Deals With the Devil

black-forest-germany

In the Black Forest, the darkest tales often seem linked to the loveliest places. So it’s no surprise that Staufen’s historic center of cobblestones, courtyards and fountains is straight from central casting’s Enchanted Germany file. Castle ruins on a hilltop…a fairytale Rathaus (town hall)…elaborate inn signs. Even so, I didn’t expect the walls of the notorious Gasthaus zum Löwen (Lions’ Inn) to be such an attractive dusty pink.

The zum Löwen, one of Germany’s oldest inns, serves up fiendishly good meals. I lunched on Bärlauchcremesuppe (wild garlic cream soup) and then Maultaschen—giant pasta pockets stuffed with a ragout of mushrooms and leeks. After seeing the size of a passing plate of Ochsenbrust, or beef brisket, I was relieved to have chosen the lighter option. Once you’ve eaten anything here, there seems little chance even the strongest of devils could carry you off.

Yes, devils. You see, it’s nothing to do with the giant-sized portions that give this inn its claim to fame. Making a deal with the devil has long been part of European folklore. Remember the story of Dr. Faust who sold his soul to Mephistopheles in return for occult wisdom and worldly pleasures?

Well, Faust wasn’t entirely an imaginative creation of Goethe, that colossus of German literature.

Goethe’s inspiration came from bizarre happenings in Staufen. Back in the 16th century, a real Dr. Faust left this world behind in spectacular fashion. He blew himself to smithereens in an explosion in one of thezum Löwen’s rooms.

Faust met his untimely end in an attempt to turn base metal into gold by alchemy—the medieval form of chemistry. The Count of Staufen, his patron, had a silver mine that was rapidly running out of ore. The Count needed to find a way to continue funding his lifestyle—and though a charlatan, Faust had a reputation as an astrologer and magician. That reputation grew jet-black after he said the devil was his brother-in-law.

Even during Faust’s lifetime, the theologian Martin Luther and his Protestant contemporaries were convinced he was one of Satan’s minions. After his mysterious death, the story of a pact with the devil took root. On the zum Löwen’s facade, a mural and an inscription in Gothic German tells the supernatural account of what befell the doctor.

“In the year 1539, Doctor Faustus, a most wonderful Nigromanta (necromancer), stayed in the Lions Inn at Staufen where he died miserably. The legend goes that Mephistopheles, one of the leading devils, whom he had merely called his brother-in-law as long as he lived, had broken his neck and had taken his poor soul to eternal perdition, after the pact of 24 years had expired.”

If your nerves are up to it, you can stay at the zum Löwen. Rates include breakfast and start at 86 euro ($112) for doubles in low season. Room number 5 is the historic Faustzimmer. I’m not too sure what “You will spend your night in a quite special way” means, but it’s probably best to leave any alchemy equipment at home. The rates for “Faust’s Room” go from $125 to $139, depending on time of year.

Part of the Münstertal area of the southern Black Forest, Staufen is surrounded by trails and hikes. This is wine-producing country and a path through vineyards leads to the ruins of the 12th century ancestral castle of Count of Staufen, Faust’s former employer.

Devilish legends exist all over the Black Forest—the word Teufel (devil) in a place name is a sure-fire indicator. Easy excursions from Staufen include the Teufelsküche, the Devil’s Kitchen, a series of caves that were inhabited during the Stone Age. The Teufelsgrund, the Devil’s Ground, is an old silver mine that’s open to visitors—if you’re interested in geology, there’s also a themed minerals and mines walking trail.

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