Report by Christiane Würtenberger, a happy climber
"No jokes about heights, please." Johannes is cheerful, keeping up our spirits as he leads our small hiking group to the top of the cliff. As we puff and pant our way up the final steps, Marta is surprised: "Funny. From a distance, the steps don‘t look that steep." Johannes points out: “They are called Stäffele here in the local Swabian dialect. The emphasis is on 'le' meaning ‘little steps’!” “Then I don't want to know what you call the big steps round here,” Marta quips, with a smile. Then our group falls silent; everyone is concentrating, watching their feet as we pick our way through the steep Hessigheim rock gardens.
We are hiking in the glorious countryside known as 3B-Land, a nickname that refers to the neighbouring towns of Bönnigheim, Besigheim and Bietigheim-Bissingen. Here, halfway between Stuttgart and Heilbronn, vineyards carpet the landscape along the Neckar River, Enz River and Stromberg hills. And, rising like a sheer wall above the Neckar is the rugged limestone of the Hessigheim rock gardens – a natural playground for climbers, as well as hikers. After the testing ascent, arriving at the top is a wonderful moment. Everyone feels upbeat. "No problem; after all we are fit," says Anton, confirming what we all like to claim. The effort is definitely worth it. What a view! What a great river landscape! We can see why this was voted Württemberg’s Best Vineyard View in 2016.
The next stage of the trail is much easier. Behind Johannes, we follow the path along the edge of the cliff. As we drink in the view, we look forward to a real drink, what locals call a Viertele: a glass of the local wine served in a small glass mug. This comes with a slice of Zwiebelkuchen, the delicious onion tart that is another local speciality. After a few minutes, we reach a gorge. In contrast to the cliff face that overlooks the Neckar, rock climbing is allowed here. There are about 130 different climbing routes, some up to 60 ft/18 m long. Ranging in difficulty from level 3 to level 9, there is scope for beginners and advanced climbers, as well as boulderers and mountaineers.
“Did someone say Zwiebelkuchen?” I am sure someone mentioned onion tart. En route to a hearty lunch, our hike continues through the lush, historic landscape. Johannes points out the dry stone walls, piled up by the winemakers over the centuries. “It’s a special skill,” he explains. “The stone helps retain the heat of the sun to help ripen the grapes and make really good wine.” “Did someone say wine?” I hint, moving from winemaking to wine drinking and thinking about that onion tart as well. But Johannes is in full flow. “Rare lizards find their home in the stone walls. So do countless rare plant species.” Pointing to something green on the ground, he continues. "Have a look over here. This is a Carthusian carnation.” Marta interrupts: "Does onion tart grow there, too?"
At last, we can finish the hike in style, with a good meal. We head for Besigheim, with its charming half-timbered houses and traditional inns. We stop at the first tavern door we see and order wine from the vineyards that we have been hiking through. These are among Württemberg’s oldest, so there are years of experience in every glass. Marta wonders whether we should try a second glass right away. "I’ll drink to that," says Johannes. Marta is happy: "Another Viertele, please!" With vineyards, Hessigheim’s extraordinary rock gardens and the excellent wine, we can confirm that travel really does broaden the mind, so we give a toast: “To the winemakers, our guide Johannes and the perfect end to a perfect day.”