If you find yourself in the Upper Rhine valley, don’t forget to pay a visit to Freiburg, the picturesque city at the foothills of the Black Forest. A lively university town whose scholarly tradition dates back to 1457, Freiburg has many assets to charm its visitors: the two town halls, the magnificent Minster, and the burgundy red merchants’ hall to name only a few. But when take a tour of the pedestrianized old town, you will immediately stumble across (and hopefully not into) a unique feature of Freiburg: the Bächle.
There is a network of little canals running through the whole of the old town along the streets, filled with freshwater. These are called the Bächle – “Bach” is the German word for creek and “Bächle” is local dialect for “little creek.” But why do we have those little canals in Freiburg? You could argue that they serve no purpose at all and that they are even a safety hazard for tourists who don’t pay attention and leave Freiburg with wet shoes or a severely sprained ankle. But they are a cherished part of Freiburg’s history and the locals would never dream of filling them in as the Bächle provide a sort of cooling system on hot summer days in the narrow streets which comes in handy in what is after all the hottest and driest part of Germany. The river Dreisam that runs past the old town of Freiburg provides a constant supply for the nearly 10 miles of Bächle.
The origin of the Bächle takes us into the Middle Ages. Some documents mention the little streams as early as 1220, but archeologists have unearthed evidence that the canal network may have existed even right from the start when Freiburg was founded in 1120. They are in fact part of an intricate water supply system that was groundbreaking at the time of its construction. Using both natural and artificially created gradients, the Bächle provided service water for the townsfolk for all kinds of purposes like laundry, extinguishing fires and watering animals. Most medieval cities in Germany relied on wells for fresh water, but this was not feasible in Freiburg: the underground is gravelly and highly permeable which means that the groundwater table is shallow. Therefore, the Freiburg people came up with a highly innovative dual water system: the service water was taken from the Dreisam and directed into the Bächle. Water pipelines brought fresh spring water as drinking water from the hills around Freiburg into the town where people could fetch it from many public and private running wells so that Freiburg enjoyed an unusually good water quality at a time and age when polluted and contaminated drinking water was an enormous issue in most cities and the reason for many diseases and death.
Ingenious as this dual system was, sewage remained a problem in Freiburg, just like in any other city in the Middle Ages. The Bächle were not meant to be used as sewers and in fact, draconic punishments were handed out to anyone who polluted the little canals. Several bye-laws that were passed over the centuries show how seriously the Freiburg city council took the maintenance of the Bächle. Only under very restricted circumstances and at publicly announced times, the population was allowed to empty garbage into the canals. To this day, the Bächle are maintained and cleaned by the “Bächle-Putzer” (canal cleaners), a highly respected profession in Freiburg. So, for sewage people depended on latrine pits where they disposed of anything from faeces to broken glass. They had to be cleared out regularly which was both a smelly and expensive business. People who were so unlucky as not have access to a latrine pit would throw most of their dirt directly on the street, risking punishment if their garbage ended up in the Bächle. This dilemma was only eventually solved in the 19th century when the first modern sewage system was built, like in so many cities in Germany.
Still, the Bächle and the running wells ensured that medieval Freiburg was undoubtedly a much cleaner and healthier place to live compared to the majority of cities in Germany at the time. Other cities in Germany had (and some still have) Bächle similar to the ones in Freiburg, like for example Villingen or Schwäbisch Gmünd. But in no other city are they so wonderfully maintained and play such an essential part in the city’s tradition as in Freiburg.
Having service water readily available in the city center to extinguish fires was not only a significant advantage in the Middle Ages but also came in very handy in 1944. The British air raid “Operation Tigerfish” on 27 November destroyed most of the old town and caused many fires. If it had not been for the water from the Bächle, historical buildings like the Wentzingerhaus and the merchants’hall would have been lost. After the war, the inhabitants of Freiburg took great care to preserve the Bächle when the old town was rebuilt.
Last but not least: according to local lore you will marry a Freiburger if you accidentally step into a Bächle, so watch out. Although… you could do much worse than ending up living in Freiburg, this charming capital of the Upper Rhine Valley.