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.

stainedglass

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

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Winter on the French Riviera — it’s Nice in December

I traveled to the French Rivera in December of 2007. It was my first trip to France. I had ended up there because I wasn’t sure where to go after visiting Dublin (see previous post) and Ryan Air was offering a 10 pound deal to Nice. Upon arriving, my friends and I were shocked at the bright blue sky and sunshine after coming from a very grey and damp winter in Ireland and the U.K. The entire Riviera is packed during the summer with tourists but we were there in the off season and as far as we knew, were the only visitors there. I don’t have too many travel suggestions for Nice because some destinations are filled more with stories than they are sight seeing expeditions. Nice was a great place to relax (even in December). We spent our time walking around the city and poking our heads into shops. We went to the local farmers market and bought fresh olives, grapes and baguettes from friendly locals who spoke no English, and had a picnic on the beach with a bottle of wine. After a nights long search for a specific type of alcohol, that at the time you could not buy in the U.S., we stumbled upon a local underground rock concert and hung out with the band. Takeaways: Take a chance on a place during the off season and sometimes not having plans is the best travel plan!

2012: A year of travel in review

While it is still the beginning of 2013, I wanted to take the chance to look back on all the amazing trips I have had over the last year. Some of them have not yet been featured on this blog but hopefully I will begin to catch up with the details of those journeys. In the meantime here is to a fantastic year and I’m looking forward to an even better one!

Edinburgh, Scotland

Edinburgh is one of the best cities I have ever visited. It is one of those places that just feels like home. My favorite thing to do in this ancient Scottish city is to get up early in the morning on a sunny day, pick up a cup of coffee and walk through the streets of Edinburgh until I end up on top of Calton Hill. It’s the best way to see the city wake up.

Madrid, Spain

Quite opposite from Scotland, it’s ideal to wake up late in Spain along with the locals.The earliest you should be eating breakfast is at 11 a.m. and it should be churros con chocolate with a strong iced coffee. Once you make it through the sprawling urban city of Madrid it will be 3 p.m. before you know it and time for lunch with a nice glass of tinto de verano.

Salamanca, Spain

After a few days in the massive city of Madrid, it’s good to take a vacation from your vacation and head to Salamanca for a weekend. The historic city is alluring with it’s two massive cathedrals and the most beautiful main square in all of Spain. In addition you can see the oldest university in Spain — the University of Salamanca.

Venice, Italy

Venice looks every bit like the postcards and posters you have seen of it. It’s a city that exudes history, magnificence and a massive tourism industry. Get caught up in the sinking cities infamous piazza’s, glass shops and canals. There is no other city in the world like it.

Prague, Czech Republic

The fairy tale like city of Prague has it’s own unique culture that includes a history of communism, a preserved Jewish quarter untouched by WWII and a steady German/French influence that has shaped it’s architecture. Walk over the river Vltava on the beautiful Charles bridge towards Prague Castle. Then hike up your way up to Strahov Monastery where you can drink amazing Czech beer that has been brewed by the monks there for centuries.

Salamanca — The Spanish Oxford

Continuing on with my Spanish travels…

After three relaxing days in Madrid, I headed north to a small university town called Salamanca. The town had been recommended as a good place to go for a weekend visit but other than it being a university town — I knew very little about the area. After nearly three hours on the train ride through the arid Spanish landscape — I arrived at the small Spanish town and was immediately taken aback. While there is a more modern area of Salamanca; it all surrounds the historic part of town which features two sprawling medieval cathedrals, ancient walls and many old orange and white buildings. I later found that this is one reason why Salamanca is considered one of the great Renaissance cities in Europe.

I also learned that the university in Salamanca was no mere institution. The Universidad de Salamanca has been in existence since the 1200s and is often compared to Oxford. Much like it’s English rival, the Universidad de Salamanca is spread throughout the historic section of the city. In fact whatever ancient buildings there are — a part from the two cathedrals — usually are apart of the university itself.

Obviously the primary focus on my trip was to see both of the cathedrals in Salamanca. I’ve been to my share of cathedrals at this point after going through a lot of Western Europe including Notre Dame, and St. Peter’s in Rome. These were obviously not nearly as grand, however they were much more accessible. The two cathedrals are the New Cathedral, which was built in the 16th century, and the Old Cathedral, built in the 12th century. Both cathedrals (they are so close they only have a square separating them) are both fantastic vantage points to see the whole city from.

At the center of historic Salamanca is their own famous Plaza Mayor, the main square. This square dates back to the early 1700s and is surrounded by archways that feature medallions of important people in Spain’s history — mostly royalty. However, there is a controversial portrait among them — that of Francisco Franco. As the Plaza is so inspiring (it’s perhaps the most famous square in all of Spain) it was a major contrast to go to a gypsy punk concert (think Gogol Bordello) on my last night. The concert was one of many that were taking place during a cultural festival that weekend. As discussed in my last blog post…the Spanish do not go to bed until the wee hours of the morning. So it was amazing seeing senior citizens as well as university students in this vibrant crowd dancing to the music. Especially when the band got the crowd involved by having them chant “F*** you MTV” as part of one of their songs. Let’s just say I now have two very different but great memories of the Plaza Mayor.

The town of Salamanca is not huge, and is easily seen in two days. So, there are two things I did to get outside of the area…the first is paddle boating. There is a river that runs alongside the old area called Rio Tormes and it has an ancient Roman bridge going over it. Alongside the river you can rent a paddle boat from a relaxed Spanish guy who looks like he is someone who longed to live the life of a beach bum. He and his dalmatian, that was very uninterested in strangers, were happy to rent me a paddle boat for 10 euros. Definitely worth going up and down the river looking at the city, especially when it’s hot! The second thing I did was go to the local Salamanca market. I was really excited about this in particular because I figured it would be like most of the European markets I have been to where there is fresh produce and maybe a few knick-knacks to pick up. Boy…was I wrong. A fifteen minute drive outside the city and there it was. A really bad flea market. If I was after really cheap sunglasses and underwear made in China (that’s how they were being advertised) then I would have been in the right place. Unfortunately, that wasn’t what I was after. So for anyone going to Salamanca, I don’t recommend the market outside the city.

Overall, Salamanca was a fantastic weekend getaway and I highly recommend it to anyone who is looking for somewhere to go for a couple of days in Spain.