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MUSED Literary Magazine.
Non Fiction

Climbing Castle Hill

Kimberlee Esselstrom

Freiburg, Germany, often called the capital of the Black Forest, is a bustling university town. A medical student on her spring break volunteered to be my personal guide.

While I swabbed my sweaty neck, she administered first aid to my latest blister. “Goot as new!” she announced. She patted my foot. “Tomorrow we climb the hill.”

This was my first solo venture outside the United States. In the past, I traveled with family members or friends who thought strolls on soft warm beaches equaled rigorous workouts. I determined to keep pace alongside my young energetic guide.

A forest-covered mountain appeared in the distance. A small tower perched on top. “Climb?” she asked. “It takes twenty minutes up and less to come down.” She snapped her fingers. “Einfach.”

I only knew the German words for the numbers one to ten. This sounded like a curse word.

“Easy,” she interpreted.

I imagined tripping, then somersaulting cartoon-like down the mountain. A panic-stricken chuckle escaped—my reaction to extreme fatigue. That day we had trekked the entire city of Freiburg, my guide’s youthful enthusiasm leading the way.

Throughout Freiburg’s history, which dates back to medieval times, Schlossberg (castle-hill) was a strategic advantage in times of conflict. In 1677 the French seized control and built a colossal fortress on Schlossberg. War destroyed the stronghold in 1745.

The new Schlossberg Observation Tower, built in 2002, promised breathtaking views.

On the morning of our climb, my guide was called away. Happy to spend the day with my feet in a bucket of warm water and watching foreign television, I tried not to look too pleased.

“Climb on your own.” She shoved a colorful map into my hand. Purple arrows led to a green hill.

I showed her a brochure describing a cable car to another peak.

“What?” She shook her head and tossed the booklet into the garbage. “Buckets are for ancient people.”

Thoughts of my fiftieth birthday threatened like distant thunder. Rain or shine, I would climb.

The day before, from the top floor of a department store, Schlossberg hill loomed over the east end of the city. Now on ground level, I saw nothing but buildings.

My guide would expect a full report. I dragged my weary body and bandaged blisters from her comfortable apartment. I double-checked my map and headed east.

On Bertoldstrasse I passed University Church and Old University, now a museum. A part of Albert-Ludwig University campus, these buildings serve over twenty thousand students.

I crossed busy intersections where squeaky tramlines picked up hikers and bikers in the old city. Little streams called ‘bachle’ ran through gullies alongside roads. For centuries, this ready water supply satisfied thirsty cattle and provided fire protection.

Stone mosaics dotted streets and sidewalks. I strolled atop this outdoor art gallery. These stone designs direct visitors to local trade. A large diamond represents a jewelry shop and a frothy mug of beer made from hundreds of pebbles from the Rhine river welcomes parched travelers.

In late May, temperatures often reach eighty degrees. On that day, the cloudless blue sky urged the ‘Sunniest town in Germany’ to live up to its name.

Before long, I stood in front of Schwabentor, one of two remaining medieval city gates. To cross a busy road, I had to decide between an elevator ride or a footpath bridge suspended above the bustling street. I heard my absent guide chiding, “Elevators are for ancient people.” I marched across the footbridge and entered a hillside park thick with oak and beech trees.

My map showed I was now in the Black Forest. A wall of fir trees flanked the path. I followed well-marked tower signs, stopping to rest on small benches next to fortress ruins.

At one point, the woodland opened to a vast clover-filled meadow. I imagined herds of goats, hundreds of years before, meandering amongst rubble from the crumbled castle.

Tower signs disappeared as I continued to climb. Like Gretel, but without Hansel, I considered turning my apple strudel lunch into a crumb trail. As I prayed for the tower to materialize, I crunched over beds of pine needles, inhaling familiar holiday scents.

At the top, the terrain leveled and there were less trees. A ring of benches allowed me to see Freiburg from every possible angle. I watched miniature people shop at open-air vegetable markets and spotted the spiky spire of the Munster Unserer Lieben Frau (Cathedral of our Beloved Lady)—the only building in Freiburg to survive WWII bombs.

After a contemplative half-hour, I accepted my failure to locate the tower, not able to see the tower for the trees. I searched for a different path downhill when the elusive tower emerged.

The one-hundred-foot steel and wood structure was designed to blend with its natural setting. Six massive Douglas fir tree trunks surrounded a spiral staircase of openwork metal steps. I climbed to the observation platform, stopping to read nameplates affixed to each rung. Citizens of Freiburg were honored for their generous donations.

When I reached my final destination—the crow’s nest at the top—I flung my arms into the wind and experienced the true meaning of Freiburg: Free Town.

Panoramic views showed several trails snaking through the forest. Every path led to the tower.

Back at my guide’s apartment I presented her with a handful of pine needles as proof of my climb. She rewarded me with a chilled glass of Riesling and a plastic tub of hot water for my aching feet.

Among the many tourist-filled cities of Germany, Freiburg is an oasis, a place to wander and unwind. Climbing Schlossburg hill allowed me time to contemplate the rich history of that beautiful city.

Before I set off on my next expedition I packed plenty of bandages and two pairs of sturdy walking shoes.