Population 132,000. In Land of Baden-Württemberg.
This is one of the major touristic centres of Germany. It lies on the river Neckar, a tributary of the Rhine. The hills on either side of the river reach 1,600 feet. Heidelberg's touristic fame rests largely on the magnificent ruins of the castle and its romantic setting, red sandstone against the green hills, 600 feet above the town. The English artist J. M. W. Turner came here to paint the scene. The Altstadt townscape is also wonderfully picturesque, its roofs tightly packed in between the river Neckar and the Königstühl hill. Its attraction was celebrated by Goethe in his writings. Mark Twain also fell in love with the place. He began writing "A Tramp Abroad" while on holiday here. Old Heidelberg today looks almost exactly as it did in his day. Unlike most other German cities of similar or greater size it suffered no damage in WW II.
The city's other great claim to fame is its university, founded in 1386, the oldest in Germany. (In fact, in "Greater Germany" there were two older foundations, in Vienna and in Prague, which both lie now of course outside German territory.) Heidelberg is still a very important university town of 27,000 students with a major reputation in the natural sciences. In the early C19, the university was the heart of the German Romantic Movement. The Hungarian-American composer Sigmund Romberg set The Student Prince here. The world-famous university library has 1,000,000 books and manuscripts. (See below for some of Heidelberg's most famous alumni.)
A Little History Only in its recent history has Heidelberg belonged to the land of Baden-Württemberg. From 1228 to 1721, it was the political centre of the Rhineland Palatinate or Rheinland-Pfalz. Its rulers were known as Kurfürsten or Palatine-Electors. The ruling dynasty was the great Wittelsbach family, another branch of which ruled the Kingdom of Bavaria. As the capital of a rich and influential independent state, Heidelberg enjoyed 400 years of wealth and power, most clearly manifested in the embellishment and aggrandisement of the castle. In the Thirty Years' War (1618-48), the electors sided with the Protestants. It is still largely a Protestant town. The downfall began in the late C17 with the expansionist plans of the French King Louis XIV. He took advantage of a gap in the Wittelsbach line of succession, justifying his territorial claims by reference to his Palatine sister-in-law Liselotte, to attack Heidelberg and the Rheinland-Pfalz. In two campaigns, 1689 and 1693, he destroyed the city and brought the state to its knees. (His command "Brulez le Palatinat" signalled the first example in modern warfare of the scorched earth policy.) The Rheinland-Pfalz survived but Heidelberg never really recovered. In 1721, the Wittelsbachs transferred their capital to Mannheim. About 40 years later, the castle received another blow when it was struck by lightning. After that fire, the Kurfürsten abandoned the city completely. Heidelberg was incorporated into the Land of Baden in 1803.
On March 30, 1945, Heidelberg was captured by the U.S. 7th Army undamaged. Just a couple of miles to the south on the A5 lies Patrick Henry Village with 20,000 soldiers, the post-war HQ (along with Koblenz) of the U.S. occupying forces.
Some famous Heidelbergers, students and residents:
Homo Heidelbergensis precursor of Neanderthal man, found in 1907 in a sand pit in Mauer, 5 miles to the south.
Robert Schumann composer, student of music 1828-30 (though he told his parents he was doing law).
Robert Bunsen he of the eponymous burner, professor of chemistry from 1852-99.
Max Weber founder of the science of sociology, student and professor.
Friedrich Hegel professor of philosophy 1816-18.
Friedrich Ebert socialist head of German provisional government after abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II (1918-23).
Boris Becker superstar, from town of Leimen 2 miles south.
The focus of Heidelberg sightseeing is the castle. You need at least an hour. From the lower town the castle is approached in several ways. If you are coming by bus you go by an exciting little road, the Neue Schlossstrasse, that takes a couple of hairpin bends up the hill. There are lovely views en route on to the roofs of the old town and thre river Neckar. Otherwise you can take the short but steep Bergbahn Funicular from the Kornmarkt in the old town up to Station Schloss, 640 feet up. This also brings you out by the bus parking. (You can also walk up the Burgweg from near the Kornmarkt but it's a good solid 20 minutes' uphill and you need a fit group.)
Schloss Heidelberg This is the highlight of the city and one of the great sights of Germany. In its heyday it was probably the largest castle in Germany. It dates originally from the C13. It was altered and enlarged by almost every generation of Palatine-Electors. The main building period was the late C16 and early C17. It was damaged in the Thirty Years' War between 1618-48 and then, after the subsequent restoration, was totally devastated by Louis XIV in the campaigns of 1689 and 93. There were some subsequent additions and attempts at repair — the castle continued to be used on and off for the next three or four generatons — but it was never fully restored. The haunting structure that you see now is the most vivid testimony to 800 years of history: chivalry, wealth and strength and power, war and destruction, natural disaster, abandon and decay. Schloss Heidelberg epitomises the romantic sensibility.
Rondell, this former site of a cannon battery offers the best viewpoint over the town. You can clearly see the old town stretching out along the Hauptstrasse dominated by the Heilig-Geist-Kirche (nearest to the river) and the Jesuitenkirche. The Karl-Theodor-Brucke and its towers are also clearly visible leading to the right bank of the Neckar and up to the famous path called the Philosophenweg, so called because its beauty is apparently such as to inspire only the most profound thoughts. In the distance beyond the old town the new city extends out over the Rhineland plain.
Dicker Turm or "Fat Tower." This is now a ruin, unrepaired since it was smashed in the assault on the castle in 1693. Its walls were 23 feet thick.
The path follows round the wide and deep moat, no longer filled. On the other side of the moat were the castle dungeons, given the attractive name of Seltenleer or "Seldom Empty."
Torturm with its massive doors, portcullis and opening in the tower from which boiling oil could be poured on any potential attacker. You emerge on to the splendid courtyard. (Incidentally, there is always a group photographer hanging around the courtyard. You should ask the group in advance if they want his services. It's fairly pricey but he does a good job and there's something in it for you.)
As you enter the courtyard the building on the right resting on slim columns is the C13 Brunnenhalle, the oldest part of the castle's living quarters. Opposite it on the left is the C14 Ruprechtsbau whose plain facade is interrupted by a pretty relief sculpture of two cherubs. According to the story these are the children of the master mason. They died in an accident while their father was working on the building and he carved this charming little sculpture as a permanent monument to their memory.
As you go forward the next building on the left is the Bibliotheksbau, set back so as to receive all the light possible for reading. The style, wealth and sophistication of renaissance Heidelberg is typified by the next two buildings.
The highly decorated Friedrichsbau (c.1600) lies straight ahead. The rows of figures on the facade represent the ancestors, real and imaginary, of Kurfürst Friedrich IV, from Roman Emperors to Wittelsbach princes. (NB the classical orders of the columns, Doric, Ionic and Corinthian.)
The grand facade on the right belongs to the Ottoheinrichsbau (1566). His coat-of-arms is displayed above the entrance. Among the statues are representations of various Cardinal Virtues and biblical and mythological figures like Samson, David, Joshua and Hercules.
Fassbau featuring the Grosses Fass or the Great Wine Vat, the most remarkable thing in the castle. It is made from the wood of 130 oak trees. This particular one, which was not the first, was installed in the reign of Karl-Theodor, mid C18. It has a capacity of 48,780 gallons. It was probably only ever completely filled on one occasion after a particularly good grape harvest. (The Kurfürst was entitled to a tenth of the local harvest.) There was dancing on the platform above though it was originally intended as a platform for wine-tasting. You can climb up it. There is plenty of room for the whole group. The guardian of the vat was the famous jester Perkeo, a dwarf from the Sud-Tirol. The story goes that he only ever drank wine (18 bottles a day) and that he died when somebody, as a joke, gave him a glass of water for breakfast. It was such a shock to his system that he keeled over straightaway and never recovered. The little wooden statue in front of the barrel is of him. The surprise clock by his side can be made to work by pulling the chain. Don't get the Grosses Fass mixed up with the Kleines Fass which you see on the right as you enter. The big one is in a room all to itself.
The terrace behind the Friedsrichsbau again offers lovely views over the town and river. It is incumbent upon every tour guide to make up a story about the heavy single footprint in the middle of the terrace. The general theme tends to be about a spurned one-legged lover who committed suicide jumping from the balcony of the beautiful princess' bedroom above.
The Altstadt You probably won't have time to do anything more in Heidelberg than visit the castle but if you do you should head straight for the Hauptstrasse and the Altstadt. The modern part of the city holds nothing of interest. The Hauptstrasse is long, about 25 minutes' walk from one end to the other. It is pretty enough, built generally in the same red sandstone as the castle. It dates mostly from the C18 and C19. This is where you can find all the more worthwhile shops, bars and restaurants. You should aim to visit during shopping hours when the street is lively and atmospheric. Otherwise, except maybe on a Friday or Saturday night when the bars and clubs are filled with U.S. military on the prowl, it feels rather quiet and understated. There is not enough of major interest to justify a guided tour. It is OK just to point the street out and leave the group to explore. If you are with the group though, you should indicate a few items of interest:
Kurpfälzisches Museum (Hauptstrasse 97). Its greatest treasure is the Altar of the Twelve Apostles by Tilman Riemenschneider. See Rothenburg notes.
Studentenkarzer (on Universitätsplatz, just off the Hauptstrasse to the right). This served as the student prison between 1712 and 1914. Its cell walls are covered in graffiti by former inmates. The prison was closed in 1914 because incarceration became almost a badge of honour among the most laddish students so the rate of crime and misdemeanour at the university went soaring.
Heilig-Geist-Kirche (on Marktplatz). Late Gothic church, formerly the burial place of the Palatine Electors. After the destruction of 1693 only the tomb of Ruprecht III remains.
Haus Zum Ritter (also on Marktplatz). The prettiest and most photogenic mansion on the Hauptstrasse, the only one to survive the bombing of Louis XIV in 1693. It is now a hotel.
Zum Sepp'l and Zum Roten Ochsen (on or just off the Karlsplatz). Famous old student inns, small and atmospheric, where the same students who graffitied the walls of the Studentenkarzer carved their names on their favourite tables. The view from the Karlsplatz up to the castle at night is superb.
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