Follow me, I want to show you one of the most beautiful German towns. I think you can trust me as a guide, I lived, loved and studied in Heidelberg for six years.
You’re not convinced, you think I’m prejudiced and all this talk about Heidelberg being romantic and picturesque is just ‘ad speak’ to lure the tourists and you’d like to hear a different opinion before you embark on your journey? No problem, just listen to this:
"Truly, Heidelberg is a place of all exceeding loveliness. Here the romantic ruggedness of the German landscape unites in perfect harmony with the delicate beauty of Italy."
Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881)
"I have never enjoyed a view which had such a serene and satisfying charm about it as this one gives."
Mark Twain, Heidelberg, 1878
Do you believe me now?
I don’t want to bore you with too much history and start with the ‘Heidelberg Man’ who lived in the area about 600 000 years ago and whose remains were found in the nearby town of Mauer; let’s skip some millenia and pop into the 14th century when the world famous castle was built.
As we have to do a lot of walking to do later in the day, we'll take the funicular up to the castle. It's only a ride of two minutes and quite disappointing because you are in a tunnel all the time. Our sightseeing tour starts at a stone gate which stands forlornly on a piece of grass, not attached to a building. It’s just a gate ‘per se’, a gate in its own right, so to speak. When I studied in Heidelberg I had a room in a house in the street running above the castle and in summer when I slept with the windows open I didn’t need an alarm clock, because at 8 o’clock sharp I would wake up to polyglot cries of "Ah’s" and "Oh’s" - the guides always start their tours there and explain that the gate was bui
lt in one night as a birthday present for a princess.
We then look to the left and see a big round tower which extracts cries of excitement only of British visitors who know about their cultural heritage. In 1613 King Frederic V married Elizabeth Stuart, the eldest daughter of King James VI and on the occasion of the wedding Shakespeare’s "The Tempest" was performed here. A wonderful setting indeed!
The castle is in ruins, but it was not destroyed during the Second World War as so many tourists assume. Mostly this presumption is correct when you see ruins in Germany, but not here. The castle was first destroyed in the 30 Years’ War and then, after its reconstruction, again in the second half of the 17th century by the French in the course of a war of succession between the kings of the Palatine and the French. For some time it was misused as a quarry to build new houses in the town. Some buildings which weren’t destroyed too much were renovated and now you can find all kinds of festivities there: dinner banquets, balls, concerts, theatre performances. You can even rent the courtyard for a festivity, fireworks included, think about it!
Now let’s enter the castle proper and admire the ‘most beautiful Renaissance buildings north of Italy’! You can make a guided tour through the interior, you can have a look at the biggest wine barrel of the world (221 726 litres), but you MUST have a look from the terrace. Go find the devil's footprint which he made when he had to jump out of a maiden's room in order not to be discovered! You look down at the river Neckar, see the Old Bridge, the narrow streets, the houses nestling round the Holy Ghost Church, see the buildings of the Old and the New University. After this you may stroll through the gardens to the Great Terrace and look at the castle from a distance and beneath it the town.
Now I’d like to take you to the centre, to th
e Old University, to be precise. We continentals find the way your universities are organised very difficult to understand and think that our way is quite simple. There is just one university in Heidelberg (as in all other German towns), this university has different faculties and that’s it. No colleges over here.
The university of Heidelberg is the oldest in Germany. For centuries what is now the ‘Old’ University was THE university, today the sciences are in the suburbs and only the philosophical and philological faculties are in the centre. But we don’t want to see where the students study, we want to visit the ‘Student’s Prison’! (At the back of the building, Augustinergasse 2) From 1778 to 1914 the administration of the university had the legal right to detain students from 3 days up to 5 weeks! The reasons for detention were minor transgressions which the students - mostly members of the fraternities - considered matters of honour, of course: excessive drinking, loud singing at night, urinating at public buildings, insulting official authorities etc. etc. They were allowed to attend lectures during their detention, they got food from restaurants in case their parents had enough money, it was really a good life. And while they were inside they painted funny and silly graffiti on the walls, that’s what tourists go to see.
Are there still fraternities today? Yes, very much so, they thrive and flourish, with duels and everything, meaning scarves in the face the owner of which is proud of. Not my beer, as we say in German, they give me the creeps. In English someone is 'not my cup of tea', in German something is 'not my beer'. So, looking at the language we can learn something about a people's character, too!
Now it’s high time we ate something. There are so many good restaurants in the main street, the longest pedestrian precinct in Germany by the way, that you'll certainly find something. If it’s the season you might like to order an asparagus dish, the area is well known in Germany for this vegetable.
You haven’t really walked so far, just strolled along, let’s do that now. We’ll take the ferry boat across the river Neckar and climb up the ‘Schlangenweg’ (serpent’s path). So many steps! But it’s a good exercise after your meal and you’ll be very proud of yourself after arriving at the ‘Philosophenweg’ (philosophers’ walk). We are now on the hillside opposite the castle and can admire the full view of the whole town and the castle towering above it. Innumerable artists were there - Turner painted the castle, too! - and now you! It is beautiful, believe me. The gardens on either side of the Philosophenweg are full of flowers, subtropical plants even, the climate being one of the mildest in Germany. In early spring the almonds blossom, just like in Italy! We sit on a bench and just enjoy and start planning our evening.
I don’t know your preferences, I (written with a capital letter and underlined) find it extremely absurd, weird even, to go to a foreign country and then look for pubs where I can find my countrymen. But, as a guide, I have to please my clients, of course! If you want to hear and speak English and sing along with your American cousins, go to the ‘Seppl’ and ‘Roter Ochsen’ (Red Ox), both on the Main Street, one beside the other, more or less beneath the castle. If you want to meet real Heidelbergers, students, go to the Untere Strasse (behind the Holy Ghost Church) or walk through the narrow alleys and just look around. The beer will be good, wherever you’re going to sit down! In autumn you can find new wine (tastes like cider, can be very strong, so be careful!) and onion cake. Give both a try!
I think that’s enough for a day. Maybe you feel like joining the terribl
y schmaltzy ‘Student’s Prince’ and sing with him (and me, of course!): "Ich hab' mein Herz in Heidelberg verloren" - I lost my heart in Heidelberg.