The fourth port on my Viking cruise of the Rhine was Heidelberg, Germany. In fact, Heidelberg isn’t on the Rhine at all, but on the Neckar, a tributary that meets the Rhine a few kilometres downstream. But Heideberg’s reputation as one of Germany’s most scenic cities is enough to lure travellers across the green countryside to see it.
Heidelberg’s main attraction is Heidelberg Castle, which towers over the city on a rocky bluff like a good castle should. And it has a long and colourful history, spanning almost 500 years of political intrigue, conflict and outright warfare. That led to its destruction by the French in 1693. But even its romantic-looking ruins continued to draw visitors to the city—people like the English painter J.M.W. Turner and American literary legend Mark Twain, who used his time on the Neckar to gather inspiration for another river story, called Huckleberry Finn.
I visited Heidelberg Castle on my first cruise on the Rhine – you can read about it in this post. So I decided to skip the castle tour this time and just explore the city itself. However, Viking had provided a short walking tour, so I went along. And it turned out to be more illuminating than I had imagined. This is a city that has played a part in history.
Aside from the castle, Heidelberg is famous as a university town. In fact, it’s been a university town since 1386, making Heidelberg University the oldest in Germany. And there are still student hangouts on the main street that were operating back in Twain’s time, like Zum Roten Ochsen (At the Red Ox) .
But Heidelberg has also played a part in some watershed moments in history. Homo heidelbergensis, the oldest human fossil ever discovered in Europe, was found here in 1907. And as we walked through town, our guide stopped in front of an official-looking building to reveal its historic past. This was where, in April, 1518, Martin Luther defended his earth-shaking ideas for reforming the Catholic Church in a series of sessions called the Heidelberg Disputations.
Like many famous stories, Luther’s was not quite as romantic as it’s made out to be. He did not nail his theories to a church door, as legend has it, our guide confided – he just handed them in. And while his ideas gave rise to a whole new kind of Christianity, he ended his life teaching Catholic theology — a bitter irony.
Next up was a visit to the town square, and a look at the city’s huge cathedral, which dominates central Heidelberg. But the square itself has a colourful past, as well: at a spot where today you see a statue of Hercules, there once hung a cage where those convicted of petty crimes were confined so the townspeople could fling abuse — of all kinds — at them.
The tour over, I spent the rest of the morning browsing along the Hauptstrasse, as the city’s pedestrian main street is called. If you like shopping, eating, or just sitting in the sun having a drink, this is the place to come. Even on a weekday, it was full of locals and visitors, having a good time.
If you like architecture, however, it’s also a great place to stroll. You’ll find everything from the medieval buildings of the university to handsome art deco structures, often within a block of each other.
Turning back onto the Hauptstrasse from a little diversion, I wandered through a church doorway to find one of the the loveliest interiors I’ve ever seen.
But despite the history and the architecture, most people come to Heidelberg to shop at the souvenir and book stores that line the street: I came across a gem shop with some amazing ancient fossils in the window. And they come to eat at the restaurants and cafés. One of the favourite treats are “snowballs” — round pastries made of strips of cookie dough that’s deep-fried and then covered with chocolate or some other coating. They’re tasty, and because of the way they’re cooked, they’re said to last a week.
I guess that’s fitting, in a town with a 600-year-old university. And as long as the castle keeps on luring tourists from around the world, Heidelberg will continue to be a hot spot. In fact, it’s one of Germany’s most expensive places to live: tennis player Steffi Graf owns a home here, and many of the posh homes on the river are empty because there’s a shortage of buyers with the kind of money they demand.
After he visited Heidelberg, Mark Twain rhapsodized over the city — and, in fact, all of Germany — in his book A Tramp Abroad. It’s a wonder what some good advertising will do.