This post is entitled ‘Heidelberg’ but in reality will cover all the fantastic things I did and saw on my whole holiday in the Baden-Württemberg area of Germany, including Mannheim, Speyer, Dilsberg, Rothenburg and Heidelberg itself.
I went on this holiday to visit a friend I have known for many years and it was definitely a huge benefit to have a personal tour guide who had grown up in the area. I will admit now that despite three years of high school German, I would have struggled without my amazing translators. I will also say though that out of every non-English speaking country I have been to, the Germans are by far the most accommodating and understanding people. They love to speak English and practice their language skills, so when I say I might have struggled this is purely because when I first arrived in Germany I attempted to take public transport and obviously all signage is written in German. As long as there is someone to ask, however, you will definitely be able to find someone who speaks English, probably better than you do, to assist you!
I was staying in Heidelberg itself and got the train from Stuttgart Airport right into Heidelberg city. Heidelberg is a beautiful, classical German city but we spent the first few days of my trip travelling outside the city to neighbouring cities and areas and allowed the final day for visiting Heidelberg itself.
My friend’s family live in Mannheim, a city about 25 minutes from Heidelberg, and we got the train out there early on my first full day in Germany. My favourite thing about Mannheim was the Luisenpark which is a big park in the centre of Mannheim that has it’s own animal park, environmental biomes and butterfly house (I learnt that German for butterfly is Schmetterling and it’s now one of my favourite German words). We spent several hours in the Luisenpark and I would recommend it to anyone of absolutely any age. There is a river running through the park that has little gondola boats on it and the animal park has a huge variety of animals that make the small entrance fee feel like incredibly good value! After leaving the Luisenpark we walked around the rest of the centre of Mannheim. It’s a beautiful city with its key landmark of a Romanesque water tower surrounded by fountains and covered walkways. We also visited Mannheim Palace which is very different to the many castles I saw on my trip, but equally impressive in history and architecture.
Speyer is a town again around 20 minutes from Heidelberg and will always hold a dear place in my heart as the first place I ever had a real pretzel. (They’re now one of my favourite foods) As with every place I went to on this holiday the history of this town is what shapes it into such a wonderful place to visit. The most famous landmark and attraction of Speyer is Speyer Cathedral which was opened in 1103 and remains one of the most architecturally important buildings of its era and the largest remaining Romanesque church in Europe. I’ve been to a fair few cathedrals in my time but I have to say that Speyer cathedral is particularly impressive. It stands at the end of a big wide street and absolutely cannot be missed, unlike many modern cities that manage to hide their cathedrals amongst their tall modern structures. To think that the cathedral is almost 1000 years old is incredible and definitely well worth a visit. May of the other buildings in Speyer run in a similar vein to the cathedral and on a lovely sunny day like the day I visited on, I just could not stop taking photos!
The drive from Heidelberg to Rothenburg takes just over an hour and a half and it is yet another incredibly beautiful historical German city. It is famous for its almost perfectly preserved medieval town complete with walls that can be walked around. Rothenburg seems to have a special thing for teddy bears and I loved this element to the shops around the medieval town. The fact that I couldn’t take the teddy bear two times my own height back to England with me made me very sad. Just as Speyer holds a special place for its pretzels, Rothenburg holds a special place for its year round Christmas shop. Christmas is my favourite time of year and to walk from a sunny 25oC street into a festive shop selling fake snow and ornaments was a surreal and wonderful experience. While in Rothenburg we also visited the Reichsstadtmuseum which is a museum set partially in an old nunnery and with exhibits from rooms filled with brutal looking weaponry to art galleries, to mock ups of the original nunnery and a garden filled with medieval statues and gargoyles. The final thing I must recommend about Rothenburg is a pastry called a Schneeball (snowball). These are knots of puff pastry flavoured in many different ways and often finished with a little iced emblem of Rothenburg town hall. (Obviously I bought a chocolate covered, chocolate stuffed Schneeball and it was to die for)
Without a doubt the memories that stand out the most for me of this trip are the many castles, in various stages of ruin, that we visited. The Baden-Württemberg area of Germany is considered well known for its numerous castles and even though I visited at least 7 of them, I could easily have spent the entire week just hiking through forests and discovering castle ruins every few hundred yards. (Important note: Castles in Germany are indeed hidden in very thick forests and many of them are not accessible on paved paths like the castles we’re used to in England. Basically, don’t try to explore these castles in 6 inch wedge heels, like I did, because the fact that I didn’t break either of my ankles is nothing short of a miracle). Some of the castles we visited were still complete enough that they had ‘inside’ areas and some of them charged a small entry fee (although some of these entry fees, even as small as €3, actually paid for a years worth of entry and I only wish I could take advantage of this!). The majority of the castles we visited however consisted mainly of a few ruined walls, outlines of doorways and some of the better ones had modern wooden stairs up to the upper ramparts of the old castles, affording views across the forest canopy. The castle in Dilsburg, which is a gorgeous tiny village set on top of a mountain, is one of the ones that charges the small entry fee but offers year-round entry (I still have the ticket in my purse, just in case!) The castle comes with a traditional fairytale story of knights and princesses with the slightly less traditional ending of suicide which is the reason for the roses that still grow up one wall of the castle. The other castle that holds a steady memory in my mind is the Hinterburg (which translates to Back Castle) which is one of three castles, the others being the Middle Castle and Front Castle, that belonged to three brothers in the 17th century. The Hinterburg is one of the castles that is hidden beautifully in the forest and requires a moderate hike to get there. This castle also has one of the aforementioned modern staircases up to the ramparts. I like these staircases particularly for an unexpected reason. At every castle we visited that had a modern wooden staircase, the staircase was covered in graffiti. Usually I’m not a fan at all of graffiti, especially at historical sites, but as the graffiti is only present on the modern structure it is more acceptable, and the nature of the graffiti is actually quite wonderful. Rather than the usual generic graffiti of visitors’ names, instead the staircases are covered in quotes and inspirations as well as one particular note written in Spanish that I will always remember, after battling my own fear of heights to make into the top of the stairs: “I didn’t want to, but Alan convinced me”
On the final day of my trip we stayed in Heidelberg and visited Heidelberg Castle, Heidelberg University Obviously due to the strategic advantages of building a castle on top of a hill this castle requires yet another walk up a very steep hill. However, due to the fact that this castle is one of the main tourist attractions of the city, there is actually a funicular railway that takes visitors up and down from the castle. (We took this route back down as my feet were still sore from the 6 inch wedge heel hiking mishap) Heidelberg castle is one of the most famous castles in Germany, has been written about by the likes of Mark Twain and is now an impressively popular destination for American and Japanese tourists. As with Dilsberg, Heidelberg castle comes with it’s own set of romanticised myths involving knights and princesses. The most famous of these being the tale of the Knight’s Footprint which stems from a footprint-shaped indentation in the sandstone floor of the castle’s main balcony and is said to have been put there by a knight when he jumped out of a banquet hall in full armour while trying to avoid a fire. Heidelberg Castle is technically in ruins but has been partially restored to include some inside areas. One of theses inside areas has been converted into a pharmacy museum, which may seem an odd choice but is very interesting to go around and see all the historical medical equipment. It adds an extra reason to stay around the castle ruins for a few extra hours and offers an inside escape should it rain. (Although based on the weather I experienced in Germany I’d be pushed to believe that it ever rains there!) Another inside area of the castle is it’s cellars, which actually house the world’s largest wine barrel, the Heidelberg Tun. This is somewhat of a tourist draw, but be warned that unfortunately today the barrel is actually empty.
The powder tower of Heidelberg castle is another typical Heidelberg landmark. The stories about how the tower came to be split in half vary, but it is now generally agreed that it was an accidental explosion that explains how the tower came to be so perfectly split. The castle gardens of Heidelberg are also absolutely stunning and available to walk around for free whereas the castle requires an entry fee. Because of this, a lot of local Heidelberg residents spend time in the gardens and the views over the city are spectacular. Before you leave Heidelberg be sure to stop at the bridge to take in the most classical view of the city from across the river. And if you’re lucky enough to have friends who know their way around the surrounding forests, travel up into the mountains and watch the sunset over the city, it is a sight you will never forget.