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Visiting Rizal’s Heidelberg and Wilhelmsfeld

1:04 pm PHT

It’s common knowledge among educated Filipinos that José Rizal, the Philippines’ national hero, studied ophthalmology and wrote his famous subversive novels Noli Me Tángere and El Filibusterismo in Europe. Rizal stayed in various cities, such as Madrid, Paris, and Berlin, but out of all these places, what really sticks in my mind are Heidelberg, Germany and the nearby town of Wilhelmsfeld. You might say that this is probably due to his poem To the Flowers of Heidelberg, but the more accurate reason is that in researching for places to feature on Vista Pinas, my virtual travel blog, I became quite familiar with the various Rizal-related places in Heidelberg and Wilhelmsfeld, thanks to the extensive information posted online by travelers and by the Wilhelmsfeld-Heidelberg chapter of Knights of Rizal. Two such places that I’ve already featured are José-Rizal-Straße and Rizal Park, both in Wilhelmsfeld.

In writing about those places for Vista Pinas, I resigned myself to the reality that I most probably would not be able to visit them because opportunities for international travel is limited, I already have a bucket list of places that I really want to visit, and Heidelberg is quite out of the way from the places on that list. So imagine my ears really perking up when my German colleague told me in Frankfurt (when I was there for my company’s staff meetings) that Heidelberg was only an hour away by train when I asked him for recommendations of places to see in and around Frankfurt. Of course, I could not let the opportunity to see the places where José Rizal stayed pass me by.

Fortunately, I previously allotted myself a full free day during my trip for sightseeing and so reserved that for a day visit to Heidelberg and Wilhelmsfeld. I did extensive research looking up train and bus timetables and plotting Rizal sites on my map. I also read up on non-Rizal sites in Heidelberg since the city is a popular tourist destination in itself (which I’ll talk about in separate post). So after having lunch on August 19, I found myself on a regional train that left Frankfurt and was zipping through the German countryside towards the Neckar River, where Heidelberg stands.

 View of Heidelberg Castle from the city’s Old Bridge

Wilhelmsfeld

After arriving at Heidelberg’s central train station, I immediately walked to the main bus station (passing by one of the marked Rizal’s sites along Bergheimer Straße) and hopped on a bus going to the mountain town of Wilhelmsfeld. The ride took around 30 minutes and that amazed me because while Rizal studied ophthalmology at the University of Heidelberg, he stayed at the house of Pastor Karl Ullmer in Wilhelmsfeld. There were no buses at that time and so Rizal took a few hours each school day to walk the distance to and from Heidelberg. No doubt Rizal found the near-daily walk through the woods conducive to reflecting on the Philippines and his novel Noli Me Tángere, which he finished during his stay in Wilhelmsfeld.

I arrived in Wilhelmsfeld and alighted in front of the town hall. I was immediately surprised to see a flag of the Philippines flying proudly beside the flag of Wilhelmsfeld. And there was a signpost pointing in the direction of Calamba, Rizal’s birthplace, with the distance posted as 10,361 kilometers. I only realized then that Wilhelmsfeld is a sister city of Calamba.

I then walked to Rizal Park along Karl-Ullmer-Weg, a footpath named in honor of Pastor Ullmer, Rizal’s gracious host in Wilhelmsfeld. When I arrived at the park, I almost didn’t recognize it because it looked totally different from the photos I’ve seen online (like this one). The park apparently was renovated sometime in the last couple or so years and gone were the trees that provided shade, although there were new tree saplings planted around the area. It would be interesting to see how the park would look in the future when the trees have fully grown. But the larger-than-life statue of a pensive-looking Rizal is still there on the original hexagonal fountain area as are the busts (though moved from their original spots) of Ullmer, Becker, Virchow, and Blumentritt, friends and mentors of Rizal.

After visiting the park, I trudged north and arrived at José-Rizal-Straße, specifically at the house of Pastor Karl Ullmer, where Rizal stayed. The house can’t be missed because on the fence there’s a street sign naming Rizal’s street and a National Historical Commission of the Philippines marker below it. The black granite marker (which replaced the original steel plaque) declares that the house was where Rizal finished his novel. A fountain that used to sit in the residence’s garden was later donated to the Philippines and it can now be found at Rizal Park in Manila.

Heidelberg

I left Wilhelmsfeld and took another bus back to Heidelberg. There I did some sightseeing around the city and also visited the other marked Rizal site, and this is the apartment at the former address of Ludwigsplatz 12 where Rizal resided before staying with Pastor Ullmer. Of course the actual apartment no longer exists and the historical marker just marks the site.

As I mentioned before, I also passed by the marked site at Bergheimer Straße 20 before going to Wilhelmsfeld. This site was where the University Eye Clinic used to be and where Rizal studied ophthalmology under the mentorship of Professor Otto Becker. He used his knowledge to cure his mother’s eye disease when he went back to the Philippines.

There is another Rizal-dedicated site in Heidelberg and this is Rizal-Ufer, a long riverside footpath located in western Heidelberg. I planned to visit it and take a photo of the plaque commemorating Rizal but unfortunately, it was too far away and I no longer had enough time to go there before sunset after all of the sightseeing I did around Heidelberg’s Altstadt (Old Town) district.

Despite that minor snag, I consider my trip to Heidelberg and Wilhelmsfeld to be a success. I finally saw for myself the places where Rizal stayed and which I had only previously written about. Immersing myself in Philippine history combined with seeing old German architecture and culture was definitely one of the my biggest highlights of 2016 (next to my career change, of course  :)).

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