By Claudia Fischer & Roger Holliday
Romantic Heidelberg, beautifully situated in the Neckar Valley, is one of Germany's premier tourist stops. Our Holliday-Fischer duo report on their recent visit.
Ever since the first tourists descended on it at the rear end of the 18th century, Heidelberg has forever been the recipient of ecstatic reviews. Celebrated down the centuries in every kind of art form... from high-flying prose and operatic aria to romantic poetry and paint...this quintessential university town on the banks of the Neckar has become a veritable poster child for German tourism - as well as magnet to some 3 million visitors a year. (Rivaled only in popularity by Neuschwanstein and Rothenburg).
Hardly surprising considering its central location, just 55 miles south of Frankfurt; easy accessibility by road, rail and river; spirited nightlife, helped along by a large and lively student population; and above all, its sublime presence.
From a travel industry perspective then, Heidelberg must surely represent the "dream package", made even dreamier by the kind of high profile proponents who have been flocking to it. Everyone from Elizabeth Stuart (daughter of James 1) and Sigmund Romberg - who set his Student Prince here - to Mark Twain, Victor Hugo, Count Bismark, Goethe, and even the British artist Turner, who painted Heidelberg to a fare-thee-well. And then became its adopted son.
Why then must we begin our report on this classic beauty with a cautionary note? A visitors heads-up, so to speak.
It's simply because Heidelberg has sadly become a victim of its own intense popularity and, unlike its more cautious down-river rival Tübingen (see Gemütlichkeit, Nov. 97), hasn't always taken the right steps to deflect the numbing effects of mass tourism.
The net-net of this careless indulgence is painfully obvious, particularly in the summer months, when the bulk of the tourists, both foreign and domestic, arrive for a look-see.
With the 30,000 students out of town for the holidays, the vacuum is instantly filled by regiments of roaming rubber-neckers disgorged from dozens of big belching diesel coaches, lined up in parking lots on the edge of the Old Town.
The sheer number and force of these incomers literally floods the center city, clogging alley and street, bar and restaurant, stall and store, as the endless lines of Touristen trail behind their brolly-toting guides: trolling for "I love Heidelberg" T-shirts and hats in the market square; spilling millions of frames of Kodak and Fuji in all the pretty places; and sopping up countless pints of frothy Adler beer in the outdoor cafés and student bars before heading, noisily and unsteadily, back to the buses for the next down river.
These coarse summer invasions have hardly gone unnoticed by travel writers, guidebooks and discriminating travelers, as Heidelberg is increasingly singled out as overcrowded, overrated, passe, pushy and borderline kitsch.
Even Rick Steves, of PBS and Mona Winks fame, has dropped Heidelberg from his top 20 Deutschland must-sees. "O Heidelberg, Du Feine," how far have you fallen!
The antidote to all this, of course, is to stay well clear in the peak season - July and August. Alternatively, you could take to the untrammeled Gassen (lanes) and wait for the daily invasion to subside before doing any serious sight-seeing. Or, better still, hike the surrounding hills and inhale the city's indisputable bounties from above.
In fact, in our view, a visit to Heidelberg best begins not at ground zero at all, but rather in the clean air of the Königstuhl (Kings Throne) above the castle or on the cross-river Philosophers Way, with all those classic Old Town views that are burned into our collective memory banks from countless calendars and documentaries: a meandering Neckar mit gaily painted, slow-chug barges passing under a 17th century and portcullised Alte Brücke; a medieval huddle of spires and slate and sand stone buildings set around a market square; everything supplanted by Heidelberg's crowning jewel - the classic ruined castle - all reds and pinks and purples in a canopy of forest green.
With this picture firmly in place, it's time to come down to earth for a closer, ground-level inspection.
As all the main attractions are within easy walking distance, Heidelberg is quite easily "done", sight-seeing-wise, in a couple of leisurely days. But for the true atmosphere to soak in (and to do proper justice to all the student razzmatazz!), we recommend a longer stay, perhaps using Heidelberg as a base from which to explore the fertile Neckar Valley, the "castle road" to Rothenburg or the historic towns of Ladenburg, Bad Wimpfen and Schwetzingen.
Tops on every Heidelberg agenda, is of course, the famous Schloss. This three-star Michelin ruin (while not exactly at ground level) is still easily accessed either by road or funicular from the Kornmarkt, and bears witness to a colorful and turbulent history.
First mentioned in dispatches in 1225, it was altered, expanded and besieged on several occasions, before being reduced to its current wreck in 1693 during the Wars of Conquest.
In case you're not familiar with this particular bloody skirmish...or were absent from school on the day it was discussed...have no fear, for Heidelberg's history is a long and complicated one with explanations best left to erudite guides and guidebooks. Suffice to say that both the castle and the city got in the way of some dispute over a Royal title...and were rapidly reduced to rubble.
The castle, however, is still worth a visit. If not for the sensational views out across the city and river to the hills beyond, then for a look at the world's largest wine cask; 48,000 gallons in capacity, this Grosses Fass, constructed in 1751, was once guarded, according to legend, by a vertically-challenged court jester named Perkeo, who is said to have had a monumental capacity for the juice! Now the cask doubles as a dance floor!
The castle presents its prettiest face at night from river level, when searchlights play on its crenelated ramparts and towers. Even more dramatic displays take place on the first Saturday of each summer month when blood-red spotlights recall the castles fiery destruction...and fireworks provide the colorful crown of glories past.
Following the sacking, Heidelberg was rebuilt Baroque style on its original foundations, so the bulk of what one sees today is essentially 300 years-old, give or take the odd exception. (It should be noted too, that Heidelberg came through WWII safely, and is one of the very few cities of its size to have survived intact. The only remaining war legacy is the 20,000 GIs stationed at nearby Patrick Henry Village, adding a distinctly Yankee flavor to an already cosmopolitan population.)
The university, for which Heidelberg is best known...and around which so many of its romantic traditions radiate...is Germany's oldest, founded in 1386.
But don't expect to find said scholars on any kind of US-style campus, for most of the U's lecture halls, institutes, seminar buildings and clinics are spread out, hidden almost, throughout the Old Town.
But it's Heidelberg's evocative and immensely attractive Altstadt that remains the touristic focal point.
Pedestrianized in 1978, it is a veritable cornucopia of colorful markets and cobbled streets, Gothic-style churches and monumental fountains. Along the Hauptstrasse, upmarket shops and antique stores vie with souvenir schlock. Coffee houses and open air restaurants fizz with activity and blend in seamlessly with lavishly decorated mansions, stately museums and quiet courtyards.
On one corner, two students fiddle baroque. On another, a Wurlitzer blasts oompa. On yet another, religious icons are peddled. And so it goes.
As an important center of learning (it boasts seven Nobel Prize winners), Heidelberg lacks little in the way of cultural activities music, art, theater.
In the Palatinate Museum one can study the jawbone of the prehistoric "Heidelberg Man" who roamed the Neckar Valley in 500,000 BC. Or wonder at the wood carving skills of the ubiquitous Tilman Riemenschneider whose "Altarpiece of the Twelve Apostles" is on display.
If pharmaceuticals are more your thing, there's a museum dedicated to pestles and phials and apothecary equipment. And on a lighter note, there's always the Students Gaol, where the more rowdy pupils were incarcerated, leaving on the sooty walls centuries of graffiti and coats of arms to memorialize their various escapades.
Ultimately, then, Heidelberg is about student life. About romance. The great traditions, the fraternities that still exist. The beanies, the sashes, the bizarre rituals called Mensur, or fencing matches, that continue today, albeit under cover. Where a scar on a cheek was, and is, considered a lifelong "badge of courage". A bond. Mark Twain wrote about it all in A Tramp Abroad.
The famous student taverns are filled with all this dueling memorabilia. With sabers and helmets. Goggles and medical devices. Faded tintypes of ancient and fraternal warriors who strutted Heidelberg's cobbled streets by day and its beer joints by night...competitively quaffing liter upon liter of frothy beer...before heading noisily and unsteadily home.
The circle, you might say, has been closed!
It would be a shame to visit a city with a past as rich as Heidelberg's and not stay in one of its truly historic hotels. To be sure there's a full range of bed-in-a-box style places to be had at lower cost and not a few in the higher priced range. But many of these are not only sterile and uninteresting, but a long, boring walk away from the old town.
Hotel zum Ritter St. Georg
Located right on the Hauptstrasse, looking out over the Fischmarkt, this late Renaissance establishment is so remarkable that it has become one of Heidelberg's must-see sights. The venerable Green Michelin for Germany calls it a "magnificent bourgeois mansion."
Hotel zum Ritter St. Georg, which translates roughly as The Knight's House, is named for the carving of St. George in knightly armor which features prominently in the ornate five-story façade. Built in 1592 by a French Huguenot, this was the only patrician house to survive the devastation of 1693.
As a hotel, the zum Ritter has had its ups and downs, succumbing at times to a temptation to exploit its premier location with indifferent service and lackluster rooms. Happily, those problems seem to be long past. We were warmly greeted by the staff on our recent visit.
The hotel was completely renovated in 1996 and while some of the guestrooms are quite small, all are attractive and comfortable and the restaurant is considered one of the best in town. The elegant dining room, where main dishes are in the 22 to 35 DM ($16-$21) range, is all mirrors and brass and dark wood wainscoting under a dramatic rounded sepia ceiling.
A broad wooden staircase in the lobby leads up to a warren of corridors that open unexpectedly onto courtyards and sitting alcoves. Don't be surprised to come upon a full suit of armor tucked into one corner or another.
The flagship room, Number 101, is decorated in a soothing combination of yellow and blue and has a cozy sitting nook with tall windows that overlook the Fischmarkt below. The bath is large and fully tiled. There's a power shower, heated towel bars, and a full range of quality amenities. In high season this room is a pricey 365 DM ($216). In all there are 40-rooms all with minibars, hairdryers and cable TV.
Daily Rates: Singles 165-245 DM ($98-$145), doubles 265-365 DM ($157-$216), Junior Suite 390-420 DM ($231-$249).
Contact: Romantik-Hotel zum Ritter St. Georg Hauptstrasse 178, tel. +49/062 21/135-0, fax 135-2 30.
Rating: Quality 14/20, Value 10/20
Even older is the Hirschgasse across the river from the castle/old town and up a steep but short hill that leads beyond to the aforementioned Philosopher's Way.
The ancient inn was first mentioned in the recorded history of Heidelberg in the year 1472, part of a romantic encounter between poet Johann von Soest and the innkeeper's daughter.
Throughout the ages there has been no shortage of association with the rich and/or famous. The city's first dueling fraternity was founded on these very premises. Bismarck was apparently a regular visitor and not above carving his name into the wooden tabletop along with everyone else's - beer is still served nightly in the Mensurstube (duelers' tavern) on that same table, now over 200 years old.
Other visiting luminaries have included Mark Twain who wrote appreciatively about the inn and its action in A Tramp Abroad - and two fierce sounding Russians, Wooden Lip and Black Peter.
Enter through a courtyard into a low arched doorway and the tiny brick floored lobby. A length of paisley fabric artfully draped over the wrought iron stair railing lets you know right away that this is no ordinary establishment. Nothing is left to chance - every aspect, from the decor to the cordiality of the staff, is polished and buffed to perfection.
The Kraft family first bought the hotel in 1972. Now second generation Ernst and his English wife Allison - with the help of three year old Emma - run the daily operation while technically retired Grossmutter tweaks the pillows into perfection in the background.
In 1988 the guest rooms were all remodeled into twenty suites each of which was given a theme - Peking, Blueberry, Patio. The actual decorating was done by the Laura Ashley group and is extremely attractive with coordinated fabrics, furnishings, wallpapers and color schemes.
The suites come in three sizes. Junior Suites are the smallest and most basic but still qualify as outstanding by any standard. Senior Suites, equipped with Jacuzzis and four-poster beds, are in the middle category. And at the very top reign the Salon Suites with balconies, leather chairs, replica telephones and TVs that rise magically from the floor. In the wrong hands all that prettiness could be a bit oppressive but the Krafts are so nice and so enthusiastic and so dedicated to their home and their work that a successful stay is virtually guaranteed.
The formal dining room, Le Gourmet, has parquet floors, a wattle-and-daub ceiling, a ceramic tile stove and a mere seven tables. Main dishes start at 40 DM ($24).
Less expensive meals are served in the rustic Mensurstube where swords hang from the ceiling and you can all but reach out and touch Bismark et al. The traditional menu choices cost 22 to 30 DM ($12-$18).
Daily Rates: Jr. Suites 295-350 DM ($175-$208), Sr. Suites 350-450 DM ($208-$266), Salon Suites 450-650 DM ($266-$385). Breakfast 25 DM ($15) per person.
Contact: Hotel Hirschgasse Hirschgasse 3, Heidelberg, tel. +49/06221/4540, fax 454-111. Proprietor: Ernst Kraft.
Rating: Quality 17/20, Value 12/20
Hotel Hollander Hof
This hotel isn't the oldest in town it only dates from the debacle of 1693 but what is lacking in age is more than compensated for by location. The windows behind the pink-and-white baroque façade look directly out onto a square beneath the Alte Brücke, Heidelberg's second most photographed landmark. And, of course, the River Neckar.
The 40 rooms are simply but comfortably furnished and have all the necessities including TV, safe, hairdryer, mini-bar, phone and radio. The best are those with the river/bridge view. Some are designated for nonsmokers, six are equipped for handicapped travelers.
Daily Rates: Singles 160-195 DM ($95-$115), doubles 195-290 DM ($115-$172)
Contact: Hotel Hollander Hof Neckarstaden 66, Heidelberg, tel. +49/06221/6050-0, fax 6050-60
Rating: Quality 11/20, Value 11/20
Here are some Heidelberg hotel options previously reviewed in Gemütlichkeit.
A small, informal and homey hotel and restaurant near the Alte Brücke.
Each guestroom is different and individually furnished. The best is Number 12, an attractive attic room with sloping beamed ceiling and castle view.
The hotel's rustic little restaurant has long been a Gemütlichkeit favorite.
Daily Rates: Singles 120-160 DM ($71-$93), doubles 200-250 DM ($118-$148)
Contact: Hackteufel Steingasse 7, D-6900 Heidelberg, tel. +49/06221/27162, fax 165379. Proprietor: Heinrich Scholl
Rating: Quality 12/20, Value 9/20
Perkeo Hotel & Restaurant
Small, modern lodgings midway the length of Hauptstrasse with an attractive restaurant and outdoor terrace. Try Number 18 which opens to a quiet courtyard.
Daily Prices: Singles 120-180 DM ($71-$107), doubles 160-200 DM ($95-$118)
Contact: Perkeo Hotel-Restaurant, Hauptstrasse 75, D-6900 Heidelberg, tel. 06221/14130, fax 141337. Proprietor; Klaus Müller
Rating: Quality 10/20, Value 8/20
Other Hotel Notes
• If you don't mind a Western-style hotel with modern, well-maintained facilities but without a lot of charm, the Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza, located west of the Altstadt, near the Gaisberg Tunnel, was, at press time, offering a price of $135 per night via their U.S. toll free number 800-465-4329. Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza, Kurfürstenanlage 1, D-69115, phone 06221/9170, fax 06221/21007.
• Heidelberg's only five-star hotel is the 135-room Der Europische Hof - Hotel Europa, on the west edge of the Altstadt, about three blocks from Hauptstrasse. For an atmospheric evening, book a table in the hotel's Kurfürsten-Stube-Grill. This is a clubby, old-world marvel of glossy carved wood ceilings, inlaid paneling and copper serving hoods. A "grand" hotel and restaurant with prices to match. Der Europische Hof-Hotel Europa, Friedrich-Ebert-Anlage 1, D-69117 Heidelberg, phone 06221/5150, fax 06221/515555.
• For less expensive accommodations try: Hotel Garni Am Kornmarkt Kornmarkt 7, D-69117 Heidelberg, tel. +49/06221/24325, singles 75 to 120 DM ($44-$71), doubles 130 to 175 DM ($77-$104); or farther out, but with more services...
• Ambiente Hotel garni, In der Neckarhelle 33-35, D-69118 Heidelberg-Ziegelhausen, tel. +49/06221/8992, fax 89920, singles 110 DM ($69), doubles 160 DM ($95)
Wirtshaus zum Spreisel
In a flash of wisdom, the powers that be at the Hollander Hof closed their rather mediocre restaurant and rented out the space to the very accomplished folks who now operate it as Wirtshaus zum Spreisel, perhaps our favorite place to eat in Heidelberg.
In warm weather, tables spill out into the square that runs in front of the Hollander Hof to the Alte Brücke.
The food is based on traditional German favorites but with welcome modern twists. There are also foreign dishes with German twists. Wurstsalat Lyon d'Or is a thinly sliced, fine-textured sausage that's slightly piquant. Served with a big portion of outstanding Bratkartoffel, hardboiled egg and fresh tomatoes, the cost is 24 DM ($14). Franzsischer Toast (definitely NOT French toast) is a warmed baguette presented with Hungarian sausage and Camembert cheese, also 24 DM ($14). Kalbsteak with more of those delicious Bratkartoffel and a salad of corn, kidney beans and greens runs 28 DM ($17).
Wirtshaus zum Spreisel Neckarstaden 66, tel. 23543
Rating: Quality 14/20, Value 15/20
Zum Roten Ochsen
As in any destination so heavily patronized by tourists, Heidelberg has plenty of either awful or unremarkable eating places, including every conceivable fast food opportunity from McDonald's to Pizza Hut, and even a disturbing number of American sports bars and Tex-Mex eateries.
The surprise in Heidelberg is that there is also very good food to be had even at venues that are well-known to tourists. In particular, the famous student bars where beer drinking and singing and you-don't-want-to-know-what has been going on for centuries.
To begin with, nobody has been foolish enough to decorate or redecorate. The carved up table tops, yellowing photographs and student paraphernalia have been there for a very long time and aren't likely to go anywhere soon.
As a group these student bars are called Historischer Studentenlokal and they're all about 300-years-old.
The Zum Roten Ochsen has been in the Spengel family for six generations, since 1839, in fact. As a bar, though, it goes back to 1703. Everyone who comes to Heidelberg eventually seems to end up here, including the likes of Bismark and Mark Twain (neither of whom seemed to miss much), John Foster Dulles, Marilyn Monroe and John Wayne. Powder horns, antlers, pewter and ceramic steins, old photographs and faded mirrors, cover the walls, even the ubiquitous name carving moves from the tables up the walls and onto the ceiling.
At 7pm the crowd is aged 35+, mostly male and generally local. An hour later a piano player arrives and the noise level gradually rises with the increase in time and number of beers consumed. What happens in the wee hours you'll have to discover for yourself.
The wait staff are sensible-looking, mature women who add a homey feel to the place and presumably know exactly how to deal with errant behavior from rowdy young men.
The food is hearty and surprisingly good. Perhaps after a few generations of practice that's to be expected. Two big pieces of Schwein Schnitzel, served with Pommes Frites and Salat are 20 DM ($12). A pound of Spargel (fresh asparagus) with hollandaise sauce and Neue Kartoffeln is 27 DM ($16), a plate of three different kinds of ham (Schinken Plat) added another 10 DM ($6)
A final note: the toilets are amazingly clean and notably absent graffiti.
Zum Roten Ochsen Hauptstrasse 217, Heidelberg, tel. 20977. No cards.
Rating: Quality 14/20, Value 11/20
Slightly less chaotic and a notch or two up on the culinary scale is Schnookeloch, Heidelberg's oldest student tavern. The usual carved table tops, dark wood paneling and faded photos line the walls in the manner you've come to expect. There's also, however, a pretty courtyard where shade and cool breezes are most welcome on a hot day.
Each day there's a Studententeller or daily special for 12 DM. ($7) On our visit, Bergstrassler Kartoffelsuppe (potato soup), full of all kinds of root vegetables and cabbage that had been partially pureed to thicken and sprinkled with fresh parsley was followed by Gebackenes Schollenfilet mit Sauce Remoulade, (crisp fried plaice) and Kartoffelsalat. Both were delicious and served with thick slices of pumpernickel bread.
Schnookeloch also has 11 guestrooms, the best of which is Number 14, a pleasant double with windows on two sides and a large balcony furnished with table and chairs. It rents for from 220 to 260 DM ($130-$154), depending on the season. Number 22 is considerably smaller, with twin beds and two windows looking out on the narrow street, and goes for from 170 DM ($101).
Schnookeloch Haspelgasse 8, Heidelberg, tel. 14460.
Rest. Rating: Quality 13/20, Value 15/20
Hotel Rating: Quality 11/20, Value 8/20
Altitude: 114 meters/374 feet
Tourist Information: Pavillon am Hauptbahnhof, D-69115 Heidelberg, tel. +49/06221/21341, fax 167318
* Website: Heidelberg Marketing
Available in English for a small charge: Heidelberg Map (with excellent self-guided walking tour) and Heidelberg Tips
* Berlin 627 Km/392 miles
* Stuttgart 122 Km/76 miles
* Darmstadt 59 Km/37 miles
* Karlsruhe 59 Km/37 miles
* Mannheim 20 Km/13 miles
Train Times to other Cities
* Frankfurt - 2 hrs (change Mannheim)
* Munich - 3 hrs
* Cologne - 3 hrs (change Mannheim)
* Zürich - 4 hrs (change Mannheim)
* Hamburg - 4.5 hrs
* Berlin - 6.5 hrs (change Mannheim)
* Vienna - 7 hrs (change Würzburg)
* Paris - 8 hrs (change Cologne)
* London - 11 hrs (change Brussels & Cologne)
* Budapest - 11 hrs (change Wrz)
Guided Walking Tours 10 DM/$6: In German/English, daily 2pm April through October. In English, Thursday to Sundays, 10am April through October. All depart from University Square/ Lions Fountain.
Neckar River Boat Trips: April through October, lasting between 1.5 to 3 hours, cost 6 to 16.50 DM ($4-$10). Multiple departures daily. Rhein-Neckar-Fahrgastschiffahrt, tel. 06221/20181. Personenschiffahrt Hornung., tel. 06221/480064.