The breeze is warm so we continue to sit as the sky darkens. Our eyes, aided by the sharp contrast of dark letters on the white background, adjust to the falling light, so much so that we continue reading into twilight, and only when I look up from my book do I realize that the green of the nearby woods can barely be seen and that the crickets have begun their evening ritual. (The crickets can be heard on both sides of the balcony, each with its distinct rhythm: from the left the sound reminds me of the slow but persistent rattle of a machine gun in the distance; on the right the effect is that of continuous buzzing, like a drone.) The other day, on a particularly warm evening when we switched on the lights and continued to sit well into the night, we heard our neighbours below play some 80’s pop that sounded familiar. I brought out the iPhone and started Shazam – it captured a few seconds of the music, analyzed it, and then, like magic, revealed the album and the artist: 12 Songs by Neal Diamond. When the music stopped it felt as if something had ended; we picked up our books and glasses and went back inside.
Such evenings in the balcony are becoming rare. Rain and wind are regular visitors now, driving us back into the cosier confines of the apartment, the same spaces we found hot and uncomfortable only a few weeks previously. The last days of summer are here.
The focal point of this summer was our move. There was very little travel, but we did go on a couple of hikes and a short plane ride. There were visitors too, which led to some sightseeing trips to nearby touristy towns. Some highlights follow.
Philosophenweg, a path that climbs a hill next to the Neckar in Heidelberg, offers wonderful views of the altstadt and the castle. Along the way are small gardens and orchards owned and tended to mostly by old men. After a while you enter the woods and begin to circle the hill. Here the few people you had seen earlier also disappear and your only companions are the occasional cyclists or joggers enduring the incline. We also saw a tree hugger: a middle-aged man, dressed smartly in a jeans and shirt, a backpack on his shoulder, his arms stretched around the trunk of a large tree, eyes closed and – I supposed, or rather hoped, because otherwise it would be difficult to explain what he was doing – in communion with nature.
At the summit of a nearby hill, hidden behind thick woods and a piece of history the Germans aren’t proud of, is a large, stunning, amphitheatre. The friends who joined me on this hike expressed the same sentiment I felt when I first saw it: why hadn’t we heard about this place earlier; why don’t people in this region talk about it?
Built by the Nazis in the 1930s as part of Goebbels’s plan to construct outdoor amphitheaters for propaganda performances, Thingstaette is impressive in its size (about a football field’s length and capable of seating 20,000 people), shape (half an egg cut into the hill), location (surrounded by thick woods) and acoustics. We got an impression of the splendid acoustics when a German lady sitting on the platform began to sing. At that moment we were near the other end of the theatre, on top of the visitor pavilion a couple of hundred metres away, but her voice reached us with astonishing clarity. A real pity, then, that these days the place is not used often for concerts. (On the other hand, infrequent usage has given it the quality of a ruin, remote in time and removed from civilization.)
On another occasion we took some visitors to – where else? – Heidelberg. We may have visited the Neckar riverside a hundred times and seen the castle on many more occasions, but we never tire of it. This time the evening light gave a different tint to the red stones, and I spent time on the bridge taking pictures of the castle.
Ladenburg was the site of a visit with some friends who visited us over a weekend. Another medieval-age town with cobble-stoned streets, it isn’t as touristy as Heidelberg and has ruins dating back to the Roman period. Our group wasn’t keen on history; we simply spent time walking leisurely through the streets, stopping at cafes and on the riverside. There was also a wedding at a church we crossed, and despite the medieval surroundings there was no horse-carriage for bride and bridegroom, only a sleek Mercedes Benz.
Fifteen sublime minutes
On a fine cloudless evening, with the sun close to the horizon, we went up in a small plane for a fifteen-minute ride.
The view from a low-flying plane can be arresting. On this day it was the symmetry of structures below that stood out most: the layouts of streets in towns, the position of the church, the elegant loops of autobahn exits, the perfectly aligned gardens of Schwetzingen castle. It was as if a giant had neatly placed these Lego blocks on a designed platform.
The flight took us towards Heidelberg. We approached it along a silvery streak (the Neckar), flew over a terraced hilltop oval (Thingstaette), the cramped rooftops (altstadt), a ruin in pink (the castle) and then turned around just as the sun sank behind the horizon. The places we had seen earlier – and spent hours exploring – flipped past us in an instant, and at that moment I could not decide what I liked better: the fleeting but striking impression from this height, or the slow immersion into those places below.