It was where Snow White fled, where Hansel and Gretel were left to find their way and where Little Red Riding Hood met the Big Bad Wolf. The woods, as described in the folklore of the Brothers Grimm, have long held an almost mystical place in the German psyche.
The woods are a symbol not only of danger and disorientation, but of salvation, of how, by overcoming fears and resisting temptation, we can outsmart dark forces and emerge wiser and stronger.
This may go some way to explaining why the forests of the Taunus, a prosperous area to the north-west of Frankfurt, Germany’s financial capital, have become so popular during the pandemic.
It has been a bewildering year, yet also one in which many people, forced to embrace the everyday and confront human fragility, have found joy in their surroundings. The Taunus may not have held much allure when the city’s wealthy could fly all over the world. But when one is advised against travelling even between regions within Germany, it has become a place to find solace and beauty.
The forests offer everything from rambles and cycles up gentle paths covered by tunnels of trees to steep climbs past the Celtic ruins of Altkönig, one of the highest peaks. The area is easily accessible — just half an hour from central Frankfurt by public transport, or even quicker by car at weekends when there is little traffic.
It is an increasingly popular place to live, too. “People have been moving out of the inner city in places like Frankfurt, Munich and Berlin over the past three or four years as rents and purchase prices have shot up. The corona crisis has [accelerated] this movement,” says Stefan Behrendt, a senior research analyst at Dr Lübke & Kelber, a property investment firm. “People want to have more space. They don’t want to live without a [room for a] home office. In Germany too there’s a tax break — if you have a separate room to work in, it’s tax deductible. There’s just not a lot of supply of bigger places in the middle of the city. And if you are only coming into the city two or three times a week, then congestion is less of an issue.”
As I walk from the station in Kelkheim up into the forests, the well-kept houses and gardens and expensive cars that line the driveways are testament to the wealth here. In enclaves such as Königstein, one of the choicest parts of the region with its medieval castle and pretty old town, rents are on a par with those in the plusher parts of central Frankfurt, such as Westend — though prices to buy, while rising fast, are lower.
Bad Homburg, one of the largest towns in the area, was where Alfred Herrhausen, former chairman of Deutsche Bank, lived — and where, on the way to work in 1989, he was assassinated by far-left militants. In normal times, the Taunus hosts fancy gatherings at swish hotels such as Schlosshotel Kronberg, where European Central Bank president Christine Lagarde held her first away day for her senior management team late last year. The area is also dotted with international schools.
Those wishing to dress the part will have to head into the centre of Frankfurt, however. For outdoor clothing, luxury label Moncler, famed for its padded winter jackets, has a boutique on Goethestrasse. Globetrotter, a mountaineering store near the ECB’s new headquarters, stocks premium brands such as Arc’teryx. I am no mountain-biking aficionado, but cycle shops Montimare, Feine Velos and Bike Boutique in Frankfurt, and E-motion, a national e-bike chain with a branch in the Taunus town of Oberursel, come recommended. Sales of bikes and e-bikes in Germany hit 3.2m in the first six months of the year — a near 10 per cent increase year on year, according to the Zweirad-Industrie-Verband, a trade body.
Yet even before the virus struck, venturing into the woods was Germany’s great equaliser. In his excellent 2014 book on the country’s cultural history, Germany: Memories of a Nation, Neil MacGregor describes the Grimms’ fairy tales as a “part of a German political and social renaissance” and “evidence that . . . the Germans had an identity which no foreigner could eradicate”.
This idea of unity forged under the branches is also there in the writings of 19th-century Romantics such as Ludwig Tieck and Joseph von Eichendorff, and is all the more remarkable for existing in a land where divisions between east and west, and Bavaria and the rest of the country, can still feel profound.
As winter encroaches and cultural attractions, along with restaurants, bars, gyms and much else, are set to remain closed until at least early December, Germans — rich and poor, young and old — will find few better ways to revive their spirits than to embrace nature and go back to their roots.
Claire Jones is global economy reporter for FT Alphaville
This article is part of FT Wealth, a section providing in-depth coverage of philanthropy, entrepreneurs, family offices, as well as alternative and impact investment