Hollywood’s version of The Student Prince put Heidelberg on the map for Americans, although Mark Twain arrived before that. It’s a delightful place and one of Germany’s most popular destinations.
For tourists Heidelberg is a quaint and poetic town on the pretty Neckar River, but for Germans it is much more.
The floodlit castle ruins above the town are a soulful reminder of lost splendor when troops of French ‘Sun King’ Louis XIV grandly destroyed the majestic edifice in 1689.
From physical ruin to emotional embrace, Heidelberg became the center of German Romanticism between the late 1700s and mid 1800s when emotions, myths and the natural world were being praised in the face of momentous scientific discoveries.
Romanticism as an appreciation of nature mixed with melancholy endures as part of the German psyche. All of which is to say that Heidelberg has thrived as a beautiful spot, even escaping demolition during WW II, although the Jewish and intellectual communities were shredded by the Nazis.
Today students permeate the town, with a high percentage from abroad due to international exchange programs. The university, founded in 1386, is Germany’s oldest and a recognized centre of excellence. Enrolment of some 28,000 gives the town a youthful flavour with a guaranteed nightlife, including a penchant for American jazz. During the summer months students are routinely replaced by tourists.
Starbucks has replaced sword fights while cyclists now pose more danger than the occasional herd of pigs sent through town by students in times past. Bizarre student traditions ranged from binge drinking contests (some things don’t change) to student immunity from civil prosecution. The university handled that, and the old student prison is a highly visited landmark.
University Library is the main library of that institution, the most frequently used and best in the country. Pages of its most notable manuscript, the Codex Manesse, a Liederhandschrift (medieval songbook), were on display when we visited. The precious book was made in Zurich over a 36-year period at the beginning of the 14th century. The library has come a long way from the first purchase of a chest of documents in 1388.
A charming place for chocoholics is Knösel, in business since 1863 when Herr Frederick Knosel, a chocolatier, put together a confection called 'The Student Kiss' that became the traditional gift for a young man to give his beloved. Mrs. Sylvia Knosel-Zeigs is one of two nieces who still run the business; they make chocolates twice a week with no preservatives added.
There are a couple of remaining historic restaurants where students can get a good meal for 5 euros. We headed to one of them, Schnoofeloch, for a soup and salad lunch where a group of students were listening to a lecture. There’s a tradition of fraternity flags being brought along during monthly meetings.
314 steps will get you to the castle from the town; a cable car from the Kornmarkt does it faster in 2 sections. The Renaissance ruins date from the time when Heidelberg was part of the Holy Roman Empire and destined to be caught up in conflict.
Wars and lightening were not kind to the structure, but as Mark Twain wrote in his 1880 travel book A Tramp Abroad: Misfortune has done for this old tower what it has done for the human character sometimes – improved it.
From Roman Empire to Romantic Era – The German poet, writer, artist and philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe visited Heidelberg 8 times. A man who enjoyed the company of mistresses and muses, as Goethe grew older his women grew younger and were a personal source of inspiration.
A bust of Goethe in the Friedrich V’s castle garden dates from 1829, but was only placed there in 1987. A nearby “Goethe Bench” is dedicated to the encounter between Johann and Marianne Von Willemer. On it is carved a plumed Wiederhopf bird plus leaves of Ginkgo trees with an inscription of love by Goethe.
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Story and photos copyright © Gary Crallé 2012. No commercial reproduction without written consent.
Villa Marstall Hotel http://www.villamarstall.de/
German Tourist office www.germany.travel
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Gary Crallé is a seriously sociable travel photographer who appreciates wherever he is. With almost 70 countries under his travel belt it’s surprising he hasn’t put on weight. He likes to concentrate on what is good for the body and soul (history & culture, gastronomy, health & leisure) and the spirit within us (geography, self-discovery/adventure). Image-based stories are his passion.
Located: Georgetown Canada
Likes: photography, adventure, gastronomy, history, events, health & leisure