Heidelberg: Lessons in History & Heritage

/ Heidelberg, Germany
Heidelberg: Lessons in History & Heritage

Set on Koningstuhl, Heidelberg Castle is the star attraction of the city

There are many student towns in the world but few can rival the small German city of Heidelberg’s unique connection with education and youth. While hostels and libraries are commonplace, Heidelberg is perhaps the only centre of learning in the world to have had a prison for students!
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It is rather easy to miss the arched white door at the entrance of an ordinary-looking building, set in a narrow alleyway in Altstadt. But, step inside and the ordinary settings rapidly metamorphose into a unique structure, with wall-to-wall graffiti covering every little bit of space in each of many rooms in the building.

No, you have not stepped into a museum of post-modern art or a gallery of graffiti. You are standing in a unique spot that dates back to late 18th century and served as a special prison, a jailhouse dedicated to disciplining errant students.

Set in the centre of the Altstadt or Old Town of Heidelberg, inside the Old University, Studentenkarzer was the student prison of Heidelberg University from 1778 until 1914, where students were punished for their peccadilloes or minor transgressions such as petty violence or pranks, which were rather common, even though almost every student belonged to a gentrified family.

As the university ran its own affairs inside the campus, the students were sent to detentions at the prison, lasting from 3 days to 4 weeks. However, even during detention, the students could attend their classes during the day, but returned to spend their evenings in the prison.

While imprisoned, the students did what they have done the best, doodling or making graffiti on the walls of their cell and these ‘artworks’ continue to tell the tale of the talent even to this day and practically every cell is crammed with them.

The University sits at the centre of the Old Town, the historic and current heart of the city, with its romantic alleyways, paved with cobblestones and lined with quaint traditional pubs, set amidst numerous historic buildings.

Thanks to the University and the thousands of students and faculty there, not counting the visitors, who turn up in millions each year, the centre of Heidelberg is always vibrant, right from the early morning through the day, till very late in the night.

Though it has countless historical buildings, the Old Town is anything but overbuilt. In fact, less than 10 pc of the entire area occupied by the Old Town is built over, giving it an open, airy feel, adding to its attractive ambience.

Heidelberg Castle

A key attraction of Heidelberg is the eponymous castle that overlooks the city, sitting halfway on Koningstuhl or King’s Seat. The castle was the principal residence of the Palatine Counts and Electors from the House of Wittelsbach, who ruled the Palatinate of the Rhine from here for over 400 years.

Even though it has lived through countless wars and the accompanying destruction, the castle continues to demonstrate to the visitors the wealth and luxury in which the Palatine Counts lived and which could also rival Vienna, Prague or Budapest in splendour.

One of the most interesting parts of the Castle is Friedrichsbau or Friedrich’s Wing, with lavishly decorated facade and castle chapel. It was built by Prince Friedrich IV as his stately residential palace on the pedestal of a previous medieval structure. Visitors can see a depiction of Friedrich IV, as the final representative of his illustrious ancestral line, reaching back to Charlemagne.

Heidelberg City

Heidelberg City is replete with monuments dating back to the 17th century

Charles de Graimberg had established a small makeshift museum in the Friedrich’s Wing in 1850. The Baden government restored the state rooms in 1893 and the building was outfitted with a new transverse gable roof. Regional artists created the lavishly ornamented wooden ceilings, door trim and floors based on the Renaissance style.

Royalty and celebrations or parties can hardly ever be separated, anywhere in the world, and so is the case in Heidelberg. Signs of exactly how much Palatine Princes loved to party can still be seen in the Castle, especially its Barrel building. As the name suggests, this wing was essentially made to store wine and in 1591, a giant barrel, the Heidelberg Tun, stored 130,000 litres of wine produced in the Palatinate.

In the 17th century, when this barrel got damaged in a war, it was replaced by an even larger barrel, one storing 220,000 litres of wine, which stands even today and is said to be the largest barrel of wine in the world.

The King’s Seat at Koningstuhl

The Old Town is in fact set right next to a forested area covering the Koningstuhl or King’s Seat, a hill that rises 568m above the city. With great views of the Neckar River below and the entire Heidelberg town as well as the Rhine plains stretching beyond the greatest European river.

Heidelberg city lanes

A walk through Heidelberg’s lanes juxtaposes modern with medieval

Being forested and at a slight altitude, Koningstuhl is about 6°C cooler than the city centre during the summers. It can be ascended from the Castle by a steep staircase, that is perhaps aptly called the ladder to the heaven. There are also a number of trekking trails for people to go to the top or simply explore the forests around. But for those in a rush, there is a funicular railway that takes people right to the top from the Kornmarkt Valley Station and also stops at the Castle and Molkenkur stations. There is also a bus service that operates hourly.

At the top, there is a special attraction for families since it hosts a theme park, the Fairy Tale Paradise, spread over 48,000 sqm. There are also demonstrations of falconry at the top and a national observatory for fans of astronomy.

 Christmas Market in Heidelberg (Francesco Carovillano)

(L) Christmas Market decorations in Heidelberg (Photo: Francesco Carovillano/GNTB) (R) View of Heidelberg Castle and bridge from across Neckar River

Neckar River

Heidelberg is situated on the banks of Neckar River, a major tributary of the Rhine, and as can be expected of any riverside town, the riverbank is another lively quarter of the city, which keeps throbbing with activities almost round the clock.

The Old Bridge on the Neckar is yet another major tourist attraction. Built of sandstone drawn from the Neckar Valley itself, this bridge was built in late 18th century, around 1780, and connects the Old Town with Neuenheim district. The original bridge was destroyed in the World War II and it was rebuilt in 1946.

The bridge is an attractive sight, with two large white pillars forming an archway at the entrance to the Old Town. These pillars can be seen from afar and make a pretty picture. Another attraction on the bridge are the statues and sculptures, depicting Elector Karl Theodor, Roman Goddess Minerva as well as John Nepomuk, the patron saint of the bridge.

There are numerous river cruises offered on the Neckar River and most of them start from the vicinity of the bridge. The cruises come in various options of duration, ranging from 50 minutes to three hours, with the longest often including meals. Besides the cruises, there are also many boat-restaurants that stay anchored to the banks, but are popular with the students as well as visitors.

(L)Old Bridge on the Neckar River, (R) Francesco Carovillano

(L)Old Bridge on the Neckar River, (R) Francesco Carovillano

It is also possible to hire boats like canoes for rowing on the river. Don’t be surprised, if you spot some students from the university indulging in an informal canoe race, after their classes.

After all, rowing on the Neckar River certainly beats being locked up in a Studentenkarzer!

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