Heidelberg’s Philosopher’s Way stuns with castle views and history

Heidelberg's Old Neckar Bridge | Photo by Liubomir Paut-Fluerasu
Heidelberg's Old Neckar Bridge | Photo by Liubomir Paut-Fluerasu

Heidelberg’s Philosopher’s Way stuns with castle views and history

by Karen Bradbury
Stripes Europe

In these times in which travel remains limited to day-trip destinations, it can be fun to revisit some of our old favorite places.

And sometimes, returning to a place you knew and loved can feel like an entirely new experience, particularly if you go back in another season and in the company of a different set of friends or family members.

When an old friend and I discovered that the third member of our small circle had yet to visit Heidelberg, we knew exactly where to head the next time we could all manage the same day off. So it was on a recent weekday afternoon we found ourselves meandering through a sleepy Old Town mostly devoid of tourists. After making the obligatory photo stops on the iconic Old Bridge spanning the Neckar, we crossed over to the far side of the river and began a steep upward ascent.

Many years had passed since I’d last trod the steep and winding path leading up to the Philosopher’s Way, a panoramic road that runs parallel to the river, offering unsurpassed views of the Heidelberg Castle and the city below. Under a clear October sky, we had made our way to the panoramic outlook, where we’d toasted the birthday of a friend before retracing our steps back down to the bridge.

Heidelberg Castle | Photo by Sergey Strelkov

This time around, an unseasonably hot day at the end of May, our trio set out to walk the path in full. Once at the top, the view of the castle, now at eye level, was every bit as striking as I had remembered it. Carrying further along the path in a southerly direction gave rise to astonishment and delight as an almost Mediterranean landscape of roses, lush foliage, pines and vineyards unfolded.

Signage along the way told us more about the history of Heidelberg’s enduring attraction. It is suspected that the area was terraced and set up with vineyards as far back as Roman times. The name “Philosopher’s Way” dates back to the early 19th century, when the poets Friedrich Hölderlin and Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff, along with other deep thinkers, would take walks through the area. The path was laid out in its present form between 1837 and 1841. From the middle of the 19th century, most of the vineyards were replaced by fruit and vegetable gardens. Drystone walls, with their southern exposure and a construction style that doesn’t use mortar, are an important feature of the path. While the surface temperature of the walls can reach temperatures of up to 104 degrees Fahrenheit, the little nooks and crannies within them remain cool. This unique biotope can support all kinds of plant and animal life, including many species native to the Mediterranean region. Creatures to be spotted here include sand lizards, wild bees, and the smooth snake, which strangles its prey before swallowing it head-first. A type of tree known in German as the Mispel, which translates to medlar in English, grows here in abundance. This tree was common in the Middle Ages but is rare nowadays. The taste and texture of its fruit is reputed to resemble that of spicy applesauce.

Philosopher’s Way | Photo by Steven Heap

As to the aforementioned path leading from the Old Bridge to Philosopher’s Way, this has a name of its own: Schlangenweg (Winding Path), a reference to the numerous twists and turns along its cobblestoned route, which stretches about one-third of a mile and rises nearly 300 feet. Along the way, two scenic outlooks with benches offer bird’s-eye views of the city far below and a place to catch one’s breath before carrying on.

While first-timers to Heidelberg are bound to fall in love with the pretty view, repeat visitors can surely find something new to marvel over here as well. That I can vouch for myself.

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