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An aerial view of Heidelberg. Photo: Thinkstock
An aerial view of Heidelberg. Photo: Thinkstock

Twists and turns on a thinkers’ trail

A stroll along a medieval town's meandering Philosophers' Walk can trigger off introspection of the most searching kind

Given that German culture takes the meaning of life so seriously that its language is filled with long, consonant-filled words describing every emotion, I wasn’t surprised that in this ancient town of Heidelberg there is the Philosophers’ Walk. The old town’s cobblestoned streets are a pedestrian’s paradise, but they primarily indulge your materialistic instincts, lined as they are with boutiques of expensive brands and restaurants serving jugs of beer accompanied by ham with many flavours. The riverbank is less worldly, for a band of five ageing men strum guitars and play drums there, their 1970s and 1980s rock tunes amplified by their stereophonic equipment.

The path to the Philosophers’ Walk is serpentine and its entrance not easy to find, nestled as it is between two homes and their garages. With green moss covering the walls and the path, you feel you are stepping into someone’s long-neglected property. But as you begin the walk along the path which ascends steeply, you wonder if you are retracing your life, and learning its meaning.

The path is slippery at first, and I tread slowly. The moss is green but not wet. But I walk as if I’m taking my first steps. I’m used to it. I don’t remember my first steps as an infant, but I do remember how cautious I was over a decade ago when I learned to walk again, while recovering from a broken knee. That accident had happened when I had slipped on a mossy footpath while jogging, and fallen into a gutter, breaking my bones. It had taken me two years on crutches and some more time before I had sufficient confidence and balance to be able to walk briskly.

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A view of a castle from the Philosophers’ Walk. Photo: Thinkstock

There were others walking along the path, too. Younger, fitter men and women, in skin-hugging T-shirts and ultra-tight shorts, stepping lightly on the stones. Was I meant to keep pace? Or was I meant to walk to my own internal rhythm? Their energy put some spring in my steps and I felt myself walking faster. But I wasn’t in a race. I was not competing with people young enough to be my children, and they weren’t waiting for me either. We had our own goals.

My younger son Ameya, who is 20, was with me. He did what sons do—he raced ahead, surveyed what the climb ahead looked like, came down and told me how steep it was, but said I could do it, and walked with me, telling me what I was about to see.

The spot he had in mind was a platform that looked like a balcony protruding from a high-rise apartment, with a bench to sit down upon, facing the town that lay below.

As I sat down on the bench, I saw in front of me the medieval town of Heidelberg in all its glory. The picturesque houses, all made of red stone, shone in the sun that was setting behind me. The dial of the clock tower with its gold-inlaid numerals glowed as if on fire. The church looked down upon the town with the supreme majesty churches everywhere seem to possess. To my left, high on the hill, was the imposing castle, the monarch of all it surveyed.

I kept walking. The curves along the path remained sharp, but the gradient was steeper now, and I needed to pause more often. I was sweating by now, for it was a hot day. But I felt good, as if I had reached a milestone. We were at an elevation now. Leaves fluttered around us. We looked down and saw how far we had come. There was still some distance to go. I held out my hand for a little Japanese girl who had climbed atop a nearby wall and didn’t know how to come down.

Above that wall was the peak, where the path merged with the Philosophers’ Walk, leading us into the garden that lay ahead. You joined the main road, walking along the edge, below which the trees concealed the view of the red stone of Heidelberg’s buildings across the river, buildings which looked tiny from here. Then there was the castle itself, now looking like a cutout placed precariously on the mountain.

Here, on the path that I was on, Hegel and Habermas had walked once; discussing dialectic materialism and the meaning of life; there, that bench was where Hannah Arendt sat, reflecting on the ephemeral nature of beauty and love. Within just a few years, collective madness had gripped this country as it disregarded boundaries, divided people, sent millions abroad as refugees and many others to concentration camps, of whom many died. Arendt managed to escape, and saw the last act of the Nazi madness in Jerusalem years after the first, when Adolf Eichmann was brought there to face trial in 1961. While reporting his trial in Jerusalem, in him she saw the banality of evil.

We contemplated the fragility of beauty. The sun was brilliant; the water of the river Neckar shimmered, moving swiftly like velvet, as a breeze caressed its surface, disintegrating the reflection of the setting sun into thousands of light lamps.

There was still light when we began our descent. The return journey seemed quicker, our thoughts running faster than our strides. Whether you reached, the top became irrelevant. You had walked, sometimes alone, sometimes with others. And my son was never far. Children never are.

Salil Tripathi writes the column Here, There, Everywhere for Mint.

Also Read | Salil’s previous Lounge columns

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