Light in the Black Forest

Freiburg, Germany Embraces the Sun

In just two decades, Freiburg, Germany, a sleepy 12th century village known for its Catholic seminary, has transformed into a progressive 21st century city that’s being called the world’s first eco-municipality. The community of 200,000 has transitioned neatly into its role as an ecotopia, ever careful to maintain its traditions.

Freiburg—"The California of Germany."

An enormous cathedral, the nearly 800-year-old Münster Dom, is still the focal point of the old town, its gothic spire towering way above the treetops. Beside the church, in the old market square, the daily trading includes locally grown and organic vegetables alongside silver jewelry and herbal medicines. Nearby shops, de-signed to mimic the regional architectural style combining timber with strawbale hay, sell the area’s best-known exports, a cherry liqueur used in baking the Schwarzwalder Kirschtorte (Black Forest Cake) and intricately carved cuckoo clocks. All this trade takes place in the country’s first car-free shopping district.

The New Energy City

Near the main train station, clues to the city’s dedication to future-oriented energy policy begin to pop up. Photo-voltaics appear on building faéades and solar thermal tanks line the roofs. Across from the train tracks, rising out of the valley with rolling green hills in the background, sits a 19-story office building, the Solartower Hauptbahnhof. Architecturally renowned because of its faéade—a mixture of glass and 240 embedded solar panels that glisten in the sun—the building is one of more than 400 renewable energy projects in Europe’s most prominent solar city.

Energy-efficient technology is scattered throughout Freiburg—from the Strandbad swimming pool, which is heated using solar thermal, to the university’s clinic, which uses similar technology for cooling. The local tourist office offers a map of 30 of these projects for visitors who want to embark on a self-guided tour.

Follow the route and you might find yourself on a tram to Vauban, a neighborhood on the outskirts of town. The former French military base includes 2,000 newly built environmentally friendly homes, including a 50-home solar village project designed by Rolf Disch that feeds more power into the grid than it uses. A nearby development incorporates a biomass heat and power plant and uses only 15 percent of the energy required by other homes in the city. To see the commercial applications of this forward-thinking energy policy, visitors can stop by the local soccer stadium, Badenova-Stadion SC Freiburg, or the Ganter Brewery, both of which have solar power plants lining their roofs.

Zero-Emission Hotels

Even the hotels and campgrounds here are leaders in sustainability. The Hirzburg campground maintains strict recycling rules and uses solar-thermal tanks for hot water showers. Downtown, the zero-emissions Hotel Victoria offers rooms for up to 120 Euros ($155) per night. It uses only renewables for energy and heat.

In the city that calls itself "the California of Germany," green living crops up around the outskirts as well. Freiburg offers convenient access to The Black Forest, a mountain range so named because sunlight can’t penetrate the tree cover in some of the more densely wooded areas. For nature lovers, Freiburg serves as an ideal urban jumping-off point for explorations around the area’s peaks and valleys. You can hop a train to Lake Constance (known locally as Bodensee) to spend the day sailing. Or travel north to the volcanic terraces of Kaiserstuhl, the local wine-growing region, and bike along the Winzer-weg, the Wine Growers" Trail. More adventurous hikers can also climb the trails of the Wutachschlucht, the riverside "Grand Canyon" with waterfalls, craggy rock faces and the country’s only orchids.

Located in southern Ger-many just an hour from the borders to both France and Switzerland, Freiburg is the sunniest locale in the nation and an ideal place to experience the peaceful coexistence of environmentalism and old-world charm. Easily accessible by train (just two hours from the international airports at Frankfurt and Basel), there’s no reason not to visit the city and see for yourself what it really means to live green.

COURTNEY TENZ, European correspondent for the blog, received a Fulbright to study in Germany, where she is completing a Master’s of Fine Arts from Penn State University.