When you start planning European tours, you don’t really consider Germany unless you want to go to Munich for Oktoberfest or check out Berlin. This is understandable, since our perception of Europe is heavily influenced by the versions of Greek and Roman mythology we’ve been fed by popular media. When you can go to Greece or Italy or Venice, why would you go to Germany? Any old, historically important and fabled places of interest Germany did have must’ve been completely bombed out of existence during the World Wars, anyway!
That is kind of true, but when I spent two months in Germany as part of a programme with their public broadcasters’ akademie, I was told that I should check out Heidelberg. I did check out Heidelberg – it was only a couple of hours from Bonn, where I was staying – and boy, am I glad I did.
Heidelberg, especially the Old Town, is like something you imagine when you read a book, with a village or town square where people gather to talk, eat and drink, with a castle in the background, a river close by and lots of lovely paths for walking. It’s also a university town, which means that fairly cheap accommodation, food and pubs of all kinds are all around.
As soon as you get there, I recommend getting the Heidelberg Card, which will let you use most public transportation within the town, plus the lower part of the mountain railway. That’s really all you need to spend on transportation within the city for a weekend. You’d think that finding your way around would be difficult since everything’s written in German, but it’s actually surprisingly easy. I’m horrible with directions and my natural state of being is ‘lost’, even in my own city, so if I found my way around, nobody else could possibly have trouble.
So, the biggest attraction is obviously Heidelberg Castle. First, you should know that it’s huge. You can go through the parts of the castle itself where the public is allowed to enter within a couple of hours, but the gardens are extensive, and lovely. I could have wandered around for hours. Actually, I did. If you take the guided tour, you can see more of the castle, which I didn’t know until too late. So don’t make the mistake I did if you go – take the guided tour. The wine casks – there’s a giant one with 200,000 litres’ capacity, and a smaller one next to it – should interest you. But just in case you get any ideas, remember that I’ve called dibs on the big one.
Walk down to the main square from the castle. There are giant steep steps down which you can go, and there’s a small shop that sells hot wine right at the top. I found a completely black cat which treated me with complete disdain as I walked down the steps. He might be a permanent fixture; if he is, say hi to him. He will ignore you.
The university square – Universitatplatz as they call it, but with an umlaut somewhere – has the old university and will make you wonder what it must’ve been like a few decades ago when going to university meant studying classical languages and old texts, rather than professional skills like now. The cafeteria is open to public, so if you don’t fancy stopping by a pub, you could try that.
If you can manage to get lost in the old town the right way, you will also find a shop that seemed to specialise in absinthe. The chap who ran the shop confused me completely, so perhaps he’d been sampling his wares instead of selling it. Either way, it is a fascinating little shop with mindboggling varieties of something that I thought was illegal, so fingers crossed that you manage to find it.
In the evening, go for a walk by River Neckar. Do not try to make friends with the geese or swans. They are mean little sh*ts. They will chase you if you can’t feed them. But walk across the river into the new part of the city on one bridge, stopping to admire the statues and art on the bridge itself. Walk along the banks and cross back over on another, newer bridge. It’s a wonderful way to spend a couple of hours in the evening, unless you’re interrupted by angry, hissing geese, in which case you will have provided the day’s evening entertainment.
Heidelberg isn’t the place for you if you like a list of places to visit and can rattle off the names of the important sites you saw while you were there. It’s a gentle, lovely experience (except when you’re being chased by geese). If you are going to Europe and getting a Schengen visa, don’t forget to spend a weekend here. It’s lovely, relaxing and will make you feel like you stepped into another time for a couple of days.