I used to live in Heidelberg. I was an expert on the basic sights like the Old Town, the castle, the bridge and the Hauptstrasse. I was a super expert when it came to bars in town and I could make my way into a favorite restaurant or two when necessary.
However, on my last trip to Heidelberg I discovered a side of the city that I had ignored in my younger days. I learned what an important center of education Heidelberg University has long been in Europe. I was shown the student jails, stood at the podium of the oldest lecture hall, visited the humble home of Germany’s first president, ate student chocolates, attended an orchestral concert and rediscovered some of my favorite restaurants.
The quotes in this story come from Mark Twain’s A Tramp Abroad. Twain had a love affair with Heidelberg back in 1878. He wrote much of A Tramp Abroad here (only to rewrite it later in Munich) and worked on portions of Huckleberry Finn as well, inspired by the Neckar River.
Of course, at the top of anyone’s list upon visiting Heidelberg is a ride up the funicular to the castle, a tour of the massive Renaissance edifice, a stroll through the gardens and a moment to gawk at the world’s largest wine barrel. Rightfully, the Heidelberg Castle has been voted the #1 sight in Germany.
Whether gazing down on the sparkling town by night or the city’s rooftops by day, the views from the castle are inspiring. I spent my first night strolling through the castle gardens. Below me the city sparkled much as Mark Twain described it, as a “fallen Milky Way.”
Even back in Twain’s day, the castle illumination was something not to miss. In 2014 there are three illuminations taking place, on June 7th, July 12th and September 6th. Here is Twain’s description.
An illumination of Heidelberg Castle is one of the sights of Europe. The Castle’s picturesque shape, its commanding situation midway up the steep and wooded mountainside, its vast size — these features combine to make an illumination a most effective spectacle.
…the ruin was suddenly enveloped in rolling and rumbling volumes of vaporous green fire, then in dazzling purple ones. Then a mixture of many colors followed and drowned the great fabric in its blended splendors. Meantime the nearest bridge had been illuminated and from several rafts anchored in the river, meteor showers of rockets, Roman candles, bombs, serpents and Catharine wheels were being discharged in wasteful profusion into the sky — a marvelous sight indeed to a person as little used to such spectacles as I was.
While most American tourists make a whirlwind swing through Heidelberg, the town deserves some time. This city is an integral part of Medieval and modern German history and is considered the home of humanism. Its university is the oldest in Germany and the third founded in Europe. It was the home of Germany’s first president, who rose from the ranks of the labor movement.
Not only does this town deserve more time than a day trip in order to take in the flavor, culture and history of the city, but its nearby towns upriver are a collection of fantasy Roman ruins in Bad Wimpfen, the old town surrounded by a fold in the river at Hirschhorn, and fairytale castles like Hornberg and Dilsberg. All make for wonderful day trips from a base in Heidelberg.