TÜBINGEN, 40km south of Stuttgart, first appears in the history books in 1078, but the town didn’t really blossom until four hundred years later when Württemberg Count Eberhard established its university. Much of the charming medieval city that grew out of this initiative remains, with bright half-timbered houses on twisting cobbled lanes gathering below a fortress, but what really marks the place out is still the university, one of Germany’s best. It injects this venerable city with modern and youthful energy; one-in-four of the town’s 70,000 population is directly connected with it; a local quip runs that the town doesn’t have a university – it is one. Its celebrity scholars include Philipp Melanchthon, who taught here before moving to Wittenberg; Goethe, who published his first works here; the philosopher Hegel; astronomer Johannes Keppler; and psychiatrist Alois Alzheimer. More recently Joseph Ratzinger – now Pope Benedict XVI – taught theology here and had a famously hard-line against 1960s student radicalism. A scholarly atmosphere persists around town, but that doesn’t mean the students don’t let their hair down – the bar scene is happening and punting on the Neckar good fun – and everything’s much less touristy than in regional rival Heidelberg.
No view better captures idyllic Tübingen, muse of poets and writers, than that from the Eberhardsbrücke. It overlooks the Platanenallee, a leafy boulevard on a narrow man-made island – certainly among the most attractive uses for landfill, which formed the basis of its construction. Punts pass serenely by and a row of pink-, mustard- and cream-coloured houses that prop each other up on the opposite riverbank look on. Behind them the old town rises up to gather around two focal squares, the Holzmarkt and the Markt from which various small streets fan out, some climbing to Schloss Hohentübingen.
Tübingen’s stretch of willow-lined Neckar is too shallow for commerce – one factor in the town’s lack of industrialization – but has also formed the basis for one of the quintessential Tübingen activities: poling a Stocherkahn, or punt, up and down the river.
The big event on the river is the annual Tübingen punt race – in May or June – when student fraternities battle it out in front of thousands of spectators. At other times in summer punting down the river with a group of friends, a picnic or crate of beer, seems as popular a student activity as any. Join them by renting a rowing boat, pedalo or canoe – from €9 per hour – from Bootsvermietung Märkle, Eberhardsbrücke 1 (mid-April to Oct; 07071 315 29, bootsvermietung-tuebingen.de), by the tourist office. Or let them do the work by renting the traditional twelve-seater Stocherkahn with a guide for €48 per hour.