BHDandMe visited Heidelberg a few days ago, the provincial German city on the Neckar, and took a stroll through the woodlands to the summit of the Heiligenberg.

The slopes are steep and the woodland, mixed beech and pine, is open, allowing intermittent views between the trunks to the hillsides across the river, and sometimes to the open plains beyond. But the trees are tall and the forest stretches away above and below you and into distances so that you are within it, and beneath it, yet not quite part of it. The ground is mulched with last year’s leaves, crisp and curled in the droghte of Marche, and beneath them the rotted leaves of year upon year upon year gone by. Paths criss-cross the hillside, and a motor road winds through them to a parking place beside the stuberl in the saddle of the snub-nosed ridge. The leaves have covered the tarmac of the road, and the old stones of the footpaths, deadening sound the way snowfall does. Birds call still, unseen from beneath the trees, and late on a grey afternoon, the lights of approaching cars begin to show between the trees, sweeping at the hairpin corners like yellow torch beams searching in the leaf litter for the glint of lost keys.

We were heading for the Keltische Hohenseidlung, the Thing Stadt; a dished oval of stone tiers, an amphitheatre that the Nazis emplaced upon this ancient Celtic tribal meeting place. Row after row of shallow terraces crawl up the higher face, and on the lower a flat raised platform, also of stone is backed by a stone blockhouse, with curved flights of steps to its flat roof on either side, and a central through-way beneath from the platform to the forest beyond. From the outer face of this blockhouse, flanking the opening, thick knuckles of stone jut out to grip two flag poles, tall as the surrounding trees.

There were families wandering on the stage, and on the tiered seating, children squealing, laughter, and the flash of cameras. The sign boards, save for one, small, old, disfigured, do not mention the Nazis, but only the older, perhaps safer Celts. Yet it was swastikas we pictured hanging from the stone parapet of the blockhouse, red banners flying at the entrance, oil dark flames rising from basins that climb the perimeter of the amphitheatre, searchlights on the two pillbox like structures flanking the highest run of seating. This hilltop stage setting has no view outwards. Trees enclose it, and its own shape. Only the sky would be visible to the eight thousand spectators, and to the performers on the blockhouse roof perhaps not even that. Each person we met or saw raised in us the question of what motive drove them to visit the site, what response it evoked in them, what did they know of its recent past? And did they too ponder these questions of us?

Advertisements