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

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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!

How I Learned to Travel

 

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Traveling is a whole brand of education unto itself and it’s one that never ceases. What we learn from our experiences becomes a type of blue-print we follow for future travels.With my upcoming trip to Lithuania and Hungary in the fall, I thought I would share some of the travel lessons I’ve learned over the years.

1.) You don’t have to learn a whole new language

It’s impractical to try and learn an entire language before you go on a trip. If in a pinch, the best thing to do is learn the basic phrases of the native language in whatever country you’re traveling to such as; hello, thank you, please, and good-bye. However, I always make a point to know how to order beer and coffee in the local language. This is helpful as bars and cafes can be loud and busy, so this saves everyone a lot of translation trouble.

Lastly, always be able to ask someone if they speak English. More on that in the next rule.

2.) The first words you speak to a local should be in their native language

Never assume that someone speaks English if you’re in a non-English speaking country. While it’s true that many people all over the world (especially in Europe) do speak English,  it’s impolite to jump to that conclusion. Imagine if someone in your home country walked up to you and started speaking a foreign language. It’s off putting and out of place. Show a little effort and greet them in the native tongue then ask (again in their native language) if they speak English.

3.) Make friends with the bar tender 

Bar tenders are always a guaranteed source of knowledge. If you’re interested in finding out where the best local hangouts are or what tourist traps to avoid, a bar tender can usually clue you in. Additionally, if you treat your bar tender well, they to treat you well. When I was in Dublin with some friends we went to a Temple District bar where we chatted with the bar tenders the whole time. They let us stay past last call and we didn’t get charged for probably half of what we drank.

4.) Go off the beaten path

When I visit a country, I like to feel like I’m actually in another country and not on a perpetual tour with other visitors. Whenever I travel, I usually get up early one morning (around 7 or so), get a cup of coffee, grab a map and walk all around the city/town i’m staying in. It’s a neat way to see the city wake up and the best time to go into a cafe or shop because it’s early and everyone is a lot more relaxed.

5.) Don’t mistake directness for rudeness

The Americans and Brits really love to make niceties in every conversation with lots of how are you’s, pleases and thank you’s. It’s part of our culture and how we speak, but just because another culture does not make all these niceties doesn’t mean their being rude. Some cultures and people — as I like to describe it —  don’t waste a lot of words. So if you sit down in a restaurant to order lunch and the waitress simply asks you what you would like without warmly saying hello and asking how you are — don’t take it personally.

6.) Don’t wear a backpack 

It’s fine to wear a backpack when you’re actually en route from the airport to your hotel/hostel. But, if you’re just out and around the town — leave the backpack! Backpacks are easy for someone to pick pocket you, especially in crowded areas and when you’re waiting in line somewhere. Additionally, backpacks are harder to control when walking through an indoor shop. On a trip to London years ago, my friend was wearing a big backpack and we walked into a crowded pub. Unfortunately, when she turned her backpack knocked a guys beer clean out of his hand. My recommendation, if you  need a bag then get a small-medium sized messenger bag that closes securely.

Got any worthwhile travel tips? Let me know!