A postcard from Heidelberg

July 30, 2012 § 3 Comments

I’ve wanted to visit Heidelberg for nearly thirteen years. Two works of art inspired this longing – oddly enough, both of them British. The first was a novel, Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, which I read not long before I took my first (fateful) trip to Europe. I remember being enchanted by the description of the city that Philip, the protagonist, moves to as the first step in his wanderings and his first act of defiance of his uncle’s plans for him. And yet when I visited Germany for the first time a few months after that, I only hit Berlin and Munich, for a day each. (Of which more in the next post.)

The second, on the principle that a picture is worth a thousand words, needs no explanation: JMW Turner’s watercolour Heidelberg Sunset.

JMW Turner, Heidelberg: Sunset (1840)

A few days ago, I finally made it. Was it worth the wait? Oh yes.

I’d read that Heidelberg gets three million visitors a year – after all, artists and writers have been singing its praises for more than 200 years – and I was more than a little nervous that it would be overrun with tourists. To my relief and surprise, it wasn’t. Yes, the town has its share of tacky souvenir shops, but they’re concentrated in a small area and fairly easy to avoid. Then again, if the conversation I had with my Australian roommates over drinks at the Hofbrauhaus in Munich the night before I set off is any indication (and as an aside, if you’re ever in Munich, avoid the Hofbrauhaus like the plague, it IS touristy Hell), maybe it’s not as well-known as I thought:

Australians: So where are you off to next?

Me: Heidelberg.

Australians: (looks of general perplexity)

Me: It’s about three hours west of here on the train. It’s got a very old and famous castle.

Australian #1: You mean the Disney castle?

Me: No, you’re thinking of Neuschwanstein. That’s pretty new. Heidelberg Castle is a lot older and semi-ruined. Plus it’s in Baden-Württemberg, not Bavaria…

Australian #1: You mean Germany has more regions than Bavaria and Saxony?

Me: (restrains urge to sigh)

Australian #2: That sounds kind of… boring. Is there anything else to see there?

Me: Well, a beautiful path above the river where Goethe and Hölderlin and other poets and philosophers liked to walk and enjoy the view. And Germany’s oldest university.

Australians #2 and #3 (clearly not impressed): Um… okay. Is there any other reason we should have heard of it?

Me (with the distinct feeling that I’m not so much playing my trump card as the only card I have left): Michael Fassbender was born there.

Australians: …Who?

Me (under my breath): I give up…

In all fairness to them, I have probably talked myself out of a job at the Heidelberg tourist office if I can only manage to convince people that the place is known for a pile of medieval rubble, a dusty old building full of dusty old books and dusty old scholars, and a bunch of men with odd-sounding surnames who, for some mysterious reason, are apparently important.

That aside, Heidelberg had one other attraction for me – or rather, a negative attraction: no prints and drawings.* Believe it or not, even I need a break sometimes!

Heidelberg Castle (Powder Tower)

Heidelberg is hot when I arrive – as hot, in fact, as Rome (where I spent the previous weekend attending my dear friend S’s wedding). Luckily the castle offers plenty of shade, even though its pink sandstone walls soak up the sun like a sponge. I dutifully take the tour of the inner precincts and the world’s largest wine cask but spend the best part of the afternoon lazily exploring the rest of it on my own, from the exploded Powder Tower to the remains of Frederick V’s garden. With long spells of sitting in the shade and enjoying the views over the Altstadt and across the Neckar.

I stay in the castle grounds almost until kicking-out time, before heading back down to the old town. I stop by a grocery near my hostel and pick up the makings of a picnic, then it’s off across the bridge and onto the path that leads up to the Philosophenweg.

The climb is stiff and exhausting (and apparently scares away most tourists, because the only language I hear the entire time I’m up there is German) but the views more than make up for it. The combination of exertion and the beauty of the view at the top make a simple meal of bread, cheese, radishes and blackberries taste like a king’s repast.

(On the subject of blackberries, one stretch of the Philosophenweg leads past thickets of wild blackberries, which are heavy with fruit. I must admit to having… borrowed a few. I feel guilty until I see a young couple, obviously German, doing the same. That’s all right then, I’m not going to be banished from Heidelberg for blackberry theft…)

I stay on the Philosophenweg for hours. The air is redolent with sun-warmed stone and earth, freshly mown grass, lavender and buddleia. The castle blushes pinker and pinker as the light fades. Apart from the thin stream of cars along the Neckar quays, I could have wandered into Turner’s watercolour.

Finally, the last of the sunlight is gone. A half moon hangs over the town. I can’t help thinking of Mark Twain’s words on Heidelberg at dusk: ‘One thinks Heidelberg by day the last possibility of the beautiful, but when he sees Heidelberg by night, a fallen Milky Way … he requires time to consider the verdict.’

It takes an extraordinary place to send my normally cynical fellow-countryman into raptures. I find myself agreeing with him completely. Heidelberg certainly is.


*Okay, that’s not strictly true. The Kürpfalzisches Museum does have a small collection, including a rather lovely self-portrait by Carl Philipp Fohr, but they were off view when I went. Apart from a beautiful altarpiece by Tilman Riemenschneider, the museum as a whole is eminently skippable. And there, now I’ve really done myself out of a job with the Heidelberg tourist office.


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