the romance of heidelberg

A quick internet search about the city of Heidelberg leads to a slew of results about Romantic Heidelberg. For example: “Fall in love with Romantic Heidelberg” or “Heidelberg: Germany at its most romantic” or “Visit many romantic places in Heidelberg.” The way the word “romantic” is tossed around conjures up images from a cheesy greeting card: couples walking hand-in-hand, candlelit dinners, a bed of rose pedals, hearts and red silk.  Romantic may be a good descriptor for Heidelberg, but I’m not sure it’s primarily that kind of romance.

However, Heidelberg is a significant city in the history of German Romanticism. Heidelberg was, for a time, home to several writers, poets and philosophers of the Romantic movement. A little history of Romanticism… It’s been described as an intellectual movement that emerged in the 18th and 19th centuries as a critique of dominant philosophies and cultural forces of the times— the rationalism of the Age of Enlightenment, the progress and machines of the Industrial Revolution, and the orderly ideals of (Neo)Classicism. In response to these dominant forces (Classicism, Industrialism, Rationalism), the Romantics said, “But what about emotions and the senses?! What about the individual?! What about beauty and nature and the past?! We like things a little spontaneous and emotional and irrational.” Ok, that’s quite simplified… This video is a good introduction to the topic. The Romantic thinkers in Heidelberg (a second wave of Romantics in Germany) were apparently more practical than their predecessors, and they were especially interested in German folklore, folk songs and fairy tales, and medieval history.

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Marktplatz with the castle on the hill

With this historical notion of “Romantic” in mind, it’s easy to see why Heidelberg was a home to this thought-movement and continues to earn such a descriptor. The poet Goethe is quoted as saying that Heidelberg has “something ideal” about it. And it’s true. The city of Heidelberg dates back to the 12th century and is nestled with its university and church spires in a valley along the Neckar River. Like most medieval German towns, it’s charming with its narrow, twisting and turning alleyways and cobblestone squares. But the way Heidelberg is set so picturesquely in the river valley is exceptionally lovely. And above the red-roofed old town (Altstadt) on the hill sit the ruins of Heidelberg Castle. Even in the 1800s, the intellectuals and artists in the Romantic movement were impressed by those centuries-old ruins and the beauty and weight of a history of kings and courts and religion and wars. Indeed, artists came from all over Europe around 1800 to paint the scene of the castle on the hill above the river. We have the Romantics (and their enthusiasm for the past) to thank that the castle ruins weren’t just torn down by the government over 200 years ago and that today, we can still head up the hill from the Altstadt to the castle to look down on the city, wander through the gardens, and enjoy a Renaissance castle that belongs in a fairy tale.

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The restored portion of the castle from inside the courtyard

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Looking down at the Altstadt from the castle gardens

Heidelberg has a funicular (the Bergbahn) that you can ride from the old town to the castle or on up even higher to the top of the King’s Seat (Königstuhl). We went up to the top, enjoyed the view and hiked back down through the woods.

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At the top of the funicular ride on Königstuhl

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On the old bridge

The nicest way to get to the other side of the Neckar River is by crossing on the Old Bridge. The Old Bridge takes you to the bottom of the opposite hill, where you find a winding path called the Schlangenweg, which is one of the ways to get up to the Philosopher’s Path (Philosophenweg). This is a walking path about 2 km long that’s partially wooded and also has great vantage points of the city and the castle as well as a portion with beautiful sunny gardens. It’s name, “Philosopher’s Path” traces back to the university students and professors who walked along the path, where they found solitude for contemplation and could search for inspiration. That’s a very “Romantic” thing to do, although it’s also supposed that young couples went up to the Philosopher’s Path for “romantic” walks.

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Looking over to the Altstadt and Heidelberg Castle from the Philosophenweg.

All of these walks in the woods and sweeping views of the castle ruins and the river and the green hills might put you and your partner in a romantic mood, (and if the web is telling the truth, Heidelberg does have an international reputation for the hearts-and-kisses kind of romance), but I think being in Heidelberg more truly captures the Romantic spirit of the writers and poets who spent time there and so valued nature and the past.

Heidelberg is, however, not just a popular picturesque tourist destination with a history, but is also home to the famous University and its over 30,000 students with research institutions and the no. 1 ranked library in Germany, restaurants and bars with a good nightlife, chocolatiers and chocolate shops, a typical shopping district, music festivals and markets.

We visited Heidelberg last September with my parents, and I have some really good memories from our time there. We ate at a good traditional Gaststätte (Essighaus) near the Altstadt that was recommended by the person who owned our loft rental, which we booked over TripAdvisor and enjoyed. We wandered into a lively farmer’s market after walking the Philosophenweg, then walked back up the hill for a sunny picnic. We took the funicular up to Königstuhl and from there, we watched a guy take off and fly from the hill and hang glide over the city.

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