The tiny, often-overlooked federal state of Saarland (www.visitsaarland.co.uk), long a land of coal and heavy industry, has in recent decades cleaned up its air and streams and reoriented its struggling economy towards high-techology and ecotourism. The capital, Saarbrücken, is a vibrant city with excellent museums and a fine, French-influenced culinary scene. Rolling hills and forest cover much of the countryside, which can be explored not only by car or public transport but also on foot or by bicycle; cycling paths include the 356km, circular Saarland-Radweg and the 98km Saar-Radweg (VeloRoute SaarLorLux), along the (mostly) beautiful Saar River. The region’s industrial heritage is celebrated in places such as the historic Völklinger Hütte ironworks.
Over the centuries, France and Germany have played ping pong with the Saarland, coveting it for its valuable natural resources. In the 20th century, the region came under French control twice – after each of the world wars – but in both cases (in referendums held in 1935 and 1955) its people voted in favour of rejoining Germany.
Although now solidly within German boundaries, the influence of the land of the baguette is still felt in all sorts of subtle ways. Many locals are bilingual and the standard greeting is not ‘ hallo’ but ‘ salü’, from the French ‘ salut’. Their French heritage, although somewhat imposed, has softened the Saarlanders, who tend to be pretty relaxed folk with an appreciation of good food, wine and company – ‘ Saarvoir vivre’, it’s been called.