Europe's mightiest river—and you can step across it! In the Black Forest you can, anyway. Here is where the beautiful blue Danube heads up, in a trickling spring on a sidehill deep in the German countryside. The longest river in Europe, and one of the most storied, lies at the end of a beautiful drive up through the equally legendary wooded hills of southwestern Germany.

It doesn't really matter where you go in the Black Forest—it's all beautiful. Pick a road like the Schwarzwald-Hochstrasse or the Deutsche Uhrenstrasse (German Clock Road) and explore what lies along the route. Tiny villages tucked away at the bottom of steep ravines appear unexpectedly around curves, selling cuckoo clocks and fasching masks from distinctive thatched buildings with squared-off roof fronts. Whitewashed walls sport balconies brilliant with red geraniums in window boxes, bright spots of color against the deep green of the forest that gives this region its name.

Go German: start early at a bäckerei (bakery) and stock up on fresh-baked bread and pastry made with fillings that put the sugar-laden American variety to shame. Munch as you drive slowly through the rolling, rugged hills, past tiny, ancient chapels and roadside shrines. Stop at Triberg and explore its famous waterfall, the fifth-highest in Europe. Even in winter—or perhaps especially in winter—the long series of cascades seems very wild, very primeval. In winter they become a fairyland of ice and frozen spray, but be careful! The rocks are slick, but the frozen little castles and glittering rainbows are worth it. The warm shops and glÃ1/4hwein (or beer!) waiting at the bottom will warm you right back up.

The Black Forest seems like a throwback in heavily-populated Germany, a region of more open spaces and long vistas than of villages and towns. One fascinating thing, even here, however, is how abruptly villages end. You get to the city limits, and there's a sign proclaiming that the next village is two or five or three kilometers away. Stand on a hillside and look across the green countryside, and there are half a dozen little clusters of houses surrounded by forest and fields. Suburban sprawl is creeping in, but you can still see the medieval character of Europe in the way many German farmers still drive their cows to pasture from the family barn/farmhouse in the village.

Get out of the tourist towns of Freiburg and Baden-Baden, and just start driving. The real Black Forest awaits.