Weekend Wanderlust: Strolling through the hills of Heidelberg

Famed for its castle and university, Heidelberg is a culturally influential city. And it's the perfect solution for those looking for a bit of German history.

Weekend Wanderlust: Strolling through the hills of Heidelberg
Heidelberg Castle. Photo: DPA

I was coming to the end of my four-month stay in Germany and was really beginning to lament not having seen much of the country other than Berlin, where I have been living. Berlin is a great city, but it’s quite un-German, and I was longing to visit a slightly more postcard-picture part of Germany.

A perfect excuse to travel quickly arose; my dad was going on a business trip to Frankfurt and so we decided to meet up in Heidelberg that weekend. So off I popped, on the brief five-hour train journey to northern Baden-Württemberg, for my first taste of Germany outside the capital.

A historical city

Heidelberg is a historical and influential city. Home to Germany’s oldest university, it was also significant in the Romantic movement. Situated on the banks of the river Neckar and nestled between the Gaisberg, Heiligenberg and Königsstuhl mountains, it makes an idyllic setting. And it’s ideal for travellers seeking out a bit of traditional German Gemütlichkeit.

As a university city with a long history, Heidelberg feels effervescent yet cultured. It evaded bombing during the Second World War, which means that its Altstadt is well preserved and retains most of its old and interesting buildings. Strolling through the narrow, cobbled streets of the old town, you are surrounded by tall Altbau buildings with old-fashioned window shutters and colourful facades.

But the city – about an hour train ride from Frankfurt – also has a modern, youthful feel. A lunch of traditional German Handkäse mit Musik (cheese with vinegar and raw onions) and a dinner of Ethiopian Maadi Sga (a sharing dish of various types of spiced meats) were both eaten in Altbau restaurants on cobbled side-streets. A traditional-looking liquor shop was brimming with students and tourists trying and buying alcohol of all kinds of normal and experimental flavours.

A Christmas pyramid above a Glühwein stall. Photo: DPA

Visiting Heidelberg at the start of advent, we couldn’t have avoided the Weihnachtsmarkt even if we’d tried. The city’s scenery makes the Christmas market particularly inviting: wooden stalls aplenty, wafts of Glühwein, waffles and Wurst, the noise of Germans and tourists babbling away. At night, a magnificent Christmas pyramid lights up the centre of the market, making it an especially charming sight.

Sightseeing at Schloss Heidelberg

We opted for the obligatory cultural sightseeing on Saturday morning, and our first destination was one of Germany’s most famous landmarks: Schloss Heidelberg. The red sandstone castle makes an undeniably impressive sight, peering out from the Königsstuhl hillside, looming over the city.

Heidelberg Castle has a dramatic history. It was built around the 13th century and became significant for prince electors in the Rhine area. But over the next centuries, the castle became a site for war and destruction.

In the late 17th century, the castle eventually capitulated to the French in the Nine Years’ War, after which the court moved to nearby Mannheim. Then, in 1764, the castle was struck by two lightning strikes which burned much of it down. Since then, the formerly magnificent royal residence has stood as dramatic ruins, overlooking the city.

Romantic ruins. Photo: DPA

The castle can be reached by the pleasingly named Heidelberger Bergbahn (my dad, whose German extends as far as “Ein Milchkaffee, bitte” took a lot of pleasure in attempting to pronounce the name of this funicular railway).

As we reached the castle, an eerie mist had descended, the ground was damp, and the dark stone of the castle and bare trees stood out against the grey-white of the surrounding cloud. It felt suitably mysterious and bewitching.

Heidelberg Castle styles itself as Romantik Pur: Die Berühmteste Ruine der Welt (the English slogan being “Truly Romantic: The World-Famous Ruins”) and it’s easy to see why. The castle ruins became a favourite of artists of the Romantic movement and inspired many poets and artists of the time, including the English artist J.M.W. Turner who visited the area multiple times. The greying red ruins, imbued with so much history, destroyed by acts of war and nature, set in a forested mountain, are the perfect image of the Romantic movement. Everything about the ruins conjures up a sense of German history.

The Philosopher's Walk

On the opposite hillside of the river, staring at the castle, is another remnant of Heidelberg’s Romantic past. The Philosophenweg (Philosophers’ Walk) is a path in the hillside, with a panorama of the city, the castle and river Neckar.

Walking along the historic route, it’s easy to understand, just as with the castle, how it came to inspire many a German thinker. Unsurprisingly, the route derives its name from the fact that the university’s professors and philosophers would spend time ambling along the path, contemplating and discussing their thoughts, inspired by the beautiful views of the landscape, and the impressive views of the castle.

People looking philosophically on the Philosophenweg. Photo: DPA

Steeped in history and a sense of grandeur, the views engender a reflective mood. On the path you can see many people thinking many deep thoughts. There are benches along the way, and it’s a very cathartic experience to sit and reflect for a while, even if you’re not thinking about anything remotely wise or philosophical. I seem to remember my dad and me discussing Christmas presents. But the fresh air and scenic walk definitely did us good.

I left Heidelberg feeling fulfilled (if not necessarily any more philosophical). Old yet youthful, traditional yet modern, Heidelberg is a very German city which gave me a wonderful, if somewhat idealized, taste of Germany outside of the capital.



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Travel: Six reasons why the Spreewald near Berlin is worth visiting

Situated only a 45 Minute train ride from Berlin, this lush UNESCO Biosphere reserve and cultural gem transports visitors to another world.

Travel: Six reasons why the Spreewald near Berlin is worth visiting
Tourists canoeing through the scenic Spreewald. Photo: DPA

Around Germany, the colloquial verb herumgurken (pickle around) has the meaning of traveling around and around when lost.

While I was equipped with a map, the word still seemed the most fitting way to sum up my time in the Spreewald, known not only for its vast pickle production, but also stunning nature and culture to discover by bike, foot or – especially – canoe.

READ ALSO: Travel in Germany: 10 must-see places within reach of Berlin

Here are six reasons it’s worth a visit, whether as a Tagesausflug (day-trip) from Berlin or a week-long adventure.

1. Pickle paradise 

The pickle harvest in Kasel-Golzig in the Spreewald on July 17th. Photo: DPA

Known for some 50 percent of the production across Germany, Spreewalders take pride in their pickles. In the three days I was there, it felt like I sampled every sort of gourmet Gurken delicacy there is, from creamy Gurkensuppe (served both chilled and warm in the summer), Gurkenaustrich (spread) and a surprisingly good Gurken and raspberry Radler

Tucked into the forest, the town of Burg even offers Gurkeneis if you fancy the summer sweet with a green tint. 

2. The Sorbian language 

People going for a Gondola ride in Lehde. Photo: DPA

You might mistake the text under German signs around the area for Polish or Czech. Yet it’s actually Sorbian, an official minority language of Germany spoken by over 60,000 people. 

Many of them live in the Spreewald, and the little village of Lehne – a two kilometre walk or cycle from the old town in Lübbenau  – pays tribute to their way of life and language, including an open-air museum that gives a glimpse of how the Wends (as they are known locally) lived in the 19th century. 

3. Bunte Biodiversity 

Otters are often spotted swimming in the Spreewald. Photo: DPA

With its more than 5,000 species of animals, Spreewald is so rich in biodiversity that the 475 square metre area was given the title of an UNESCO Biosphere reserve in 1991.

One particularly striking species are the white storks, which are often spotted perched atop large nests they’ve created on large protected pillars. The species is critically endangered elsewhere in Germany. 

The Spreewald can also at times feel like the tropics with colourful animals and amphibians like the fire-bellied toad and over 900 species of Schmetterlinge (butterflies).

4. Rural charm

It felt like we were much further from Berlin as we hiked past Hütte (cottages) with thatched roofs and cozy country stores with local products that closed at 2 pm each day. From Lübben, we hiked along a 14-kilometre riverside trail to Schlepzig, known for both its Bauermuseum (farm museum) and Brauerei with locally brewed beer.

5. Water Wanderung

A true streaming service: a postal woman delivers mail by water at the start of the Post's canoe delivery season on May 14th. Photo: DPA

With 1,500 kilometers of waterways, one of the best ways to explore the Spreewald is by water. The area is so-well connected by water that even mailmen and women from the Deutsche Post pragmatically paddle from home to home to deliver post.

We had a sporty Sunday, leaving Lübben at 9:30 am and paddling 14 kilometres to Lübbenau, just in time to a devour a hearty lunch of potatoes and Quark cheese with linseed oil, a Spreewald specialty, at a beer garden affixed to the side of the river. We then headed back for another adventure, as small waves formed amid the windy afternoon weather. 

Families of swans, cranes and ducks joined the journey at times, unfazed by their human companions. 

If you're looking for a more leisurely journey, all sorts of canoes, kayaks and other boats can be rented by the hour, or you can sit back in a Venice-style Gondola as a host in tradition garb guides you through the landscapes.

6. Official bike trail

Bike riders in the Spreewald town of Leipe. Photo: DPA

Distinctly marked by yellow signs of a cycling pickle, the Gurkenradweg forms 260 kilometres of scenic trails that lead through the forest, starting in Lübben and leading to Cottbus, the heart of Brandenburg’s Sorbian-speaking community. Bridges break up the journey (and sometimes, this being Germany, construction projects as well.)

If you’re timid about trekking longer distances, most bike rental shops also offer daily e-bike rentals for around €25 a day. Just be advised, especially in the summer months, to reserve bikes at least a week in advance.