It is a beautiful city. Regret will strike you hard enough to bruise when you watch the sites pass by undocumented on an evening run, for once without a camera. Bricks glow rosy in the sunset, as if the old town has been reawakened from a few hundred years’ sleep, with cooking fires still warming the innards of the Heidelberger Schloss and peddlers’ carts rattling across the cobblestones of the Alte Brucke. The mansions carved into the hill above the Neckar River on the northeastern side are perfectly weathered like a good pair of leather boots — they have that regal, old-world grandeur found only in Europe, but are humble in their rusting ironwork and scuffed off-white paint. You can tell the craftsmanship is impeccable though the owners haven’t bothered with a recent polish. And unlike other places where such buildings seem intimidatingly imposing, here they are cozy family homes — charming, inviting, a cold glass of sparkling apple juice waiting on the front steps.
Run up the steep Philosophenweg — the Philosopher’s Walk winding through and finally climbing above the mansions to overlook the swath of city from end to end. At this distance you can’t make out the fluorescent street art cartwheeling across the undersides of the two concrete bridges that shuttle students between classes and shopping; it’s too late for the herds of helmet-less bicycle commuters spilling out of the dedicated red bike lanes; the pink and orange sunset reflecting on the water is hidden behind thick foliage.
While you lean over a fence to stare at the view, a pair of women hurry past in spandex and baseball caps, measuring their strides with metal hiking poles; two jogging dogs eye each other skittishly and decide not to sniff; a man settles into a bench and a paperback.
This is the place where “Swimming Pool Revival Party” club posters are pasted outside bakeries serving traditional buttered pretzels and hearty black bread. The oldest university in Germany nurtures exuberant teenagers who practice capoeira in the lawn on Sunday afternoon and down pints at the Dubliner pub after dark. Taking the stairs to the fifth-floor office counteracts being taught to finish all of the schnitzel and spätzle on your dinner plate. Street fashion blogs immortalize individuals in wildly-colored, aggressively-tailored outfits while pedestrians are incapable of crossing the street against the red do-not-walk signal even when there are no cars in sight.
It’s a brackish mix of clashing sensibilities wrapped up in back alleys and lounging by the river: Welcome to Heidelberg, Germany!