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Heidelberg: See the city the Segway way

Before a two-hour Segway tour of Heidelberg, we practice starting, turning and the all-important stopping.

I’d seen the tour groups, in their windbreakers and dorky bike helmets, down on the university plaza. I’d seen them zipping up the hill to the castle.

I was attracted. I was repelled.

Who rides a Segway? I could only think of Gob Bluth, arguably the most idiotic character on the TV series “Arrested Development.”

And yet not even 365 days remain before U.S. Army Europe command packs up and leaves its picturesque Heidelberg home, with its castle on the hill and riverboats on the Neckar, a city un-bombed by the Allies and now a prime destination for tourists from Tokyo.

Time was running out.

I’d been up to the castle many times and down on the Haupstrasse almost daily it seemed. But there was a spot I knew I had missed. For years, I had been far too lazy to hike up to the Philosophers’ Way on the north side of the river — a lovely spot boasting the best views of the old town and the castle.

So when I learned that the Philosophers’ Way was included in the two-hour Segway tour of the city, I was in. I looked forward, in fact, to adding the Segway to my repertoire of vacation riding experiences, along with a jet-ski, helicopter, camel and dolphin.

A Segway, however, is much slower than any of those, except, possibly, the camel. It reaches speeds of 12 mph, powered by a motor and a person standing on it. The movements of going forward, backward and turning are accomplished with weight shifts, kind of like skiing. “Gyroscopic sensors and fluid-based leveling sensors are used to detect the shift of weight,” according to Wikipedia.

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No one in my group — six insurance salesmen from Stuttgart and me — had ever been on one. The German men had come for the day on holiday; they’d booked the tour long before and were sporting enough to let me zip along with them and our two tour guides, Franzi and Sophie.

We met in the parking lot of the NH Hotel, signed papers saying we were liable for as much as 250 euros if we crashed and damaged the Segways, showed our drivers’ licenses (required in order to drive the contraption) and paid. Although the company website — city-seg.de — says the tour costs 59 euros, the guides asked for only 50 euros. Bargain!

After that, we got a lesson in controlling our Segways. For about 30 minutes, we practiced going forward and backward, weaving in and out, and the all-important stopping. It felt awkward at first. But after we took off in a single line like large, helmeted ducks, we began to get the hang of it.

The most important thing, our guides said, was not to get too close to each other. “You have to mind the distance and then everything is OK,” Franzi said.

Off we went, over the river and to the park. We rode on bike paths and sidewalks, for the most part, and sometimes on the street. Cobblestones made for a bumpy ride.

I assumed we looked ridiculous. People smiled and stared. A few waved.

We’d stop every now and then so our guides could give a brief talk about a site. When asked, they recommended bars and restaurants the men might visit later. At one point, there was a lengthy discussion about beer.

We had only one mishap, when one of the men crashed into a tree. No harm done to him or the Segway.

We went to the University platz, the Old Bridge, the castle, the Holy Ghost Church. It was fun not having to walk.

Did we learn a lot? Not really. The tours are not designed to provide the sort of historical information that walking tours might. Instead, they provide an orientation to the city and a brief overview of the sites, perhaps for a future visit.

“The important thing is you have fun while driving,” Franzi said.

And best of all, up we went, up the steep hill and up onto the Philosophers’ Way. The sun was shining. There were flowers. An older German couple picnicked on a bench, their two dachshunds frolicking nearby. There might have been a butterfly.

We stopped and looked out across the river to the old town, all orange roofs, and the castle ruins, beautiful and tragic, up on the wooded hill.

montgomeryn@estripes.osd.mil

On the QT ...

Directions: The City-Seg tour begins behind the NH Hotel in Heidelberg, Bergheimer Straße 91, 69115 Heidelberg.

Costs: Website says the Segway tour costs 59 euros. Parking is available in the hotel garage for 5 euros.

Food: There’s no stop to eat during the two-hour tour. A soft drink is provided.

Information: Phone: 06222 9398382; website: city-seg.de.

— Nancy Montgomery

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