Heidelberg, the Pearl of the Neckar, is one of the best known cities in Germany, especially because of its romantic castle ruins. It is situated on the banks of the river Neckar, close to its confluence with the Rhine. It is one of the few cities that was not destroyed during the Second World War. Indeed, the Allies had decided that because of its historical importance and beauty, Heidelberg should be saved from bombardment.
A bit of History
Although there have been humans living in or around Heidelberg since about 500 000 BC (the lower jaw bone of Homo heidelbergensis was found close to the city) and Celts and Romans built fortresses and camped there since the 5th century BC, it was only after the beginning of the 5th century AD that a real permanent settlement was made at the site of the present city.
The first time that the name of the village “Bergheim”, which was situated in front of Heidelberg across the river, is cited dates from 769 AD and the first castle built in the area is also from the same epoch. It belonged to the Bishops of Worms before being taken over by the house of Hohenstaufen in 1155 AD. This house was very powerful, so much so in fact that one of its members, Konrad, became “Pfalzgraf”, i.e. Count Palatine on the Rhine.
The name of Heidelberg itself is first mentioned in a document dating 1196 AD. It is believed to have come from the Heiligenberg (“Mountain of the Saints”), a hill on the opposite side of the river, upon which a Roman chapel and later an Early Medieval church and monastery were built. These ruins are found within the even older remains of a Celtic fortress wall enclosing several hectares.
The history of Heidelberg is rich in intrigues and wars (such as the Thirty Years War and the War of Succession). Even King Louis XIV of France (le Roi Soleil) raised a claim in 1685 to the inheritance of the Palatinate state on his sister-in-law’s behalf, Liselotte von der Pfalz (of the Palatinate) who was married to his brother. It is during this war of succession that French troops destroyed the Heidelberg castle as well as the German towns and villages along the Rhine. They burned Heidelberg to the ground in 1693.
The city was then rebuilt by its inhabitants from 1697 onwards and most of the “old town” today is still pretty much the same as it was in the 18th century. And that is in great part what makes Heidelberg such a beautiful romantic place to visit, and why so many poets have celebrated its beauty throughout the ages – such as in the well known German love song talking about ‘losing your heart in Heidelberg’, or the song by Viktor von Scheffel “Alt’ Heidelberg, du feine, du Stadt an Ehren reich” (Old Heidelberg, you fine city, you city rich in honours) that we can see on many Biersteins, as well as the poetic ode of Höderlin to Heidelberg, “Lange lieb’ ich dich schon….”
Of course a lot more happened in Heidelberg throughout the years before and after 1697, such as the foundation of the University in 1386 (which makes the city the oldest university town in Germany); the destruction by lightning in 1537 of part of the castle; the famous “Palatinate Library”, containing many rare books, which was carried away by the imperial troops as war booty in 1623 and is still part of the Vatican’s collection; the meeting place of the “Holly Alliance” between the Tzar of Russia, the Emperor of Austria and the King of Prussia against Napoleon in 1815, etc.
A whole web-site could be dedicated entirely to the history of this wonderful city, but our aim here is just to introduce you to some of its charms! To do so, here are some of its “must see” attractions:
You cannot go to Heidelberg without visiting its castle (Heidelberger Schloss), or more exactly the ruins of the castle. The Castle sits on a plateau halfway down the Königstuhl (King’s throne) mountain that overlooks the city and the Neckar river. You can either walk to the castle using the centuries old streets and stairs or you can do it the easy way with the funicular railway (Bergbahn) that goes up to the top of the mountain.
Because many rulers built and rebuilt parts of the castle throughout the years, and given that each epoch has its own style, the castle shows evidence of all these different styles from the 13th century to the 17th century AD, from the rather austere style of the Ruprecht building (1398-1410) to the Renaissance style of the Friedrichsbau built by the Prince Elector Friedrich V, Count Palatine on the Rhine, Duke of Bavaria and King of Bohemia, in or around 1607.
First Floor of Friedrichsbau
Most of the castle has been destroyed, either by the French troops in the war of succession or by lightning strikes (the last one in 1764 during reconstruction of the castle) and the castle is well known for its romantic ruins, but parts of it have been either preserved or restored to their original state, in particular the first and ground floors of the Friedrichsbau and the Chapel.
Grosses Fass (Big Barrel or vat)
Because the taxes and fees due to the Prince Elector were paid in part in wine by its subjects, a barrel was built to received these payments. The first barrel could hold about 125 000 liters and was built by Prince Elector Johann Casimir. It was replaced by a bigger one commissioned by Karl Ludwig in the 17th century and could hold 195 000 liters.
This one was finally replaced by a yet bigger one holding 221 725 liters (about 58 000 US gallons) in 1751, commissioned by Karl Theodor. It is 8.5 meters across and 7 meters high and has a dance floor on top of it!
It is this last one that you can still see today. You can also climb the stairs to the dance floor! It is the biggest wine barrel in the world! A pump was added to it in order to bring wine to the room above it so that the castle guests would have access to a constant wine supply without having servants going up and down the stairs all the time.
You have to remember that at this time wine was probably safer to drink than water, and so, the castle cellars were stocked with about 700 000 liters of wine at all time and the castle’s “happy” inhabitants were known to drink about 2 000 liters of the stuff – per day!
Everyone who enters the room of the Grosses Fass, will see the statue of a dwarf called Perkeo. The dwarf was the King Jester and Keeper of the “Fass” (Vat) under Karl Philipp (1716-42). He was from the Italian South Tyrol and could hold a lot of drink! It is because of his ability to drink a lot before passing out that he received this name of Perkeo.
You see, every time someone asked him if he wanted a drink he would say in Italian: “Perche no?” meaning: Why not? With time this reply was transformed from Perke-no to Perkeo and became his name!
Following the legend, Perkeo died after drinking a single glass of water!
He is now celebrated as one of the main historical figures during the Heidelberg Carnival and is thought to have created the funny “clock” (a kind of Jack-in-a-box) that can be seen on the wall in front of the Fass.
The Apothecaries’ Museum is unique in the world: it presents a collection of laboratory equipment, tools and containers, pharmaceutical books and documents, and medicinal plants and animal parts, used by apothecaries (pharmacists) from the 16th to the 19th century.
It is the most extensive exhibition of its kind worldwide, with laboratories set up as if still in use by an apothecary, his assistant, or maybe, by an alchemist. After all, the plants and animals and minerals as well as the instruments used, such as the alembic, were common to both professions!
The dispensaries are so beautifully preserved with their jars of dried plants and their bottles of strange liquids, that you feel as if the pharmacist is going to show up any minute now and enquire about your ailment.
It is really a must see for everyone interested by medical and pharmaceutical history.
The magnificent Schlossgarten (Castle Garden) was planned in 1610 by the Prince Elector Friedrich V and built under the supervision of the French engineer Salomon de Caus whom the Prince Elector had summoned. It was well underway by 1616, with tonnes of earth and stones moved, fountains designed and built, trees planted, etc., but was never finished because the Prince decided to leave for Bohemia in 1619 before its completion.
Ironically enough, its total destruction during the war of succession is also due to a Frenchman, King Louis XIV. Since then, it has never been rebuilt.
Goethe, well known philosopher, used to walk in this garden during his visit in the area in 1814-1815.
There have been rumours recently about restoring it to its previous Renaissance magnificence (there are plans still on display in the castle of what Salomon de Caus had in mind when he designed it) and to finish what was once started, but to date nothing has been done about it.
Unfortunately, there are now also rumours about building a new condominium/hotel in or very near the garden