Text and Photos by Cheryl Levitan
hen you think of Germany, if you envision fairy tale forests, cuckoo clocks and castles perched on hills, you are imagining the country’s southwestern region of Baden. Home to the Black Forest, it’s a place for hikes through wooded hills, visits to lovely towns and relaxing at the end of the day with excellent local wine.
Heidelberg lies within this region. This romantic town of 160,000 has long lured visitors with its physical beauty. Located in a valley along the Neckar River and surrounded by forested hills, Heidelberg is filled with historic architecture ranging from Medieval to Baroque.
Perched high above it all is a monumental castle, presiding over the town like a king on his throne. That “kingdom” includes a Disney-worthy arched bridge, a renowned university founded in the 1300s and a steepled Gothic church towering over cafe-lined marketplaces.
The deep greens of the surrounding forests, combined with the red sandstone architecture and half-timbered houses, raises this destination’s special charm up another notch, making a visit here feel just a bit magical.
The way to see this city is to begin at the top — Heidelberg Castle. With as many as 20,000 castles in Germany, this is one of the best. The beauty of the ruins and the restoration, as well as the storybook vistas below, have inspired generations of writers and poets and drawn more than 11 million tourists each year.
It was begun as a fortress in the 11th century. The earliest castle was built 100 years later. Over time, this fortified medieval castle grew into an ornate palace as each successive potentate added structures of different styles, gardens and sculpted figures to the facades. From its pinnacle in the early 1600s, repeated fires from lightning and damage from the Thirty Years War took their toll. Novelist Victor Hugo wrote of the castle’s “battles and never-ending tribulations” and its suffering under siege by the Austrians and others. Finally, in 1689, the towers and walls that had survived waves of assault were blown apart by the French. Later, the Romanticism movement of the 1800s sparked a debate whether to reconstruct or simply conserve the ruins. A compromise was reached; general preservation with full restoration of the ornate Friedrich building.
Among the lovely courtyards and impressive facades, a tour unearthed a few bizarre portraits, an ingenious system of nested terraces to permit large gardens on the steep hillside, a pharmacy museum (some strange remedies … powdered Egyptian mummy, anyone?) and the world’s largest wine barrel tucked away in the basement. As to that last find, wine storage in a region that produces wine is no surprise. But these rulers must have been prodigious drinkers since the first barrel from the 1500s had a capacity of 34,000 gallons. Falling victim to the Thirty Years War, it was followed by a second vat plagued by excessive leakage. The current one was built from 130 oak trees in the 1700s as a 58,000-gallon monumental tribute to alcohol consumption. With staircases on each side leading to what appeared to be a dance floor on top, the party was definitely in the basement!
Traveling up that steep hill couldn’t have been an easy task for the sovereigns (or their wine). A funicular built in 1890 improved that situation and continues to offer magnificent views across the city en route. The hillside carries on above the castle to the Königstuhl (King’s Seat). With trails for hiking, a falconry center and children’s playground, this 1,800-foot peak is the highest point in Heidelberg with vistas over the entire valley.
A funicular ride or pleasant 20-minute walk down takes you to Altstadt (Old Town), which rests in the shadow of the castle ruins. It contains all the elements that visitors love about German old quarters: large sociable squares with cafes and bars, interesting shops, cobblestone streets and a profusion of historic landmarks.
First: Student Kiss candy is prominently displayed at a chocolate shop in Heidelberg. It allowed young men to show affection to a girl with a hidden message inside the little box unnoticed by a chaperone.
Next: Hauptstrasse is the pedestrian main street with shops and cafes in Old Town Heidelberg and ends at the bridge entrance with its old medieval gate and dual striped towers.
Last Image: The Bronze Monkey next to the Old Bridge beckons visitors to place their heads inside and see themselves reflected as a monkey, symbolizing that each of us no better or worse than another.
In Old Town’s Marktplatz, the Church of the Holy Ghost rises above all else and was one of the few old buildings to survive centuries of war unscathed. With its foundation laid in the 13th century over a former 9th-century basilica, the church was completed a century later in the same red sandstone as much of the city. It has done more than double duty over the years. Vendors and cafes have always used its curved facade for commerce, and both Catholics and Protestants have worshipped here. In the 1700s, a partition was added, splitting the nave aisle down the middle to allow these disparate services to be held simultaneously. Used as the burial site for the prince electors of the Palatinate (the title for the succession of rulers from 915 to 1803), this church was also home to Germany’s most significant national library during the Renaissance.
Old Town’s other large square, Kornmarkt, was once the region’s center of trade. With a view of the castle above, it’s a central place to take in the sights, grab a coffee, shop or linger at a cafe. Running down the center of Old Town (alongside both squares) is the city’s pedestrian-only main street, Hauptstrasse. It is one of the most frequented shopping streets in Germany; we found two items of particular interest, the first being an edible treat — the Heidelberg Student Kiss.
Consisting of praline-nougat-chocolate on a wafer coated in dark chocolate, it’s absolutely delicious (and the story behind it is just as tasty). In a city that has always had a large student population, decorum made it nearly impossible for young ladies in boarding schools and young men in universities to meet. Confectioner Fridolin Knösel devised a way to allow love to thrive while also making his shop extremely popular. In 1863, he designed single Student Kiss candies housed in small red boxes decorated with silhouettes of a boy and girl about to kiss. With room inside for a message, it allowed flirtation and communication to go unnoticed by a girl’s chaperone. Although social mores have greatly changed, this candy’s popularity has endured.
Our second find along Hauptstrasse were some of Heidelberg University’s historic buildings. Founded in 1386, this school is one of the oldest universities in Europe. Among the magnificent lecture halls was, quite unexpectedly, the student karzer (jail). Utilized from 1778 to 1914 to discipline pupils who committed violations (most commonly nighttime disturbances, insulting authorities or participating in fencing duels), students would spend a minimum of three days closed inside whenever they weren’t attending classes. Eventually, a few nights in the karzer became a rite of passage of sorts. Bored but creative, those detainees memorialized their visits with colorful art and graffiti, which still covers the walls and ceilings.
The pedestrian street ends at the gracefully arched Old Bridge, which connects the city districts on opposite shores of the river. Although its name would infer great age, in Heidelberg terms, this bridge is young.
Preceded by spans made of wood, the first bridge from 1284 fell prey to high water and ice as did the seven wooden ones that followed. The ninth one was the charm, constructed in 1788 with the same red sandstone as much of the city. The center gate was part of the city’s medieval defensive wall, and the dual striped towers once held dungeons and debtor prison cells.
Next to the bridge entrance was another strange find … a bronze monkey holding a mirror. The current sculpture dates from 1979, but records show that a monkey has graced this bridge since the 15th century. Added originally to mock rulers who thought themselves superior to the populace, legend has it that rubbing the mirror will bring prosperity, while touching the monkey’s fingers ensures a return visit to Heidelberg.
The head of this current sculpture is hollow, and visitors can often be seen having their photo taken with their head inside, transforming themselves into a monkey in the mirror (a reminder that we are no better or worse than any other being).
Across the bridge is a riverfront park, lovely villas and the sprawling Heidelberg University campus. The forested hill rises behind with a number of trails, Philosopher’s Way being the best known. With stunning views of the city and castle, it is said that authors and great thinkers have spent hours in reflection and creativity on that trail.
Declared a UNESCO City of Literature, Heidelberg certainly has cast its spell on some of the world’s greatest poets, writers and artists. I doubt that inspiration was found while climbing this trail’s steep switchbacks, however. Perspiration? Definitely!
At the top of the hill is a park that hijacked this compelling vista in order to cast a sinister spell. Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s infamous minister of propaganda, constructed this outdoor amphitheater (called a Thingstätte) to indoctrinate large audiences before World War II. After decades of disuse, it’s now a site for plays. It’s an acoustical marvel; presenters on stage can be heard perfectly, without amplification, by those sitting 650 feet away.
Although Heidelberg may have never graced the top of your travel wish-list, consider it as a future destination. Just 45 minutes south of the Frankfurt airport, it’s only a few miles from the lovely mineral spa town of Baden Baden, 70 miles from the fairytale hamlets of Alsace and, with a location close to the Rhine River, is often a port of call for riverboat cruises.