Heidelberg Cool

I don’t know what I was more excited about – seeing daughter Mo who had been studying at Heidelberg University for the year, or staying in this charming town – the first stop on our much anticipated Christmas Market tour of Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic! Of course it was seeing Mo – but timing our trip to commence late November meant that we could have our cake and eat it too.  Yes, it’s Winter in Europe at that time of year but if you want to experience the charm and beauty of a traditional Christmas with all the bells and whistles (and sometimes snow), then put on your hat, coat and gloves and start your Yuletide adventure (our Czech Christmas Market blog to follow).

heidelberg

The historic town of Heidelberg is located in southwestern Germany and sits on the banks of the Neckar River. Home to one of Germany’s oldest and most reputable universities founded in 1386, it is not only a quintessentially vibrant University town but a popular tourist destination.  The romantic and historic cityscape, baroque Old Town, Heidelberg Castle and the well-known Philosopher’s Walk are among just some of the many attractions in this town full of Gothic and Renaissance architecture.

kornmarkt

Driving from Frankfurt Airport to Heidelberg took around 1 hour and with a satnav that we couldn’t re-programme into English, we quickly became proficient at German driving instructions!  We always prefer to stay in the historic centres of European capitals for the atmosphere but this is not always the easiest for car parking, so you have to do a lot of research in advance if travelling by car.  There are many excellent tour operators who have itineraries that cover the best of the Christmas Markets by either coach or river-cruising, so if driving is not your bag maybe consider one of these as an option.

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We booked into The Hotel Goldener Falke, right on the historic Altstadt Marktplatz, with a window overlooking the colourful Christmas Market. Located right next to the 15th century Heilleggeist Kirche (Church of the Holy Spirit), the atmosphere was incredible. Rugging up in puffer jackets, we joined the locals and other tourists who gather from around 4 pm as the dusk settles in, to enjoy a Gluhwein (our mulled wine) or two.  You very quickly forget the cold – but have to watch out for those uneven, narrow cobbled streets by the end of the night! Interestingly, our concern that it could be noisy next to the square at night, was dispelled after the first night. The markets finish at a respectable hour, the cold sends people indoors to fires and a hearty dinner at a reasonable time and our excellent hotel was not only well heated but had very good double-glazing.  Hard to imagine that this festive square was once where witches and heretics were burned at the stake or local miscreants suspended in cages for all to see their torment and shame!

Our first day was spent in a daze of sightseeing, eating and catching up.  Typical of old town environs, everything from the Hotel restaurant to the little traditional pubs features decor with lashings of dark timber, heavily-carved furniture that all give a homely, traditional feel and makes you want to linger. We sampled such delights as Käsespätzle (a “warm the cockles of your heart” type of German macaroni cheese), Bratwürste mit Sauerkraut und Kartoffelpüree (traditional sausage with Sauerkraut and mashed potato) and Apfelstrudel (apple strudel). My new favourite German word and food became Kartoffelpüffer – the name of the German equivalent of Swiss Potato Rosti. The restaurant at our hotel served the traditional Schnitzel dinner exceptionally well and one evening we were lucky to have the front table overlooking the market, watching the snow gently falling on the festivities outside. Breakfast at the “Golden Falcon” is also worthy of mention being varied, plentiful and included in your room price.

Another happy evening was spent at the Kulturbrauerei on the eastern end of the Altstadt. Dripping in atmosphere with painted ceilings, good home-brewed beer and a convivial atmosphere, the food was hearty and traditional and washed down with copious amounts of the obligatory Gluhwein. Tables were long bench type arrangements so you may end up sharing with someone else, but it’s all part of the charm.

 

Our photos certainly don’t do justice to our experience, as the dull skies make everything look a little gloomy, but in reality, it was far from that. The Castle was particularly interesting. Having suffered extensive damage from lightning strikes, wars and fires since its beginnings around the 13th century it had slowly decayed over the centuries after being ransacked by locals for stone and ornamentation. In the 19th century, the ruins were the romantic setting for many painters, writers, poets and those young men and women completing their “Grand Tour” of Europe. Ironic that some 150 years later and after the occupation of Heidelberg by the American military in WWII,  the majority of its present tourists are Japanese or Americans who swarm the observation terraces to take in the spectacular views. There are excellent displays inside the Castle as well – from the intact Apothecary Museum to the World’s Largest Wine Barrel or Heidelberg Tun. Opening hours in Summer are 8am-6pm or Winter from 10am-5.30pm and the reasonable charge of 4-7€ (slightly more for interior as well) it’s a great day out.

This is a town where you don’t have to pay for everything if you just want to wander and drink in the sights and history.  Walk the Alte Brücke (old bridge) c.1786 with its intriguing brass monkey statue and the twin-towers which once formed part of the city wall. Another famous attraction that has inspired many a well-known Poet is the Philosophenweg (Philosopher’s Walk). Established in 1817, the walk reaches an altitude of 200 metres. Along the route, there are botanical displays that would no doubt be quite stunning in Summer, with an eclectic mix of exotic and tropical trees and shrubs. The invigorating walk is well worth the view at the top where you can admire the town from above with fantastic views across the River Neckar and back to the Castle. In Summer the walk is also illuminated at night and must be a sight to see.

The 18th century Rathaus (town hall) is another beautiful building and the Kornmarkt, the old agricultural trading centre/square features the well-known statue of the Madonna with great views of the Schloss (castle) and a photo opportunist’s dream.

In three days we really didn’t leave the old town except to drive out but it was obvious that the town must have been (and still is) a very affluent one judging by the beautiful 19th and 20th century villas on the sides of the Neckar, built to take in panoramic views and all that this lovely destination offers.  It must have been a very “genteel” place to reside or study in days gone by and I know that Mo’s own experience has left a lasting impression on her.  Happy travelling, Liz

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Česky Krumlov – a fairytale town

Most travellers know the Czech Republic best for its beautiful and historically intact city of Prague.  Many do not venture further into this vast country unless they are driving to one of its four neighbouring countries (Germany, Austria, Poland or Slovakia) or taking a tour of this most interesting of regions.

After a memorable stay in Prague we reluctantly left the city on our way to Austria, but decided to break the trip in Česky Krumlov as 2.5 hours seemed about the right distance to drive in a day.  The countryside was punctuated by large stretches of forest, field and smaller villages with unpronounceable names but outside of the city, life seemed quite simple and agrarian. There were many hop orchards, unsurprising for a country with the highest beer consumption in the world!  I had decided on a stay at Česky Krumlov, having read that it was quite untouched by time, had a UNESCO World Heritage rating and that there was a 7+ hectare Rococo styled garden within the grounds of the 13th-century castle – all magnet keywords for me.

(Left-hand image from Hotel Konvice website)

As soon as we reached the town perimeter, we knew this had been a good choice. Dominated by the large castle built over a solid rock-bridge on a promontory of the river, the town is a typical medieval combination of narrow lanes and alleys, tall terracotta-roofed buildings and a “chocolate box” view around every corner. The architecture of the town developed between the 14th-17th centuries and shows the Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque influences typical of these periods. The Vltava River forms an almost moat-like circle around the town and its hairpin “S” shape is best viewed from the castle bell-tower (around 160 steps – small entrance fee). This is the land of “Good King Wenceslas” of Christmas carol fame, a Bohemian Duke (not King) who embarked on a journey braving harsh winter weather to give alms to the poor. Considered a saint and martyr after his murder, the Czechs celebrate his feast day on 28 September.

Able to drive to the door of our charming boutique accommodation Hotel Konvice on Horni ulice 145, we were able to leave our bags and drop the car to a nearby carpark with a nightly charge of around NZ$12.00. Now, this hotel was a great choice – a 16th-century building with a stunning lobby area full of curved stone ceilings, views to the castle and a somewhat “shabby chic” style. Each suite or room is individually decorated and our room (Chamber 11), contained 2 bedrooms, the master with a view to the bell-tower and a very well equipped and spotless bathroom. The hotel is a member of the Schlosshotels & Herrenhäuser – Castle Hotels & Mansions, a select group comprising romantic castle hotels, historic country homes, manor houses, estates, inns and restaurants in Austria, Germany, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

Breakfast is included in your stay, with a small but excellent continental range and is served in the restaurant just off the lobby. We also enjoyed an excellent dinner at the Restaurant Konvice with their signature goulash and dumplings, followed by a delicious honey cake and their homemade plum and cherry spirits – a sure way of warming the cockles of your heart! The Czech beer range is huge, it is well priced and so popular that many Czechs drink beer with breakfast. Staff were friendly, the surroundings warm and comfortable and dotted with antiques – this was a fairytale hotel fit for a fairytale town.

Our visit list included the Castle and gardens – one of the biggest castle complex in Europe, and can take quite a while to get around – but it’s worth it.  We were all fascinated (and a little sad) that the dry moat area around the land side entry to the castle has a bear pit that currently houses 4 brown bears. The Castle has bred bears for the defensive moat since the 16th century and a castle family crest contained the emblem of bears holding up shields. We walked over the stone moat bridge that had replaced the old timber drawbridge into the first of a series of courtyards, each emanating or developed during a distinctive period in history. The IIIrd and IVth upper castle courtyards contained Renaissance paintings depicting mythological scenes from Greek and Roman history on their facades and are the work of Renaissance court painter Gabriel de Blonde. The Castle preserves its famous Baroque theatre, built in 1680. It is one of few such court theatres to retain its original stage machinery, scenery and props but due to its age, is only used three times a year to perform Baroque opera under false candlelight.

One of the many advantages of visiting Europe in the Winter months is that we did not have to vie with the hoards of tourists who descend on this picturesque village at other times of the year.  A downside for some travelling in Winter through Europe is that gardens are not as vibrant as in Spring or Summer and many of the statuary or ornamentation is covered against frosts. An advantage I see in viewing gardens, or in fact countryside in the Winter is that you just plain see more. With so many deciduous trees in Europe, the structure of the view or vista is revealed to a greater extent in Winter and there are some Chateaux, Villas or Castles that you may never see from the roadways during other seasons.

We paid around NZ$25 for a family pass to the museum and tower and entry to the gardens is free. There are a number of very good guided tours of the castle interior in English, with family prices at around NZ$36.  The castle is open almost every day, year round (excluding Christmas and Boxing Day) but check this website for all information on open dates, times and tour times.

Would we go back? Without a doubt and this time, I would like to study the Castle and grounds in much more detail.

Happy travelling, Liz 🙂

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