I was coming to the end of my four-month stay in Germany and was really beginning to lament not having seen much of the country other than Berlin, where I have been living. Berlin is a great city, but it’s quite un-German, and I was longing to visit a slightly more postcard-picture part of Germany.
A perfect excuse to travel quickly arose; my dad was going on a business trip to Frankfurt and so we decided to meet up in Heidelberg that weekend. So off I popped, on the brief five-hour train journey to northern Baden-Württemberg, for my first taste of Germany outside the capital.
A historical city
Heidelberg is a historical and influential city. Home to Germany’s oldest university, it was also significant in the Romantic movement. Situated on the banks of the river Neckar and nestled between the Gaisberg, Heiligenberg and Königsstuhl mountains, it makes an idyllic setting. And it’s ideal for travellers seeking out a bit of traditional German Gemütlichkeit.
As a university city with a long history, Heidelberg feels effervescent yet cultured. It evaded bombing during the Second World War, which means that its Altstadt is well preserved and retains most of its old and interesting buildings. Strolling through the narrow, cobbled streets of the old town, you are surrounded by tall Altbau buildings with old-fashioned window shutters and colourful facades.
But the city – about an hour train ride from Frankfurt – also has a modern, youthful feel. A lunch of traditional German Handkäse mit Musik (cheese with vinegar and raw onions) and a dinner of Ethiopian Maadi Sga (a sharing dish of various types of spiced meats) were both eaten in Altbau restaurants on cobbled side-streets. A traditional-looking liquor shop was brimming with students and tourists trying and buying alcohol of all kinds of normal and experimental flavours.
A Christmas pyramid above a Glühwein stall. Photo: DPA
Visiting Heidelberg at the start of advent, we couldn’t have avoided the Weihnachtsmarkt even if we’d tried. The city’s scenery makes the Christmas market particularly inviting: wooden stalls aplenty, wafts of Glühwein, waffles and Wurst, the noise of Germans and tourists babbling away. At night, a magnificent Christmas pyramid lights up the centre of the market, making it an especially charming sight.
Sightseeing at Schloss Heidelberg
We opted for the obligatory cultural sightseeing on Saturday morning, and our first destination was one of Germany’s most famous landmarks: Schloss Heidelberg. The red sandstone castle makes an undeniably impressive sight, peering out from the Königsstuhl hillside, looming over the city.
Heidelberg Castle has a dramatic history. It was built around the 13th century and became significant for prince electors in the Rhine area. But over the next centuries, the castle became a site for war and destruction.
In the late 17th century, the castle eventually capitulated to the French in the Nine Years’ War, after which the court moved to nearby Mannheim. Then, in 1764, the castle was struck by two lightning strikes which burned much of it down. Since then, the formerly magnificent royal residence has stood as dramatic ruins, overlooking the city.
Romantic ruins. Photo: DPA
The castle can be reached by the pleasingly named Heidelberger Bergbahn (my dad, whose German extends as far as “Ein Milchkaffee, bitte” took a lot of pleasure in attempting to pronounce the name of this funicular railway).
As we reached the castle, an eerie mist had descended, the ground was damp, and the dark stone of the castle and bare trees stood out against the grey-white of the surrounding cloud. It felt suitably mysterious and bewitching.
Heidelberg Castle styles itself as Romantik Pur: Die Berühmteste Ruine der Welt (the English slogan being “Truly Romantic: The World-Famous Ruins”) and it’s easy to see why. The castle ruins became a favourite of artists of the Romantic movement and inspired many poets and artists of the time, including the English artist J.M.W. Turner who visited the area multiple times. The greying red ruins, imbued with so much history, destroyed by acts of war and nature, set in a forested mountain, are the perfect image of the Romantic movement. Everything about the ruins conjures up a sense of German history.
The Philosopher's Walk
On the opposite hillside of the river, staring at the castle, is another remnant of Heidelberg’s Romantic past. The Philosophenweg (Philosophers’ Walk) is a path in the hillside, with a panorama of the city, the castle and river Neckar.
Walking along the historic route, it’s easy to understand, just as with the castle, how it came to inspire many a German thinker. Unsurprisingly, the route derives its name from the fact that the university’s professors and philosophers would spend time ambling along the path, contemplating and discussing their thoughts, inspired by the beautiful views of the landscape, and the impressive views of the castle.
People looking philosophically on the Philosophenweg. Photo: DPA
Steeped in history and a sense of grandeur, the views engender a reflective mood. On the path you can see many people thinking many deep thoughts. There are benches along the way, and it’s a very cathartic experience to sit and reflect for a while, even if you’re not thinking about anything remotely wise or philosophical. I seem to remember my dad and me discussing Christmas presents. But the fresh air and scenic walk definitely did us good.
I left Heidelberg feeling fulfilled (if not necessarily any more philosophical). Old yet youthful, traditional yet modern, Heidelberg is a very German city which gave me a wonderful, if somewhat idealized, taste of Germany outside of the capital.