by Frank, tour manager
Heidelberg, the former capital of the Palatinate and the seat of Germany’s oldest university, is one of the country’s most popular tourist destinations. Its principal attraction is certainly not hidden away: the famous castle, Germany’s most photogenic ruin, dominates the Baroque city and the picturesque valley of the River Neckar. The ensemble of the castle with its magnificent Renaissance gardens, the Hortus Palatinus, was once considered the “eighth wonder of the world” until the city and the castle were bombarded and destroyed on three occasions in the 17th century. If that were not enough, what remained of the castle was then struck by lightning and the rebuilding was finally abandoned, leaving the castle a spectacular ruin.
A visit to Heidelberg will always include a tour of the castle, accessible on foot or by funicular railway. But the city has its hidden attractions too, no less worth a visit: a quiet beer garden, an ancient inn, a disturbing memorial and a university prison.
The Beer Garden
The Kulturbrauerei in Leyergasse is just a minute from the coach dropping-off point but is often overlooked by tourists walking up into the centre. It is a modern brewery within the walls of an old building where beer was brewed for generations. It consists of a typical German beer hall with long tables and a shady beer garden. The cuisine is traditional German fare with a number of local Palatinate dishes, which can be washed down with the refreshing unfiltered beer brewed on the premises. Prost!
Zum Roten Ochsen, the “Red Ox Inn”, is a traditional student pub which has been run by the Spengel family for over 170 years. It is situated just off Karlsplatz and is a special place where generations of students are immortalised in photographs and in their signatures carved into the tables. Visitors have included Mark Twain, Otto von Bismarck and even John Wayne and Marilyn Monroe when Heidelberg was in the American zone of occupation after the last war. It is also remembered with gratitude by a young Englishman, Patrick Leigh Fermor, who walked from London to Istanbul in 1933 at the age of 18. Carrying little more than a rucksack, a few letters of introduction and a few volumes of poetry, he describes his stay with the Spengels at the Red Ox Inn in “A Time of Gifts”.
A sombre warning on a stone in the centre of Universitätsplatz is easily missed. It marks the spot where, shortly after Hitler came to power, students from the university (which in the past had had a fine liberal tradition) publicly burned books by authors banned by the Nazis, for example Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud.
The inscription, a quotation by the playwright Lessing, reads: “What has once been printed belongs to the whole world in perpetuity. No one has the right to destroy it.”
The Studentenkarzer or Student Prison in Augustinergasse, near the book-burning memorial, lightens the mood fantastically. Here students were locked away with just bread and water for committing the usual student pranks like chasing pigs down the street. During their incarceration they would amuse themselves by decorating their cell walls with paintings of themselves wearing their little student caps, as in “The Student Prince”, accompanied by their coats of arms (many of them being from rich families) and protestations of their innocence.
One such appeal says: “All we did was to return to the authorities the loose cobblestones which we found in the street, by throwing them through the window of the police station. We are the victims of our honesty. We are innocent!”
The castle and its park, the two principal churches, Heiliggeistkirche and the Jesuit Church, and the mile-long pedestrianised main street are obvious destinations for the visitor, but Hidden Heidelberg too has its appeal and is well worth discovering.
For the opportunity to visit these little hidden gems for yourself, browse through our escorted tours and river cruises that visit Heidelberg:
Frank, tour manager