Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Heavenly Heidelberg

Well, it's snowing here AGAIN! I feel like this is the never-ending winter. Just a few days ago I was outside enjoying the sunshine and warmth and today it's frigid and sunless. If I've learned anything from living here it's that you can't let the weather change your plans or you'll be stuck inside the house for weeks. We woke up to a cold, rainy day on Saturday but we forged ahead with our plan to go to Heidelberg. Thank goodness we did because as the miles passed, the clouds broke and the temperatures warmed. The weather was beautiful in Heidelberg for the whole weekend!

The location we're in makes it easy to miss the rest of Germany because it's so convenient to just focus on Belgium and the Netherlands since they're so close. This year we've resolved to venture to the Bavarian part of Germany and really try to see the rest of the country outside of this triangle. Another good reason to stay in Deutschland is because I'm halfway through my German language course and I need the practice. I think German is a complicated language. I'm having a lot more trouble with it than I remember having while learning French but that could be because I was in college and accustomed to being a student. Maybe I'm just lazy now.

Anyway, back to Heidelberg. We didn't stay in the city center because hotel prices were exorbitant. Our hotel (Elite Hotel) was an easy 10-minute walk from the center and considerably cheaper. It was in a residential area and I generally prefer that because I think it's more charming to stay where people actually live. The only drawback was parking. The hotel gave us a permit for street parking but all of the spots were taken by residents. Cars were lined up on both sides of the hotel's one-way street. The cross streets were also einbahnstrasse and the only way to get to them was to go all the way out to the main road and then come back up, effectively resulting in missing any spots that might have become available on the original one-way street. Confusing? Yes, very.

We ended up driving around this neighborhood for 45 minutes. It was ridiculous. We kept passing a cafe on the corner and by the third or fourth time, people began looking up from their coffees and croissants, wondering why we were casing the joint. Every time we thought we saw an open spot we would race around the block and return only to find that it was handicap, not an actual parking space, or another car would be wedging itself in because it somehow mysteriously reached the spot before we were able to complete our circle. Some spots were available but it was impossible to squeeze our American-sized car in between the European-Playmobil models. We were finally able to park on a side street but not until I had spent several minutes making the European Vacation joke: "Look kids! There's Big Ben.... and there's Parliament. Again." Fortunately for me, my husband was amused.

I only tell this story to illustrate that even now, a year and a half later, we still sometimes have trouble accomplishing basic tasks. I think the difference is that a year ago we would've panicked and now we just accept certain things like getting lost and being late. It's a much more relaxing way to deal with unexpected issues. And at least now we know what einbahnstrasse means.

Our first order of business was lunch. It was a bit late due to our parking fiasco but we managed to find a nice restaurant serving up typical German fare and delicious hefeweizen. Perkeo Restaurant is named for Perkeo of Heidelberg, a famed court jester and guardian of the largest wooden wine barrel in the world. Legend says that he died at age eighty after drinking a glass of water instead of his usual wine.

My husband had shnitzel and I enjoyed a regional dish: stuffed dumplings with mozzarella au gratin. Delicious!

Heidelberg Castle ruins from the village.
Heidelberg Castle was our next stop. It looms above the streets of the village and it's hard not to keep looking up after every few steps to catch glimpses of the majestic bastion. The anticipation of reaching it starts to build as you get closer. There are two routes to choose from: a very steep, sloping hill and lots of stairs ambling along beside private residences and shrouded by trees. We chose the hill for our first ascent and it was certainly a challenge staying upright as we trudged to the top.

Steep climb to the top!
The castle was originally a medieval fort, first mentioned in 1225 in a document in which Duke Ludwig of Bavaria granted a fiefdom. Between 1400 and 1544 the fort transformed into a castle complex. Throughout the next several hundred years it went through additions, renovations, war, French occupations, lightning destruction, and, finally, restoration and preservation.

Crumbling wall!

The castle, as it was.
After a stroll through the gardens, we went back to the main courtyard to see the largest wooden wine barrel in the world. It holds over 58,000 gallons of wine. It was Perkeo's (the court jester) job to watch over the barrel and his name is said to come from the answer he always gave when asked if he wanted a drink: "Perche no?" -- "Why not?"
Yeah, it's pretty big.
We left the castle just as the sun was setting. We went to a lookout point from the castle and watched Heidelberg's red rooftops glow as the last rays of the sun lit upon them. It was magical and reminded me of the ever-changing scenery in Ireland's countryside.

Alte Brucke
We decided to race down the hill to the Alte Brucke (Old Bridge) to see the sunset over Neckar River. The bridge was crowded with couples young and old, children, and groups of friends all gazing at the view. Street musicians played lively songs and church bells tolled from the village. The experience was another of my visions of Germany before we moved here, and it was absolutely perfect.

We then stopped for a quick drink at Vetter. It's a traditional German pub with long wooden tables, bratwurst, and in-house-brewed wheat beer. Hops hang from the chandeliers and the crowd is a jovial mingling of university students, locals, and international tourists. I had a hefeweizen mixed with some sparkling wine and fresh strawberries. It sounds weird but it's extremely tasty and not as sweet as you'd imagine.

It was dark by now and we thought it would be nice to trek up to the castle one more time to see it at night. The underlying reason for our evening workout was because my husband decided to eat a huge nougat-filled ball of chocolate and he wanted to work off the calories. This time we took the stairs and all I have to say is that if you go to Heidelberg you have license to eat and drink whatever you want as long as you're planning on going to the castle and Philosopher's Walk. These little hikes put the Stairmaster to shame.

Once again, the walk was rewarding. A few others were taking advantage of the cool, pleasant temperature but it was still quiet on the castle grounds and the nighttime views of Heidelberg were lovely. We walked through the courtyard and our footfalls echoed off the stone walls. Everything was covered in shadow and the floodlights gave everything an eerie glow, making it easy to imagine what it was like when candlelight flickered from the arched windows.

It's unique to be able to see something like this at night, away from crowds and noise. In most cases you never have an opportunity to see attractions at night, much less for free! I definitely recommend a night visit to Heidelberg Castle should you ever find yourself there.

We woke early Sunday morning to tackle Philosopher's Walk. It's easy to find: just walk across the Old Bridge and you'll see a pathway marked by a small sign. The first glance is deceiving; it looks like an ordinary garden path. After a few steps the pathway veers and you find it's another steep climb to reach your destination. Things get much easier once you reach the top of the hill. Philosopher's Walk is so named because it's said that university professors and philosophers walked there for inspiration. I can certainly imagine that the lush landscape and quiet forest would provide a nice respite from the city and an opportunity to clear the mind.
Private Garden Entrance

Private, gated gardens dot the hillside. Some are overgrown while others are meticulously manicured. During our walk we saw someone tending their garden. Can you imagine?

"Honey, I'll be back in an hour. I'm going up to Philosopher's Walk to see how the thyme and basil are coming along."

Again, the views of Heidelberg are incredible and from here you can see the castle in all its glory.

We were sad to leave Heidelberg but we got out just in time. While we were walking back over the Old Bridge, the temperature dropped about ten degrees and it was soon blustery and cloudy. Despite the drastic change in weather, Heidelberg is a place that's enchanting whether it's seen under the red-tinge of sunset, in the darkness of night, or shrouded by ominous clouds.

Heidelberg, you have a piece of my heart.

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