Sunday, February 17, 2008

14 October: A Brilliant Day in the Schwäbische Alb

It was a perfect sunny autumn day so we decided to take a meandering scenic drive out towards Burg Hohenzollern, which I had wanted to revisit for some time now – particularly to try to get some better pictures of the castle from afar. Along the way we saw signs for Schloss Haigerloch, so on a whim we decided to stop and have a look around. We followed the signs through the small town of Haigerloch, nestled in a limestone-walled valley of the River Eyach, without ever catching a glimpse of the castle, then the road wound upwards onto an open plain above the town. We finally realized that we must be approaching the castle from above, and ended up leaving the car in a nearly-empty parking lot and walking down a paved path towards the castle.

Schloss Haigerloch was owned by the Hohenzollern family until recently and is now a hotel and conference center. There was no entrance gate; we simply walked beneath an arch topped by a magnificent clock tower and were free to wander the grounds (photo, above). All was quiet, with a few cars parked in the courtyard and several other visitors walking around. The main structures of the castle are laid out in an L-shape, with the hotel building with its cheerful blue-and-white striped shutters on one side and another large building housing an art exhibition and conference rooms on the other. A narrow cobbled path led us through an archway (photo, right) and down a long stone stairway, past the 17th-century Schlosskirche, which has a splendid Baroque interior.

Haigerloch is also known as the cradle of atomic research, as it was here, within the cliffs beneath the Schlosskirche, that Professor Werner Karl Heisenberg and his colleagues constructed Germany’s first nuclear reactor in the final months of World War II. We saw signs for the Atomkeller-Museum, which documents the construction of the reactor, but it must have been located further down in the main part of town. We walked back up the staircase and returned to the castle grounds, where we headed to the cliff’s edge and peered over the low stone wall for a lovely view of the town below and the rushing River Eyach. We took a narrow footpath further up the hill to the Kapf, but the anticipated view was mostly blocked by trees.

We made our way back to the car and continued on to Burg Hohenzollern. I wanted to return to the tiny pilgrimage chapel nestled in the forest below the castle, from which I presumed that I should be able to get excellent pictures of the fortress. The castle was looking positively resplendent against a backdrop of brilliant blue sky as we made our way up the winding country lane, past apple trees laden with their fall bounty, to the shady parking lot below the chapel (we had made it this far with my parents a year ago, but now I was intent on climbing all the way up to the church). We headed up a very steep path, passing twelve stone boxes (Stations of the Cross, perhaps?) that must have once housed some sort of religious relics but were now mostly empty.

We arrived at the small white church, sitting at the base of a sloped clearing and surrounded by a carefully tended graveyard (photo, above - the castle is visible on the hill to the left). The chapel itself was very simple, as a pilgrimage church set high on a hill in the forest is wont to be, but the view was spectacular. Sure enough, we could see Burg Hohenzollern off in the distance but I had to use my zoom lens (which I had thoughtfully brought along) to get decent pictures. I finally got my picture of the impressive ramparts and gates leading down from this side of the castle, which are not visible from any other angle (photo, right). Although it was getting late, we decided to continue past the chapel on a wide walking trail through the forest to try to get a little closer. We kicked ourselves for not bringing Cody along, because he would have loved the romp in the woods.

As we kept walking, the castle grew ever closer, but the thick growth of forest prevented me from getting any better pictures. We finally stopped at a crossroads where one hiking path led up towards the castle (about 1.5 km away) and other trails headed off in various directions. It was a beautiful area and I would have loved to continue exploring, but we still had to get back home to walk Cody. We decided to call it a day and headed back to the car, but not before stopping for a quick self-portrait on a grassy hill opposite the castle – perhaps my single most favorite spot in all of Germany.

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