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High on Heidelberg
William Turner, Goethe and Mark Twain have all fallen for Heidelberg's charms. TOI-Crest finds out why this medieval city is such a draw.
I had been warned that Heidelberg would sweep me off my feet, but nothing had prepared me for this. My limited experience of German towns and cities until that moment had only confirmed my preconceived notions that they are clean, orderly, modern and a bit boring.
Heidelberg is different. The imposing ruins of a magnificent castle look down with quiet benevolence at the spread of old-fashioned orange-brown roofs below. The roofs, in turn, look cheerily up at their stately neighbour, readily bowing to its superiority. The sheer beauty of the town gives it a romantic aura, conjuring up visions of a more innocent time when life strolled along at a leisurely pace. It's easy in Heidelberg not to notice the cars, cellphones, neon signs and other visible signs of modern life.
Indeed, the town induces contemplation and thought: after all, it has been a tradition here for centuries. It is home to the oldest university in Germany, a hub of intellectual energy where rigour and freedom of thought have been valued and rewarded. The student town is, this year, celebrating 625 years of existence of the Ruperto Carola University, popularly known as the Heidelberg University. The best way to discover the charm of the university is to enter the student prison or studentkarzer. A steady stream of sunlight enters from a small aperture at the top and lights the dark wooden staircase. The rays irradiate the graffiti-smeared walls that were the product of physical captivity. From 1778 until 1914, students were imprisoned here for so-called minor transgressions. In fact, getting locked behind bars was synonymous with having arrived. The crime was simple and common: get drunk in a public place or let loose pigs from farms onto the roads.
The practice of having a student prison has long been abolished by the Heidelberg University, the oldest in Germany, but it is still a fascinating spot to visit. Initially, the prison was a dreary dungeon in the main university building. Following a flood, the prison was shifted to the second floor of a building close by and that is where it became a popular destination. Incarcerated students were allowed to attend classes through a special connecting entrance, and were even given the luxury of bringing to the poorly lit cells whatever they needed for a comfortable stay. Obviously, for students, there was no better way to kill time than scribble and doodle on the walls.
The town has many other treasures - a single day seemed woefully inadequate now. I found myself (like countless other visitors, no doubt) in the same state of mind as Mark Twain. The story goes that in 1878 the legendary writer, in an attempt to break out of a prison of his own - the crippling dungeon of writer's block - had undertaken a trip across Europe. He came to Heidelberg for what he'd intended to be a day, and ended up staying three months. Twain is said to have completed his Huckleberry Finn here. It is not a coincidence that Heidelbeerenberg (from where the contracted name of the city is derived), when translated, is Huckleberry Mountain.
When he entered the city and viewed the ruins of the illuminated castle for the first time, Twain is said to have remarked: "One thinks Heidelberg by day - with its surroundings - is the last possibility of the beautiful;but when he sees Heidelberg by night, a fallen Milky Way, with that glittering railway constellation pinned to the border, he requires time to consider upon the verdict. "
Many an artist and thinker has extolled the virtues of the salubrious, cerebral climate here. While Erica Jong described the escapades of her protagonist in Fear of Flying, an uninhibited story of the young woman fuelling fantasies and igniting debates, Heidelberg played a major role as backdrop. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's romance with the city has also been documented in the city. On the wall of Goldener Hecht, hotelcum-restaurant, stands a poster with pride, proclaiming : "Goethe almost slept here". The legend has been repeated over the years to every visitor. "He came here, but we sent him away because the place was full. " Unmindful, Goethe himself, charmed by the city, had said in 1797: "The city in its setting and with its entire surroundings has, one may say, something ideal. . . "
Wherever you go, there are slices of history. While walking, you may miss small stumble stones that have been erected as markers in remembrance of a Jew who lived or worked at the spot before being deported to a concentration camp. Alongside the Neckar, a wall has markings on three spots: each time the river rose and caused floods.
A few metres away is the famous Cafe Knosel, the oldest confectionery store in Heidelberg. Established in 1863, its popularity rose to dizzying heights in the student town. Young girls, chaperoned by their governesses, loved to visit the place for its chocolates and young men to take a look at the young women. The secret longings didn't go unnoticed by the cheerful owner Fridolin Knosel who was quick to prepare a particularly delicious chocolate which he impishly called Student's Kiss. Needless to mention that the chocolates, which have a silhouetted couple kissing on the wrapper, became a way of sending love messages to the beloved. Although much has changed since then, the chocolate continues to be a sought-after souvenir.
Travellers must walk through narrow alleys lined with Baroque-style houses. Since it is one of the few cities in Germany to have escaped the Allied bombing raids during World War II, the only traces of destruction are from the war of 1693. While the medieval ground plan was essentially retained, new houses in the Baroque style rose up over the surviving foundations and cellars. One can see the majestic new buildings crowning the valley: City Hall, the Old University and the Palais Morass stand tall and royal.
At the end of the day, one can see that none of the town's many delights can, by themselves, fully encompass the ethos of the place. Heidelberg has managed to keep its pristine aura intact while everything else seems to be diving headlong into an increasingly frenetic future.
Our guide tells us how the town is at the forefront of cancer research. Somehow I'm not too interested in this important fact. Maybe I just don't want to dilute the purely romantic fantasy that is Heidelberg.
AT A GLANCE
Heidelberg is accessible by high-speed trains from Stuttgart or Frankfurt.
A box of student's kisses from Cafê Knosel
WHAT TO SEE:
Running until July 31, the Castle Festival has open-air theatre and music. The Christmas market (November 23-December 22) is charming and old-fashioned
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