I went hiking three days ago on the Heiligenberg, the mountain (hill really), which stands across the Neckar from the Heidelberg Schloss. Anyone walking up it begins in Neuenheim on the Philosophenweg, or philosophers’ walk, which leads rapidly up the hill to a small but charming garden and then further up on unpaved paths into the forest. After perhaps thirty minutes of hiking through not very dense vegetation, one comes to a clearing with a parking lot and a cafe. It is, in fact, quite a surprise to be confronted with so many signs of civilization right when you thinks that you’re finally rid of it. But if, instead of stopping at the cafe and then heading down the mountain, you push on (as you should!), you will come to an unremarkable looking wall in the forest. It stands only perhaps twenty feet high and does not cover a vast expanse of ground. Quite the contrary, it is so unremarkable that the friend I was hiking with commented that she would not have even thought to examine it had her brilliant hiking companion not told her what lay beyond.
The adventurous hiker will then walk through the arch/gate in the middle of the wall and is immediately confronted with an enormous stone amphitheatre – one built for 13,000 spectators. It calls to mind Greek tragedies being performed at the Dionysia. Until your knowledgeable guide informs you that far from being ancient, the arena-like theater was built by the Nazis to host rallies. Though maps today call it the Freilichtbühne – Open Air Stage – it was originally named Thingstätte. At this point it occurred to me that the Heiligenberg, and the process of walking it, symbolizes something essential about Germany. Where else would a hiker start out on a path named the Philosopher’s Way, specifically for Heidelberg’s tradition of playing host to German luminaries, and continue up to a stadium built by some of the most gruesome butchers in human history, who manipulated that German tradition magnificently for their own propaganda?
After awing at the extravagance and horror of the place, we continued up to the top of the amphitheatre and further up the mountain, where, at the top, sit the ruins of an 11th century monastery. Wandering around the old cloister and the various rooms of the old place, I felt as though transported to an enchanted place, the kind that populate the pages of German stories. After exploring the ruins, labyrinthine to my mind, and climbing up one of the towers to get a view of the Neckar valley, we picnicked on one of the lawns outside of the crumbling remains of the monastery’s walls.
When I was nine and first hiked the Heiligenberg, the whole mountain, especially the ruined monastery, seemed magical. But every time that I have returned, my sense of wonder at the history and beauty of the place has only increased.