It was just past five in the morning. They walked silently, their steps becoming methodical, sounding thuds muffled by the thin cover of leaves whose coral color couldn’t quite yet be made out in the predawn. The path steepened and they tramped on, her intakes of breath becoming slightly more deliberate as his remained unlabored. To be fair, she thought, this is about the twentieth time he’s made this hike. It did seem like a ritual, though she doubted he regularly climbed the Heiligenberg after staying out all night. They had discussed it earlier that morning, after the winter ball’s festivities had left her wanting to undertake something more thrilling. Two of the other Americans had considered accompanying them, but declined the hike in favor of their hosts’ warm beds and normal circadian rhythms. She realized that it would likely miss the tour of Heidelberg set for 1 o’clock the next afternoon, but was convinced that what Jon had in mind was something far more impressive.
After four kilometers of lazy switchbacks, he said casually, “It’s just up there. I’ll let you go in first so you get the whole effect”. She approached the high stone wall with growing anticipation, set her Trader Joe’s bag containing high heels, makeup, and a satiny dress on the steps outside and walked through the stone doorway.
Her eyes were met with two wide arching sets of tiered stone amphitheater seats. The muddied ground ran between the stone seating arena to the circular platform where she stood, and she stepped forward into the main ritual area of the Thingstätte. An unsettling feeling gripped her, as she knew this was where Goebbels himself had once stood, spewing propaganda to the some 20,000 people who had attended the amphitheater’s opening ceremony in 1935. Despite its brief use by the Nazi party, the place had a much more extensive, pagan history. The synergistic result could be felt as the two walked up to the top of the steps and turned to look down upon the space laid into the mountain.
A few steps past the top of the rows of seating, a hexagonal stone altar stood lonely in a small clearing. Flashes of past Walpurgisnacht celebrations came to her as she felt the grounds’ true purpose. “It’s crazy here on May eve,” Jon said quietly. She smiled and suddenly had the urge to climb on top of the altar. They were already considerably closer to the top of the mountain, and Heidelberg’s streetlights flickered small below. Standing atop the altar was no mockery of the rituals carried out on the Holy Mountain, but rather an opportunity to siphon from and float in their lingering vibrations. Strangely, the altar was not oriented to the east, giving them reason to search higher for a better view of the sunrise that was quickly approaching.
The ruins of the temple of Mercury provided a perfect spot to watch the skies lighten. They cautiously climbed the tower stairs, pitch-black walls giving way to an outlook from which they could see for miles down through the forest, over the Neckar River, across Heidelberg and, had it been a clearer morning, to the industrial columns of Mannheim on the cloud-covered horizon. Above the tree cover the wind whipped them viciously, and he pulled a fleece blanket from his pack for her to wrap around her legs. They sat for a while in silence, waiting.
When it became evident that morning was upon them (though now cotton-candy colored, the skies had remained stubbornly cloudy, as German skies are wont to do), they descended from the tower and walked the short distance down to the altar and the Thingstätte. In a fuller light, the Thingstätte was somehow simultaneously less and more impressive; she wondered how many visitors to the city were able to experience this creepy bit of history tucked away on the mountain at an equally eerie hour.
Their moods remained reflective as the two began the descent, realizing their bodies’ fatigue. The disconcerting tingly feeling was beginning to grow in her stomach and chest, the same jetlagged feeling she got when her body wanted her to simply lie down and sleep after hours of travel. She realized she’d likely come down with a cold as a result, but knew it had been worth the temporary stress to have been able to take part in a sort of ritual herself. They passed a few dedicated early birds running on the Philosophenweg on their way back down into modern civilization, and smiled to each other to know that for the night, they had had the company of the mountain all to themselves.
Ginger Kern is a Fulbright English teaching assistant, travel writer, freelance translator, ballroom dancer, and actress living in Germany. She gets “wanderlusty” after two weeks without travel, and is happy to share what she gleans from waltzing around Europe through her blog, Ginger in Germany (Again), and on Twitter.