Heidelberg: The Castle and the Old Bridge (Part 2)

The second installment in my Heidelberg series. To read the first installment, please click here.

Once you have taken in the magnificent Old Town of Heidelberg, it’s time to see Heidelberg Schloss!

There are several ways to get up to the castle from the Altstadt, including taking a funicular. But, if you’re feeling a bit adventurous then hiking up the hill from the town is also an option. There are beautiful huge old German houses and manors that line the hillside up towards the castle.

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My Dad still talks about how he would play at Heidelberg Castle in the 1950s and 60s as if it was his own personal playground. Unfortunately, these days if you want to frolic around the castle grounds — you have to pay for the privilege. They charge for entry.

The main courtyard of Heidelberg Castle is an impressive sight. Faded orange and pink stone buildings of various size and structure surround the center threshold. The main hall is large and looming with life size statues lining the outside of every floor. Elisabeth Gate stands nearby with it’s beautiful carvings and small cherubs that adorn the top of it. As charming as the castle is, the view below is still the most spectacular sight. The Neckar River, the green valley and of course the Old Town below create an incredible view.

The castle’s earliest structure was built some time in the early 1200s and was expanded and rebuilt several times over in the following centuries. Victor Hugo once remarked in a letter,  “Five hundred years long it [Heidelberg Castle[ has been victim to everything that has shaken Europe, and now it has collapsed under its weight.” It’s true, Heidelberg Schloss was in the thick of several wars, damaged by fire and even struck by a bolt of lightning! The only reprise it seems to have received is it escaped damage from both world wars.

Upon touring Heidelberg Castle you will see two artifacts that represent the regions most famous legend. The first is the Heidelberg Tun or the “World’s Largest Wine Barrel.” This barrel can store 58, 124 gallons (220,000 litres) of wine! It was used to provide wine year round to the inhabitants of the castle. Not far from the tun is a life size statue of a man afflicted with dwarfism. This is Perkeo, the famous court jester at Heidelberg Schloss during the 18th century. Legend goes that Perkeo was a lover of wine and could drink anyone under the table. Due to his slight size this both amazed and amused the court. Supposedly Perkeo consumed between 5-8 gallons of wine a day! This led to Prince-Elector Charles III Philip to putting Perkeo in charge of the Heidelberg Tun. Legend has it that Perkeo lived into his eighties but one day fell ill. The doctor prescribed he drink water (after years and years of drinking only wine). After consuming a cup of water, Perkeo died the next day.

After finishing a tour of Heidelberg Castle, make your way back down toward the Altstadt to the grand Old Bridge that crosses the Neckar River.

The Old Bridge or Alte Brücke was built in the 1700s and was the first stone bridge built over the Neckar. This was intentional as all of the previous bridges had been made of wood and easily destroyed by wars and floods. The bridge links to the gate of Heidelberg which stands grandly as two white towers and a grand entryway. This gate stands on the Old Town side and serves as an entry into the Altstadt.

As mentioned in my previous post, the Old Bridge was one of the few parts of Heidelberg to suffer damage during WWII. As the Nazi’s were fleeing the city from the approaching Allied forces they destroyed all of the bridges on the Neckar River (including the Old Bridge). Three of the Old Bridge’s nine arches were destroyed. Donations were quickly raised among the townspeople after the damage occurred and by 1946 construction to rebuild the bridges had commenced.

Heidelberg is a unique city for me because it holds a lot of memories for me and my family. It is a city that I know I will continue to return to. My sentimentality aside, Heidelberg is a city I would recommend to any visitor looking to stop in Germany. At the very least, it’s well worth a day trip. In many ways, Heidelberg delivers what Germany is known for — beer, castles and a fairy tale landscape.

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Heidelberg: Old World Charm (Part 1)

heidelbergWhen I first arrived in Heidelberg, Germany I recalled it looking like something out of an old fairy tale —  a riverside city surrounded by lush vineyards and the Black Forest with a castle on a hill overlooking the city below. Heidelberg has always had a reputation of being a place of culture and history rather than a major industrial hub. This coupled with the fact that it was spared bombing during WWII has made it an ideal destination for tourists and historians looking to experience both the natural beauty of the area and its preserved history. Initially, I traveled to the quaint German city for practical and sentimental reasons; I had family friends with whom I could stay and my father grew up on the U.S. Army base in Heidelberg.  But, since my first trip there — Heidelberg has given me many reasons to go back.

The Old Town

The Alstadt or Old Town sits directly below Heidelberg Castle and runs along the Neckar river. This part of town is breathtaking with its beautiful orange and red roofed buildings that are centuries old. The district is filled with hotels, shops, restaurants, market squares and scattered department buildings belonging to the world famous University of Heidelberg.

The main street or hauptstraße of the Old Town is a haven for pedestrians looking to roam around shops and pubs. The shops are mainly department stores and large chains but if there is one store worth poking your head inside, it’s Kathe Wohlfahrt. If you are curious how Germany wins Christmas every year, you just need to step inside this place to understand. This German chain, that serves as a year-long winter wonderland, specializes in handmade traditional German Christmas ornaments and is a great place to pick up a few souvenirs for friends back home.

The hauptstraße can be very crowded but the smaller cobbled streets leading off the main road have less people and seem to exemplify more local color. These small streets are where you will find numerous locally owned businesses and get a taste for the real Heidelberg. One of these cobbled side streets is called Steingasse and if you walk down it you will find a brewery called Vetters Brauhaus. Vetters (pronounced “Fetters”) is worth stopping in for one simple reason — they brew the best beer I have ever tasted. The beer I am referring to is their dunkelweizen or “dark wheat” beer . Order it in a steiner and enjoy over a skillet full of fried onions and sausages with a side of homemade sauerkraut and freshly baked pretzels. During both my visits to Heidelberg it has always been the best meal on either trip.

Heiliggeistkirche

In the old town there is one structure that towers high amongst all the baroque style buildings — Heiliggeistkirche (Church of the Holy Spirit).This ancient church has existed in Heidelberg since at least the 1200s and stands as a major landmark in the middle of the Old Town. Throughout the main floor of the church are a series of stained glass windows; some that are centuries old and others only a few decades. These newer stained glass windows replaced ones that had been destroyed when the Germans bombed the Old bridge of Heidelberg, nearby, as they fled the Allied Forces.

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When I visited the church, I remember one of the newer windows stood out. I didn’t understand the image, which was of a large red cracked sphere, until I read the words on the glass –“E=MC2.” It struck me as both odd and ironic that Einstein’s famous equation was displayed on a stained glass window…in a church. Then I saw the date also displayed in the glass and no more explanation was needed — August 6, 1945. The day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

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Once you leave the ground floor of the church and begin the ascent into the tower do you truly see how old the structure is. As you climb upwards, the walls become incredibly close and the passage very narrow. It’s not a journey for those who are claustrophobic or even those with wide shoulders. There is even a rope to help support you along the last path as it’s very steep. But, upon getting outside and onto the platform at the top — the view is absolutely worth the trouble.

Next post in my Heidelberg series — Heidelberg: The Castle and the Old Bridge