Heidelberg enjoys a rare privilege; it was spared being bombed by the Allied forces in World War II (as it was an innocuous university-town), and because of that, most of its older, historic parts have remained intact for three centuries, unlike many other German towns whose precious nerve centres were savaged and had to be restored. This precious nook has been lovingly preserved and is worth exploring. It has been a venerable seat of learning since 1386 and it harbours an atmosphere of learning and excellence, far removed from the daily-grind of industrial towns.
Yet another privilege Heidelberg has is its spectacular setting between the leafy Konigstuhl and Heiligeberg hills, along the Neckar River. Views form both sides overlook the valley, where aesthetically pleasing baroque rooftops, bell towers and churches take your breath away, inviting you to linger on its cobble-stone streets and unravel the stories of its narrow alleys. Crossing the bridge and entering the old town is like walking into the pages of a fairy tale. Rising behind the town is an eye-catching edifice, featuring a prince, a princess and a fragmented, atmospheric castle.
The Heidelberg Castle was first built around 1300, and around 1600, the Platinate Elector Prince Frederick V who lived there, added several architectural features and gardens for his English wife, Princess Elisabeth Stuart. Although the palace was savaged by Louis XIV of France in 1688, the crumbling castle in the sky with foliage bursting through its cracks, has startlingly beautiful visuals.
The famous crumbling castle
BIRD’S EYE VIEW
Glancing around from the terrace of castle known as Heidelberger Schloss, we could see the old town sprawl just beneath us. Across the river were the newer and more substantial suburban houses with gardens. Beyond, to the left, the ­distant views revealed industrial Ludwigshaufen, which, my friend described as “the place to work” and Manheim, “the place to shop” and Heidelberg, “the place to live.” With its grand houses, magnificent views and proximity to a historic idyll, she is proud to call Heidelberg her home. Each morning, she jogs on a stretch known as Philosopher’s Way on an afforested hillside, which overlooks the old town from the other side of the River, and often brings her friends and family to the vest-pocket sized old town crammed with churches, squares, cafes and over 30,000 students bobbing on bicycles or walking along the cobbled streets.
THE OLD STUDENT PRISON
One of my favourite discoveries was a well-preserved relic, an old students’ prison at University Square. This was where troublesome princelings of the elite classes were detained for their minor crimes. Sketches, scribbles and graffiti cover the walls, telling us of the often light-hearted existence in the dorms, and an obvious lamentation of the lack of the company of women. Being sentenced here was almost a badge of honour. Back then, meeting girls was not easy, and when the young ladies did visit nearby cafes, they were closely chaperoned. A local entrepreneur capitalized on the boy-girl frisson, and developed a chocolate called ‘student-kiss’, where the wrapper pictures a couple that is nearly kissing. This popular treat continues to be a romantic present even today, recalling the innocence of a bygone era.
BEST TIME TO GO - In the Spring and autumn to avoid the summer tourist crunch
WHERE TO STAY - Hotel Ritter, on Market Square, is housed in one of the oldest stone buildings (from 1592), which maintains many original features.
EAT AT - Wesser’s Bock (German cuisine), Goldener Hecht (Austrian), piccolo Mondo (Italian) and the River Café (Contemporary Mediterranean)
EXPLORE - The graffiti clad, atmospheric old student prison at Germany’s oldest university (1386) at Universitatsplatz. Take the funicular or climb the steps up to Heidelberg Castle for the chlorophyll clad ruins and views of the town.
The old Student Jail in Heidelberg University (right)