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germany trip report: old heidelberg and the philosopher's path

2006-01-19 - 8:10 a.m.

all photos © 2006 by Elaine Radford
Tuesday, January 10

I'm not sure how far I want to go with the whole sleeping in airports concept, but I packed a pillowcase in my backpack and, whenever I had the opportunity for a nap, I stuffed my puffy sheepskin coat inside and, voil√° , instant pillow. The gate in Memphis had plenty of chairs without the stupid arms, so I could stretch out on three chairs in the corner and take a nap. However, I couldn't get any chairs without arms at Detroit, so I had to sleep on the floor. I was upgraded to first class on both legs, from MSY to MEM and MEM to DTW, so I had plenty of room to spread out even on the airplanes.

There wasn't a meal on either flight, though. Northwest looks for any excuse to get out of serving actual food and, considering how bad their catering is, I can't really blame them since they just embarrass themselves anyway. However, the flight attendant to DTW had a great attitude. She gave me an extra mini of Jack and once I landed, I got a cup of ice and squeezed my satsumas into it for juice, tossed in the Tennessee Sippin' Whiskey, and there it was, the perfect accompaniment for the $2.10 worth of tacos I got from the same Taco Bell booth where I got the ice.

I had an empty seat next to me on the transatlantic flight, so I put the arm up, fluffed my "pillow" out, and curled up. I must have gotten quite a bit of sleep for a change, because it seemed like I'd barely closed my eyes before they were waking us up for the breakfast, which definitely wasn't worth waking up for.

Wednesday, January 11

We landed at Frankfurt at around 7:30 in the morning, and some dude in a uniform waved those of us without checked baggage out through the in door, so I didn't waste much time at immigration. I rode up and down some escalators, some of them more than once, and spun around on a tram line from one terminal to the other, but I eventually found myself on the bus to Heidelberg. I passed the train station and made a note of where it was located. I also noticed that Heidelberg seems like ripe pickings for budding bicycle thieves. How could you ever prove you just didn't forget where you parked your bike?

It seems like you pay twice as much -- or more -- for a hotel if you're afraid to climb some stairs, so I poked around a little but ended up in a quiet attic room with the windows on top in the ceiling instead of in the walls. I dropped off my backpack and went in search of the castle.

All that stuff about how, if you want to know where the castle is, just look up? Don't believe a word of it. The buildings are too tall for that. They're all four or five stories high, and you can easily get closed in and not be able to see any of the landmarks that seemed sooooo obvious in the literature. However, once I found the river, it was pretty easy to identify the old bridge and walk that way, toward the old town and the huge, meandering old castle that is built partway up a mountain. The thing is huge -- it looks like a hodgepodge of different styles and buildings that were more or less smashed together by a monarch with more enthusiasm than taste. But restrained good taste is not really what we're looking for in our old German castles anyway, is it?

As I strolled around the grounds, I noticed some striking finches with flashing white tails and big, bold beaks -- my life Hawfinches. A powerful-looking, dramatic finch in its wild environment.

I skipped dinner because I had the loss of appetite I seem to get pretty often when I fly, and I just wanted to get a good night's sleep. I heard something soft falling on the skylight, but it didn't really register what it was. I was thinking pigeons landing or even pigeons pooping. Hey, I was really asleep at the time, so don't expect logic. Of course, when I woke up the next morning, I discovered that what I'd heard was actually snow.

Thursday, January 12

I pretty much did a walking tour of the whole town of Heidelberg today. But, first, I had breakfast. I'm not sure how I feel about the German practice of serving a breakfast buffet with the price of your room. It certainly saves money, since by the time you've sampled four kinds of interesting little cheeses on various breads or crackers, plus piled on a hard-boiled egg, some muesli, and a couple of pieces of fruit, you're not going to be much interested in a big lunch. But I saw several little coffee shops serving traditional apple tortes and what have you, and I wasn't able to try them, because I never really worked up enough appetite.

Today's hotel also served some fantastic coffee with hot milk. I justified the caffeine to myself because it was Europe, but I really wasn't suffering from much in the way of jet lag. The fluffy pillow known as my sheepskin coat had done the trick.

I started by walking toward an unknown church I'd found the day before to take a few photos. Then I went back down to the Neckar River and strolled in the direction of the old town and castle. There are actually two paths up to the castle -- one is just a path and the other is shorter and straighter but includes over 300 stairsteps. (No, I didn't count, I'll just have to take their word for it.) Yesterday, I'd done the path, so I did the stairs today, but very slowly, because of the snow. No Hawfinches today but some nice Bullfinches, which are always a pleasure to see.

In the afternoon, I crossed the old bridge to the other side of town, to tackle the Philosophenweg (Philosopher's Path) through the snowy woods. First I had to climb up what I suspect to be way more than 300 stairs through the vineyards on the Schlangenweg (Snake's Path). There were a couple of cut-outs where you could overlook the city and try to photograph the castle all in one piece, which is pretty impossible to do close-up, even if you do have a fish-eye lens, because of its sheer size.

I couldn't help but think that the Philosophenweg was wider and in better condition than the InterAmerican Highway in Costa Rica. I guess I'm not the first person to have this thought, since they had signs and even roadblocks along the way to stop vehicles from using the hiking path.

Once in the woods, I saw quite a few birds, although it seemed like most of them were Great Tits. Once I caught a glimpse of a raptor's back, where it was sitting in a distant tree, but the binoculars slipped and I couldn't find it again. It was real, though, because on my way back, it flew across the path. I didn't see enough to get a good ID on it though. Damn! I think it was a buteo, so probably most likely Buteo buteo, but I just didn't see enough. If I'd seen that much of a Red-Tailed Hawk, I would have IDed it in a flash, but I know what to look for -- white V on the back, belly band on the front. I just don't know where to look first with European raptors.

I did get lucky with my life Treecreeper, which flew up to a tree right in front of me and started doing its treecreeping thing. I needed the long, close look to check out the clean white underside, so I could be sure it was really Treecreeper and not Short-Toed Treecreeper.

I skipped lunch because of the breakfast buffet situation, but I'd hiked enough to get an appetite for dinner, and I tried a beef with a coconut-flavored curry at a Thai restaurant. Not bad at all. At least I wasn't like the Japanese tourists who stopped me on the cobblestoned streets of old Heidelberg to ask if I knew where they could find a KFC!

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