Heidelberg is a city in the German state of Baden-Württemberg with charms that last year-round, boasting medieval castles and old-fashioned pubs and inns. This city is constantly being soaked in by American and Japanese tourists. Good thing, because it depends on a never-ending stream of tourists as a source of income, since it has little industry. The 3.5 million annual visitors are in good company – 19th century poets Josef Victor von Scheffel and Friedrich Hölderlin have both sung Heidelberg’s praises, the former in the song “Old Heidelberg, you fine city” and the latter in “Ode to Heidelberg”.
These two poets joined others like Brentano, Joseph von Görres, Arnim, and others who made the Heidelberg the center of the 19th century epoch of Romanticism. This era witnessed the graduation from classical theories that focused on scientific rationalism to more of an emphasis on strong expressions and emotions.
Today, many flock to Heidelberg to experience its hyped reputation as a romantic town. In this city, you’ll find that both the past and present remain intertwined. Stroll along the Philosophers’ Way and you’ll not only be treated to spectacular views of the city-present, but also discover glimpses of yesteryear – the sight of castles and the “picture-postcard romanticism” created by the twilight atmosphere.
The showpiece of Heidelberg is, of course, the Heidelberg Castle. This red sandstone structure sits in Old Town overlooking the Neckar River, as it emerges from the forests of Odenwald and crosses into the Upper Rhine plain. The castle had long been the seat of the Palatine Electors until 1720. The fortress was destroyed several times during the 30 Years’ War and was even struck by lightning in 1764 when Prince Elector Karl was trying to restore it. In the late 18th century, the castle was used unfortunately as a quarry, with many of its stones used to build new houses in the city. Count Charles de Graimberg put an end to this swiping and worked to preserve the castle. Today, the Heidelberg Castle hosts numerous festivals, balls, banquets, and theatrical performances. Its annual highlight is the Heidelberg Castle Festival in the summer when its courtyards are used by the City Orchestra as a venue to perform musicals, theatre performances, concerts, and operas.
Besides the Heidelberg Castle, the Old Town of Heidelberg, which is situated along the south side of the Neckar River and the east part of the city, also offers the Karlstor. This late 18th century triumphal arch was designed by Nicolas de Pigage and built to honor Prince Elector Karl Theodor. You’ll also find the 19th century, neo-classical Marstall, which was used by the residents of the Heidelberg Castle to store goods. It is used today, however, for university lectures. One of the highlights of Old Town is the old stone bridge from the late 18th century, entranced by a medieval gate that used to be part of the original town wall. There are also baroque towers by the bridge.
The University of Heidelberg is another of Heidelberg’s gems. This university was founded in 1386 and is actually the oldest in the country and the third oldest in the Holy Roman Empire (after the one in Prague and Vienna). Many brilliant minds over the centuries have come from the halls of this educational institute, including philosophers Hegel, Gadamer, and Karl-Otto Apel, the inventor of the bicycle, Karl Drais, the humanists, Weber, Gundolf and Rohde, notable physicians like Erb, Krehl, and Czerny, and recent Nobel Laureates like Bert Sakmann, Wolfgang Ketterle, and Theodor Hänsch. It was in the university’s public library, which was founded in 1421 and is the oldest in Germany still intact, where Martin Luther defended his proclamation of the 95 theses in 1518 in his scathing attack against the Catholic Church. The library has a Manesse manuscript, a gem among bibliophiles. It is one of the world’s most valuable collections of German minnesongs – presented in 137 whole-page miniatures.
Another popular attraction of Heidelberg is the Philosophers’ Walk, offering spectacular views of Heidelberg’s Castle and the city’s Old Town. This pathway on the north side of the Neckar River passes through the remains of a Celtic fortress and is named after Heidelberg’s myriad famous philosophers and intellectuals who have walked along this route to gather their thoughts or otherwise brainstorm and debate with peers.
Heidelberg has been inhabited for thousands of years. Nearby in Maeur is the site where the “Heidelberg Man” was discovered. His jaws and bones represent the earliest evidence of life in Europe and, through carbon-dating, are believed to be around 600,000 years old.
The earliest known settlements in Heidelberg, however, were by the Celts around 5th century BC who were followed by the Romans around 2nd and 3rd century AD. In the dark ages, a few monasteries were set up in Heidelberg including the St Michael monastery along the Neckar River. It was during this period that the settlement in Heidelberg transformed into a real community.
From the 12th century to 14th century AD, various Dukes built castles and palaces in Heidelberg. The city became the seat of the Count Palatine of the Rhine, who ruled and administered over the Rhine Valley territory of the Holy Roman Empire. It was at this time when the bishopric of Worms also began establishing religious influence over the city.
In the late 14th century and beyond, Heidelberg became an educational center of Europe after the Count Palatine, Rupert I, founded the University of Heidelberg in 1386. The school helped the city develop a reputation as a hotbed of new ideas, and Heidelberg indeed grew to become an integral cog of the 16th century protestant reformation. In fact, it was at the university where Martin Luther defended his proclamation of 95 theses attacking the unbiblical practices of the Catholic Church.
In the early 17th century, the Thirty Years’ War took place principally over Germany. Unfortunately, Heidelberg was besieged and captured in 1622 by the Catholic League in their fight against the Protestants. The lands were recovered after the war by Elector Palatine, Charles I Louis. Unfortunately, it was destroyed once again not too long afterwards by the brother of Louis XIV, King of France, over an inheritance dispute with Charles I Louis’ successors.
The period during the buildup to WWII and during the war itself was a dark chapter in Heidelberg’s history. Racism was intense against non-Aryan residents, especially Jews. On November 9, 1938, the city’s Jewish synagogues were burned down in the “Crystal Night” and hundreds of Jews were deported to the Dachau concentration camp.
The city emerged, however, unscathed, avoiding the WWII damage suffered by other German cities in the region. This was largely thanks to the US Army who wanted to use the city as a garrison after the war. As a result, the city’s medieval and romantic facades can be appreciated in all of its glory.
“Heidelberg.” < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heidelberg>
Kustos, Norbert, and Alice Loyson. Schönes Baden-Württemberg. Hamburg: Ellert & Richter Verlag, 1998. ISBN: 3892344523.
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