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).
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.
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.
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