; those who live in Freiburg, and those who wish they did" – after a few days in town, you may start to feel that way. At the very least, you won't want to leave.

Quite simply, the city is a joy to visit; relaxed but electric, calm but alive, a small city dressed in smaller-town clothes. It's German but with an almost Mediterranean climate and the ambiance and joie de vivre that goes with it. France, after all, is just 15 miles away. The Austrians, too, left their cultural fingerprint here, thanks to the city's 400 years under Habsburg rule.

Pride is expressed everywhere. The sidewalks are paved with dark pebbles from the Rhine. In front of each shop, quartz and other stones form mosaics of medieval trade symbols: a boot for a shoe store, a mortar and pestle for an apothecary, a bear in front of the Gasthaus Zum Roten Bären, and an ice cream cone with three scoops in front of an ice cream parlor. This is no easy task: Three men are employed full-time and each day can complete only a small area of sidewalk. The shops share the costs.

The Minster the city cathedral is further evidence of civic pride. For more than a century, its upkeep has been supported purely by donations. Scaffolding surrounds it, as it has for years and perhaps will for eternity, thanks to the fragility of the sandstone and extensive filigree. When one section is repaired, another awaits. As a local saying goes, When the scaffolding comes down, we'll know it's the end of the world. Just a few blocks away 13 stonemasons apply ancient techniques in recreating statues and intricate scrollwork (a wonder to watch).

The construction of the great church spanned four centuries and was supported in great part by local guilds, whose symbols are still seen in stained glass windows. Don't miss the gargoyles, including one that spouts water not from his hideous mouth but rather from his naked bottom. If your legs are sturdy and the weather's good, consider the 330-step climb up the spire for an outstanding view of the Old Town, the Black Forest and the Rhine plain.

Tradition is important in Freiburg. Farmers and craftspeople still sell their wares daily (except Sunday) on the Cathedral Square. On one side, farmers offer local fruit, vegetables, meats, cheeses, sausages and bread, as well as teas and spices. On the other, craftspeople peddle wooden toys, carvings and candles, many of them from the Black Forest. Most buyers are not tourists. As they have for centuries, Freiburg's residents come to the marketplace at least once a week, usually on Saturday, to shop, even though it may be less convenient or more expensive than a supermarket. They know where the goods came from; they have known the sellers for generations.

Retailing is by no means restricted to the market square. Freiburg is a shopper's city, with values in department stores along the Kaiser-Joseph-Strasse and high-end buys in boutiques and galleries on Kölnviktstrasse and Königstrasse. Young designers round out the mainstream stores with a trendy jewelry and clothing scene. Browsers will love the antique shops in the Insel (Island) District and along the Gerberau.