Medieval gem to blow you away

by and

Heidelberg’s a blast! This German university town has something about it that simply says “style.” It also has a history of revolutionary ideas, religious schisms, destruction, anarchy and heroic restoration.

This may be why it attracts 3 million tourists a year.

There’s a thoroughly imposing, partially ruined and utterly Teutonic schloss (castle) that looms large on a central peak overlooking the River Neckar. There are mysterious little cobbled alleys that make the perfect set for a fantastic game of hide-and-seek (or a remake of “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”). There are street markets and courtyard cafes and musty subterranean beer halls. The buskers play harps or violins.

Black Hole of Calcutta

I’m sure another of its features will appeal to readers involved in the teaching profession. There is a prison specially designed for university students! Admittedly it’s not a very big prison — if every Japanese university student in a typical classroom was arrested for falling asleep/ poor attendance/ ignoring the hapless professor/ reading pornographic manga/ jabbering/ being an irredeemable imbecile/ arriving one year late just before exams and expecting an automatic pass (tick felony as applicable) — then in this size of prison you’d be looking at a Black Hole of Calcutta scenario. Which is to say a seriously overcrowded dungeon. The prison is small. Far too small for the volume of Japanese university students who require incarceration. The principle, however, is sound. And speaking from experience as a former lecturer in Tokyo, it is in dire need of replication, nay expansion, in Japan.

But back to this medieval city of Heidelburg that houses Germany’s oldest university. There’s a lot to tell.

Heidelberg is in the state of Baden-Wurttemberg, a German tourist destination second only to Bavaria in popularity, mainly because the area is dominated by the Black Forest.

Baden-Wurttemberg as a geopolitical entity was only formed in 1951 (by amalgamating the two famous white wine-growing regions of Baden and Wurttemberg with Hohenzollern, a province that spawned the Hohenzollern imperial dynasty and World War I).

Modern yes, Baden-Wurttemberg turns out Porsches and Mercs and is high tech with a capital “H.” And “T.” But it is drenched with history.

Homo erectus Heidelbergensis checked out locations in the Heidelberg area and found the prospects jaw-dropping. That was back in 600,000 B.C. The dropped jaw was recovered in 1907 by paleontologists. At that time the find was the oldest evidence of humanity’s presence in Europe.

The Celts arrived rather later. In the fifth century B.C. they established a desirable residence where the long-suffering Heidelberg schloss now stands. They incorporated features such as palisades and places of worship, sacrifice and lethal-weapon manufacture.

This set a trend. Everybody who subsequently invaded or just passed by felt the urge to construct a castle. Before they did, of course, they had to destroy or renovate the existing fortifications.

Romans came. Built a fort. Declined. Fell.

The philosophy of humanism arrived. Martin Luther then got rid of that sort of nancy-boy nonsense by turning up and strictly re-defining Christianity as everybody else had known it.

War loomed. The castle grew. Lightning struck. The upper part of the castle went to hell.

Calvinism was imposed. The Heidelberg Catechism became required reading for all reformists. Catholics and Protestants as usual then had a major fight. The castle took another bashing. And, oh dear! More lightning! All that hard building work gone up in flames. More castle reconstruction was initiated. But in vain.

We are now in the year 1623. The Bavarians arrive, assault the town and their troops go galloping off with Heidelberg’s magnificent Palatinate library.

The Swedes turn up. Nobody seems sure why, but they too had a go at the castle.

Space restrictions prevent me from describing all the subsequent castle disasters. The French destroyed everything (1688/89). Then later they rebuilt it.

It is a curious fact, but the semiruinous state of the schloss actually enhances its appeal. In the 19th century it was a magnet for Romantic poets, most notably Goethe, and walking through the huge courtyards overlooked by ranks of empty windows still brings to mind ghosts and owls and mystery.

Three things not to miss while prowling the castle’s armor- and statue-haunted corridors, dungeons and precipitous parapets are the Great Tun, the portrait of its “Guardian” (a dwarf named Perkeo) and the German Apothecary Museum.

The 8.5-meter-wide tun, made in 1751 out of 130 oak tree trunks, can hold 221,725 liters of wine. At the time of its installation, the hard-drinking castle inhabitants were downing at least 2,000 liters of wine per day, with the hideous Perkeo leading the debauch. His comeuppance came when he inadvertently drank a glass of water. The shock killed him. Allegedly.

Mummified bodies

The apothecary museum is pure Harry Potter, and features replicas of apothecary’s shops through the course of history. The dried lizards, vile brews, shreds of mummified Egyptian bodies etc. are enough to make you feel ill (rather ironic given they were all once prescribed to make people feel better).

Meanwhile, the Blown Up Tower (it blew up) still looks appropriately blown up. Half of it fell into the moat, so affording modern visitors panoramic views. The Hall of Mirrors (they shattered when it blew up, too) remains an atmospheric shadow of its former self. And the Seltenleer (literally, “seldom empty”) Prison is a wreck (yup, blown up).

But, just like the town, much of the castle has been scrupulously and beautifully restored. And perhaps because they were getting a bit fed up with all this detonation/restoration malarkey, the authorities and citizens had the very good idea of surrendering the town intact (with the proviso that nobody blow it up) when the Allied forces turned up toward the end of World War II.

Which is why Heidelberg remains such a delight to visit today. But please don’t take gunpowder!