Back in January I said, “Let’s be organized this year and book our summer holiday really early”. We decided on Germany – or Austria, or Switzerland – and talked about all the places we’d like to explore. When it’s January it’s hard to imagine summer and we didn’t reach a decision.
We had a week’s holiday and a couple of short breaks in the UK. Then suddenly it was August, and we still hadn’t booked anything in Germany, or Austria, or Switzerland. The new school year was due to start in 4 weeks. So we decided to be realistic, limit the break to 4 days and start by trying to get a flight to Somewhere which might be near somewhere nice. Frankfurt came to mind as we’d been to that area before. Flights there are available at the last minute because it’s a business centre and BA run several flights a day to Frankfurt from Heathrow. Even with such short notice and in peak holiday season we found a flight which left at a sensible time of day. No getting up in the middle of the night, no arriving in Frankfurt at 11 pm. Then we had to decide on where to go from Frankfurt Airport, within about an hour on the train.
It’s a shame so few Brits think of Germany as a holiday destination, when it has so much to offer. Our choice was Heidelberg, known to be a lovely university town, and a new area for us to explore. It lies on the River Neckar and is backed by hills and the Odenwald forest. Of course at this late stage all the best self-catering flats were taken. Intense internet searches revealed very expensive hotels in the town centre, so we took some advice from Tripadvisor and went for a family-run hotel in the suburb of Kirchheim: Hotel Heidelberg.
The usual car parking at Heathrow was fully booked and so we had to use the more expensive “Pod Parking” for Terminal 5. This was quite a fun start to the holiday, a bit like being in a cable car, 5 minutes ride in the “pod” from the car park to the terminal.
The train journey from Frankfurt Airport to Heidelberg took only about 50 minutes, changing in Mannheim. We bought a “Flexticket” which cost 100 Euros for the return journey for the three of us and was the equivalent of an open return. We hadn’t been on a German train for about 4 years, and I think my memory had been a bit distorted by dark winter evenings watching “Continental Railway Journeys” on BBC 2. Michael Portillo travels on a specially emptied train and carries nothing but his Bradshaw’s Guide. We were on a commuter train and – well, we will have to learn to travel lighter. We got chatting to another family and my daughter remarked that people talk to each other more in German trains. She also wondered what it would be like to live in a place called “Worms”, just as she has remarked on “Barking” and “Brockley” (broccoli) in London.
Our hotel (www.hotelheidelberg.com) turned out to be comfortable and friendly. It’s been in the same family for about 60 years and the people were chatty and helpful. Germans love their Kaffeemaschine, and to have one in your hotel room is the equivalent of having the expected “tea and coffee making facilities” in the UK. I don’t much like filter coffee but you can use the machine to make herb tea, or any other sort of tea, if you want to be British. Our daughter knows German too, so she likes watching the kids’ TV in Germany and comparing it with home. And of course, there was wifi. Hotel Heidelberg is only 15 minutes by tram (S-Bahn) from the city centre. Each morning we had breakfast at the hotel; the buffet offered everything from scrambled egg to patisserie. Then we bought a one-day travel ticket from the hotel reception – good value at 11,90 euros for the three of us to travel on buses and trams anywhere in the town. There were shops and restaurants near the hotel, but we made the most of our time and ate in the town centre.
- We started off with a list of itinerary “essentials” for our short visit:
- Schloss (castle)
- Altstadt (old town), Alte Bruecke (old bridge)
- Philosophenweg (philosophers’ way)
- …and a final morning revisiting the shops we had earmarked in the Altstadt.
I’ve already written about the enormous Schloss, or castle, in my blogpost on 19 September, as I found so much to say about it.
So, on to the Altstadt, or old town, founded in 1196 and the oldest part of Heidelberg. You’re always aware of the castle towering on the hill above as you explore.
The main shopping street is the Hauptstrasse, or main street, which extends for one mile along the river Neckar from the Karlstor to the Bismarkplatz. If you need a bus or tram, head to the Bismarkplatz and you can go anywhere from there. Electric trams have been running in Heidelberg since 1902, and before that there were horse-drawn ones. Adjacent to the Bismarkplatz is the Theodor-Heuss-Bruecke built in 1877, the more recently built of the two bridges crossing the river Neckar in Heidelberg.
The Hauptstrasse is Europe’s longest pedestrian shopping street. Shops you wouldn’t find in the UK include “My Muesli”, a franchise which sells your own chosen mix of crunchy or bircher muesli, or granola. It’s surprising to find a shop which sells gift-wrapped muesli! The massive bookshop “Thalia”, website www.thalia.de, is a franchise which seems to offer any book you could possibly want, and a very good children’s section for all ages. We spent a lot of time (and money) in that bookshop. As we strolled around we found several marketplaces with cafes and cobblestones, and adjoining narrow streets to investigate.
I’d love to go to the Christmas market from 21 November until 22 December, apparently open every day from 11 am until 9 pm. I’ve seen the photos and if it’s anything like the other German Christmas markets I’ve been to it will have a great atmosphere. I can almost smell the cinnamon and the Gluehwein…. What I love in German town centres is not having to hear, smell, see or dodge any cars. Being traffic-free is so relaxing. You can concentrate on everything else there is going on. And it’s great for families with small children as you don’t need to worry about them straying onto the road.
In common with the other picturesque German university towns of Tuebingen and Goettingen, Heidelberg escaped bombing during the Second World War because it was neither an industrial centre nor a transport hub. So it has lovely original buildings dating from the Middle Ages. It’s “twinned” with Cambridge, UK and Montpellier, France – similarly well-known historic towns. Heidelberg University, with 28,000 students is the oldest university in Germany (founded 1386) and an integral part of the Altstadt. That’s a good proportion of students out of a total population of 155,000. Like many German towns and cities, Heidelberg seems to be forward-thinking: the largest group on the city council is the Green Party and “Carsharing” (like Zip Cars) is getting popular – there are 100 cars available to share.
The Marktplatz is in the centre of the Altstadt, a peaceful place with fountains, grand period houses and people sitting outside the cafes chatting and enjoying their drinks and food. Here would be a good place to stop for “Kaffee und Kuchen”, to re-fuel for some more sight-seeing. Around this market place are the Heiliggeistkirche, or Church of the Holy Spirit (early 14th century), the Rathaus or Town Hall, and various other late Gothic buildings. As you take in the friendly atmosphere it’s hard to imagine that in the Middle Ages “witches” were burnt at the stake here, and citizens charged with petty crimes were locked in cages where they were mocked and abused by passers-by.
As you explore the Altstadt you never know what surprises you’ll find. Near to the Marktplatz we came across the Friedrich Ebert Museum, at Pfaffengasse 18. Ebert (1871 – 1925) was leader of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the first democratically elected President of Germany. He was in office from 1919 to 1925, so he led Germany from empire through to democracy. The son of a tailor and one of nine children, he was brought up in this house. Entry to the museum is free and we thought we’d just pop in to have a look – didn’t realize how much we’d learn about political history in the late 19thand early 20th century as well as about his life and work, and ended up staying for ages. Our daughter was intrigued by the old telephone with the separate ear- and mouthpieces. Friedrich Ebert would have been amazed to see an iPhone 7. If you plan to visit, the museum is open 10 am to 6 pm apart from Mondays. You’ll get a warm welcome at reception and you can borrow audio guides in German and in English.
In that same Marktplatz area we came across the Steingasse, a narrow street leading to the Karl-Theodor-Bruecke, most usually known as the Alte Bruecke.
This stone bridge was built in 1788 where there had previously only been wooden bridges. In March 1945 German troops destroyed 3 arches of the bridge to try and stop the Americans’ advance, but misjudged the direction they would be approaching from. The US army arrived next day and the population surrendered without resistance. After the war Heidelberg was the headquarters for American forces in Europe.
On the city side of the bridge (and shown on the above photo) is the medieval Brueckentor or Bridge Gate, part of the former city wall, and after dark we bought ice-cream from the Italian ice-cream shop on Steingasse and walked through the gate onto the bridge.
There’s a great view over the Neckar and you can’t help wondering what’s around the next bend.
The Neckar flows into the Rhein at Mannheim and a company called “Weisse Flotte” runs boat trips from the city side of the river (Stadthalle), everywhere from the aforementioned Worms on the Rhein to the medieval town of Eberbach in the Odenwald forest. My great-great-grandparents emigrated from Eberbach to Sheffield in 1869. In those days Eberbach was a very poor area and Sheffield was booming.
Heidelberg Zoo is on the other (Neuenheim) side of the river and you need to get bus 31 or 32 from the Bismarkplatz. It’s open 9 am to 7 pm in summer. The entrance fee of 10,20 euros for adults and 5,10 euros for kids is good value as there is plenty of space and a wide range of animals including elephants, big cats, bears, gorillas and orang-utans. My favourite was the adorable 5 month old orang-utan Berani, who was doing some very nifty climbing.
His mum and dad just left him to it, unlike me hovering around when my own daughter was a toddler. Our daughter also liked the gentle okapi with the huge flexible ears and the children’s “really cute pet village – a cardboard village with food, toys, mazes and little hutches for the rabbits and guinea pigs living there.”
There are loads of places to eat in the Altstadt. We ate in “der goldene Falke” on the Marktplatz a couple of times and this has quick, friendly service, good food and a wide choice, even for people who don’t eat meat. We liked the look of “zum Ritter”, a lovely building dating from 1592 opposite the Heiliggeistkirche, but it is apparently so popular that you have to book. Pizza, always our stand-by meal is simply everywhere in Heidelberg, and the Italian receptionist at our hotel told us that she came to the town as a student and ended up staying – it reminds her of home. The “Brauhaus” serves generous portions of traditional German meat dishes, but does have good vegetarian dishes and fish as well. They serve a beer called “Vetter 33” which at 33% is said to be the strongest beer in the world. There are plenty of cafes serving “Kaffee und Kuchen”, a great German tradition, and places where you can buy sandwiches and treats for a picnic. We had one lunch in “Nordsee”, a self-service fish restaurant to be found in every town and city in Germany. As a student in Freiburg I had a holiday job in Nordsee, washing up and translating for British tourists attracted by the relatively low prices. Oh, and I nearly forgot something very important – for dessert there are plenty of Italian ice-cream parlours in Heidelberg, all of which offer such a wide range of flavours that I was standing there for ages pondering over the selection. It feels like a special treat when it’s warm enough to join both locals and tourists strolling around town eating ice cream in the dark.
Well, I’ve now decided that this post is quite long enough and I’m going to make the Philosophenweg, a relaxing, scenic walk on the other side of the river, into my next post. I’ll be writing about the reasons why it’s called the Philosophers’ Way and why it makes me think of the current interest in “mindfulness”, a way to combat stress in everyday life.