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Water, water everywhere

Visitors to Freiburg quickly note a unique city feature, the so-called Bächle or little streams that flow in neat, narrow trenches through most streets. They were built nearly 600 years ago as a water supply and to fight fires. The Dreisam River, above the city, was split into multiple channels and follows a network through the Altstadt. The downstream flow is collected on the other side of town and eventually reaches the Rhine. A team of cleaners scrubs the stones and removes obstructions to ensure a steady flow of clean water.

Today, the Bächle is a way for tired backpackers to cool their feet, a race course for kids with rubber ducks and a challenge for inattentive visitors. Local tradition has it that any visitor who stumbles into the water must marry a Freiburger. The waters can also reflect a sense of renewal, as in the stream emerging from the Star of David statue at the new synagogue. There, the town has erected a plaque acknowledging its shame and sorrow for the Jewish community that was torn from Freiburg during Nazi times.

Architecturally, Freiburg doesn't follow any cookie-cutter image of an old German city. Unlike many towns its size, it has no castle standing watch from above; the French turned it to rubble nearly 200 years ago. And, except for a few barely visible exceptions, the defensive wall disappeared long ago, much of it replaced in the 18th century by the ring roads that encircle the Old City. Today, those same boulevards circulate automobile traffic away from the Altstadt, allowing for one of Germany's largest pedestrian zones.

Although Freiburg was damaged greatly during World War II, the city was rebuilt following its medieval layout. Builders used similar construction materials and styles, and even the modern structures within the Altstadt blend in beautifully.

With more than 30,000 students in a population of 200,000, a youthful spirit pervades the old city. There's an active pub and club scene, and cafés spread their tables across plazas and sidewalks until the wee hours (the Universitätstrasse has the liveliest concentration). When plays and concerts let out in the evening, the city gets a second wind. Live music is popular in the Platz, a popular student gathering ground. For music with a beer chaser, there's the Hausbruerei Feierling (Gerberau 46 (tel. 0761/2-66-78). The brewery/restaurant is on one side of the Augustiner Platz and pipes beer under the road to the beer garden across the street.

From the Black Forest to the Rhine

Local residents affectionately refer to Freiburg as the Metropolis of the Black Forest. Technically, geographers will tell you, Freiburg's Altstadt lies outside the Black Forest. However, cross one street on the eastern fringe of town–the Schlossbergring–onto the wooded Schlossberg hill, and you're in the Schwarzwald.

With a Freiburg region transit pass, guests can board streetcars or buses and quickly find themselves in the deepest Black Forest, on the rolling vineyards and farmland of the Breisgau or Markgräflerland, and even at the banks of the Upper Rhine. From Freiburg, it's just a few miles to the Breisgau Region and the rolling hills of the Tuniberg and Kaiserstuhl, an area increasingly known as German Tuscany, for its sultry and sunny climate, extensive wine-growing, and amiable populace.

Excursions

A popular day trip within the city limits is the Schauinsland, Freiburg's 1,284-meter (4,213-foot) hometown mountain, where a cable car travels 15 minutes to the summit. The view from the cable car reaches far out over the Rhine plain, past the Tuniberg vineyards toward the French Vosges mountain range. From the summit, the view extends deep into the Black Forest and south to the Alps.

The worn remnants of long-extinct volcanoes bear lush vineyard landscapes that alternate with sprawling tobacco farmland and orchards. Red roofs and narrow steeples set off tiny villages at all compass points. Ivy drapes off the ruins of ancient castles.

For a novel ground-level view of the countryside, consider a two-hour journey, perhaps with an accompanying bottle of wine, aboard a small flat-boat in the Taubergiessen Nature Preserve, a remote region often referred to as Germany's jungle. (Contact Klaus Kossmann, tel. 49/7643/6775, fax 9339985, e-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

Just across the Rhine, Neuf-Brisach (New Brisach) is an example of Alsatian charm and historic military architecture. Protected by massive octagonal walls, imposing gates and star-shaped fortifications, Neuf-Brisach was built by King Louis XIV as a fortress town. Today, its central square, church, officers' quarters, barracks, and private homes are still intact. Despite the proximity to Germany, Neuf-Brisach is fully Gallic in character with delightful French bakeries, Alsatian restaurants (try the fresh trout at Ville de Paris at 13 rue de Ble, +33/389/72/5355) and corner bistros.