Germany’s rolling rivers: The splendid Neckar

Germany’s rolling rivers: The splendid Neckar

by Karen Bradbury
Stripes Europe

Pop quiz: What do the cities of Stuttgart, Heidelberg, Hirschhorn and Mannheim have in common? A river runs through them and with endless exciting sights to discover along its banks at that! Our newest installment tracing the course of a German river takes us along the Neckar.

A profile of the river: The Neckar River rises in the Black Forest and cuts a steep valley through the hills of the Odenwald before flowing into the Rhine River in Mannheim. For most its course, it flows through the German state of Baden-Württemberg, calling in briefly to Hessen and forming the border between the two states. The total length of its predominantly northern and northeasterly course is 228 miles. Its name is believed to derive from the Celtic word “Nikros,” which translates to either “wild water” or “wild young man.”

Start at the source: The Black Forest town of Villingen-Schwenningen is a well-preserved city of half-timbered houses, medieval walls and a bustling central marketplace. Like other hyphenated towns, it’s a tale of two separate entities with distinct histories, fused together for administrative purposes. When strolling through the district of Villingen, pay special attention to its numerous fountains, which are remains of a water system dating back to 1175 and the backbone to its prosperity. The district of Schwenningen, once the world's largest clock manufacturing city, is home to the source of the Neckar. Take a stroll through the Möglingshöhe Park to see the symbolic spot from which this river is birthed. Die-hard potamologists (those who study rivers) can thrill to the added bonus of visiting the source of the Brigach, one of two streams that go on to form the Danube, one of the mightiest rivers in all Europe. You can also enjoy a stroll through the Schwenninger Moos, a marshy area along the European watershed. Waters that enter into the Neckar are destined to flow into the North Sea, while those taken in by the Danube wash into the Black Sea.

Rottweil: Driving 12 miles northeast, we find ourselves in Rottweil, Baden-Württemberg’s oldest city. In addition to its lovely medieval core, the city is famed for its “Fasnet” carnival traditions and its “Narrensprung” parade full of disquieting characters in wooden masks. Dog lovers wondering if there’s a connection between this town’s name and the Rottweiler breed will be pleased to learn that this strong, smart dog was bred here to pull carts loaded with meat to the market. A statue in honor of the Rottweiler Metzgerhund, or butcher’s dog, stands guard next to the City Museum on the Hauptstraβe. A modern-day highlight of Rottweil is the Thyssenkrupp Test Tower. At a height of 761 feet, Germany’s highest viewing platform welcomes visitors and tops a tower built specifically to test the latest innovations in elevator-building technology.

Tübingen: One of many German towns that seem straight out a fairy tale, this bustling town some 40 miles northeast of Rottweil dazzles with medieval architecture, fantastic boutiques, restaurants offering adventurous cuisine and the laid-back and open vibe associated with any great university town. A must-see landmark is its arcaded and steepled Town Hall and its delightfully painted facade. A stroll along the Neckarinsel, an island that’s also a park, allows you to take in a view of handsome, vibrantly painted houses overlooking the river. In the warm months of the year, experience the Neckar by means of a “Stocherkahnfahrt,” a trip by a type of boat known as a punt, which is a flat-bottom craft propelled by a driver who pushes a pole against the riverbed.

Esslingen: Even as far back as the 9th century, this congenial town has been an important trading center, and the wine produced in its surrounding vineyards has long been held in the highest regard. Although an industrial center, it emerged from WWII largely unscathed, and its winding lanes with half-timbered houses remain a joy to behold. The Innere Brücke, or Inner Bridge, spans the Neckar today as it did some 750 years ago, making it the second-oldest stone bridge in Germany. Before leaving town, pick up a bottle of bubbly from Kessler, Germany’s oldest producer of sparkling wine.

Stuttgart: Seeing Stuttgart by water will help you gain a new perspective of Baden-Württemberg’s capital, and the fleet of Neckar-Käptn is sure to have just the boat and tour to suit your needs. The company’s day tours go as far north as Besigheim, once voted Germany's most picturesque wine town, and Esslingen to the south.

Heilbronn: Found about 40 miles north of Stuttgart, the major landmarks of this city include the soaring, 13th-century St. Kilian’s Church and a curious astronomical clock with moving parts that spring to life upon the hour. The Experimenta, billed as Germany’s largest science center, can be enjoyed by visitors of all ages.

Bad Wimpfen: Ten miles north of Heilbronn, this charming medieval gem on a hilltop offers panoramic views of the surrounding countryside, although you’d do just as well keeping your eyes firmly on the sights in front of you. Must-sees include the Kaiserpfalz, once the biggest imperial palace north of the Alps, and the Blue Tower, which, when climbed, offers yet more fantastic views.

Neckarsteinach: No river tour is complete without a visit to a castle, and the Neckar Valley has several from which to choose. To get the most castles out of a single stop, make your way 30 miles northwest to the town of Neckarsteinach, where four can be seen with a single stretch of the legs. Spot them all as you walk along a 3-mile, auto-free promenade stretching along the Neckar. Hesse’s southernmost town has a pier from which Weisse Flotte boat trips to Eberbach and Heidelberg set sail.

Heidelberg: One of the most beguiling cities in all of Germany offers plenty to see beyond the river itself, but the sight of this silver ribbon cutting through it is definitely part of its distinct character and charm. In keeping with our Neckar theme, be sure to walk over the Old Bridge, an arched sandstone beauty offering views of the castle high on the hill above. At the foot of the bridge, visit the Heidelberg Bridge Monkey, a bronze statue of a monkey holding a mirror. For luck, rub the mirror, for fertility, touch the little mice, and to return to Heidelberg, touch the monkey’s fingers. For the best panoramic views of the town, cross the Neckar, ascend the steep path, and stroll along the Philosopher’s Way. Even in the dead of winter, the views from here are compelling.

Ladenburg: There is one last hidden gem to explore before the Neckar flows, rather unceremoniously, into the Rhine. This often-overlooked town offers a surprisingly intact old town center and meticulously restored buildings whose bright facades are a delight to behold. Galleries, museums and restaurants galore give visitors other reasons to linger. From Ladenburg, both Wiesbaden and Kaiserslautern can be reached within not much more than an hour’s driving time.

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