Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Hallo, Heidelberg!

Mercredi, 18 décembre.

If you've been following this blog, you know that I've been waiting all semester to get a chance to go back to Germany. I haven't been back since we moved to the States in 2001 and I've been relying on increasingly fuzzy -- but always incredibly positive -- memories to sustain me. Sure, I got a chance to spend a couple hours in the country when travelling through Frankfurt-Hahn in October, but I really wanted to go back for real.

So this weekend, during a several day trip to Strasbourg, my friend Allan and I made the two-hour bus trip from Strasbourg (on the very edge of the French-German border) to Heidelberg. Although not quite as personally significant as Stuttgart, Heidelberg is a beautiful city with a lot of historical buildings -- rather unique in Germany, where so many cities were destroyed in World War II -- and, of course, a fabulous Christmas market. We got off the bus, partially expecting to be immediately welcomed into the historic inviting streets of ancient Heidelberg... this is what greeted us instead.

Is it a horse? A dragon? A giraffe carrying a shield? We'll never know. (And I mean that, because if 10 minutes of intense Googling couldn't identify it, nothing could.) The statue was unexpected, but surprisingly pretty in its own little way. As we headed into the Altstadt ("Old City"), however, things started getting a little more ... well, German!

A more appropriate first sign of things to come was my interaction with the Tourism Office. As we waited in line to request a map, I was relieved to hear the employees speaking in English, French and German to the tourists ahead of us. Although I had been studying up on my German on the bus, I had a feeling that I wouldn't get much further than my original request ("Haben sie ein Stadtplan?"). Well ... maybe my German accent is better than I thought. Or maybe the guy was just tired of speaking in foreign languages. But whatever his reason, he explained the map and the layout of the city in rapid-fire German.

The sun set quickly as we walked through Heidelberg: it was dark by the time we reached the historic Altstadt and started walking through the Christmas markets. We were a little disappointed, as we'd hoped to watch the sun set over the river ... but the Weihnachtsmärkte soon made up for it!

I loved the giant Weihnachtspyramide ("Christmas pyramid") that stood in the middle of one of the little marketplaces! But what I loved even MORE was the food. There were so many delicious things to eat everywhere you turned ... and boy oh boy, did I eat. But hey, I've been waiting twelve years for this!

Each stand and store had more delicious foods than the next ... it was so difficult to choose!

I wound up buying gebrannte Mandeln (roasted sugared almonds). They're one of my favorite holiday treats and I'd been looking forward to them all semester, only to find out that the hot nut situation in Montpellier is limited to marrons chauds (hot chestnuts -- which are NOT as good as the Christmas carols make them seem.)

But don't worry, that wasn't all! I was delighted to recognize treats that I hadn't even remembered ... like Schokokusse and Schneebälle! (You'd have to ask my parents to be sure, but I'm almost certain that I remember absolutely devouring both of these desserts as a little kid in Stuttgart.) My Schokokuss ("chocolate kiss")  was sort of like a Whoopie Pie -- a thin wafer covered in marshmallow-y creme and dipped in chocolate -- AND only cost 50 cents. Although the Schneeball ("snowball") wasn't quite as cheap, it was even more delicious! But how could friend, sugar-covered shortbread NOT be delicious?


We even caved and bought pommes frites ... they were sprinkled with paprika and simply smelled too delicious to pass up! Besides, it was fun to sit and eat our hot cone of fries while watching people walk around the market.


Once we'd popped into all the markets on the street, we realized it was only around eight o'clock. (This happens a lot here -- it gets dark so early that by 6 pm, it feels like dinner and bedtime!) Although we were pretty pooped, we decided that we'd regret it if we didn't take full advantage of our opportunities. So we went ahead and hiked up to Heidelberger Schloss! The walk wasn't bad and the nighttime view of the Altstadt was just incredible ... my pictures can't possible do it justice.

The castle, which we had intended all along to visit the next morning, is the city's most celebrated tourist site. In fact, it's one of Northern Europe's most important Renaissance structures! It dates back to the 1200s, although most of what remains was built in the 16th and 17th centuries. Now, after centuries of damage and reconstruction, it stands partially in ruins -- the eye-grabbing center of attention of a 600-meter hill called Königstuhl ("Kings' Seat").

We walked up the hill and into the castle's courtyard. The walls were lit up, the courtyard was decorated with a giant Christmas tree, and the illuminated windows made the whole thing feel like one of those little ceramic houses that you light up with a candle. And just outside, in the palace forecourt, was yet another Christmas market! It was magical.

The next morning, we got up bright and early to explore to the city of Heidelberg before the Christmas market crowds set in. The Altstadt, which had been absolutely packed with people the night before, was practically empty at 10 am on a Sunday morning. 

We loved the Universitätsbibliothek, the official library of the University of Heidelberg. It used to be home to a library collection called the Bibliotheca Palatina -- which, with over five thousands books and three thousand manuscripts, was the most important collection of the German Renaissance! Nifty. 

Our next stop was the Karl-Theodor-Brücke, better known as the Alte Brücke ("Old Bridge"). The bridge dates back to the 18th century, which, when compared to the Heidelberg Castle itself, is positively recent! Allan and I both absolutely loved the bridge, which was peaceful and afforded some amazing views of the city along the Necker River.


What's that in the distance?

Oh, that's right -- Heidelberg Castle! (AKA our next stop.)

Although we knew that the castle was going to be absolutely worth it, we were less than thrilled about the hike. 300 meters isn't far, but boy -- that hill sure was steep! I had to resort to a slightly sideways approach at times. Phew.


But as we hiked up, the views just got better...

... and better ...

... and better!

Risking puddles for the perfect photo!

After taking advantage of the gorgeous view from the ramparts, we walked through the gardens -- a little dismal at this time of year -- and around the back of the castle. 

Or, rather, what's left of the back of the castle -- the powder turret was split clean in half by an explosion! It's so striking that Mark Twain actually wrote about it in his 1880 A Tramp Abroad:
One of these old towers is split down the middle, and one half has tumbled aside. It tumbled in such a way as to establish itself in a picturesque attitude. Then all it lacked was a fitting drapery, and Nature has furnished that; she has robed the rugged mass in flowers and verdure, and made it a charm to the eye. The standing half exposes its arched and cavernous rooms to you, like open, toothless mouths; there, too, the vines and flowers have done their work of grace. The rear portion of the tower has not been neglected, either, but is clothed with a clinging garment of polished ivy which hides the wounds and stains of time. Even the top is not left bare, but is crowned with a flourishing group of trees & shrubs. Misfortune has done for this old tower what it has done for the human character sometimes – improved it.

Although we could have wandered around the gardens for hours, our rumbling stomachs had other intentions. But even the walk back down was beautiful! Can you believe that the picture on the right is of somebody's house?!

Back to the Christmas Markets!

Rostbratwurst -- so good that there aren't even words.

Sadly, all too soon it was time to leave Heidelberg. Although we stayed in the city for just over 24 hours, I am so glad I made the trip. France has been an absolutely incredible experience, but there was something about being in Germany that just felt like home.


  1. It's like I was there with you! I'm so glad you were able to make the trip and had a friend to enjoy it with.
    Love, Mommy

  2. It's like I was there with you! I'm so glad you were able to make the trip and had a friend to enjoy it with.
    Love, Mommy

  3. Et moi la francaise, qui a habite l'Allemagne 5 ans et qui ne voulait pas en partir, est tout a fait sur ton onde...

  4. I am so happy that you were able to be in Germany again and that you had a friend who was willing to walk up and down and all around just like you not to mention enjoyed the food as well.