That isn’t a typo – “Hallo” is how Germans say hello. Thank goodness, because as the train approached Heidelberg station, I belatedly realized that I was about to live in a German city for two weeks without one lick of German language knowledge. After so much time in France, I took for granted the ability to communicate. After frantically memorizing some key phrases on Google Translate before the train huffed and puffed to a stop, I figured I could manage “hallo” at least. To my relief and delight, I found that it’s shockingly easy to get by in Heidelberg with English.
After so much time in France, it was about time that I explored some surrounding countries. Last year I ventured out to Switzerland and Spain, and this year it will be Germany and Italy (so far!). I had secured a lovely housesit in the suburbs of Heidelberg. Heidelberg is a thriving and diverse university town straddling the Neckar River in southwest Germany, about an hour south of Frankfurt. It’s rather popular with tourists thanks to the historically significant castle and generally vibrant atmosphere. My man Rick Steves says to give the town a miss – it’s evidently “far too touristy” and “not worth it” when there are so many other places to visit in Germany. There are parts of his assessment I agree with, as I will explain, but I admit that I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Heidelberg and appreciated the sights and tastes it had to offer.
A Home in Ziegelhausen
My housesit was in Ziegelhausen, a suburb just outside city limits to the east, and my charge was a young schnauzer named Charlie (along with quite a few fish). As her breed is known for, Charlie was rather suspicious of me at first, but once she deemed me trustworthy, she was dearly loyal and a treat to care for. Although I wasn’t to leave her alone for more than a few hours at a time at most, it didn’t cause any problems since Heidelberg is completely dog-friendly. Charlie could walk everywhere with, take the buses, and go into all shops and restaurants. The only places I couldn’t take her were grocery stores. Going everywhere with an adorable schnauzer certainly added another fun layer to touring. Schnauzers, of course, are a German breed, and used to be seen quite a bit in the region, though less so today. It meant that a lot of the older generation were pleasantly surprised to see Charlie and were happy to say “hallo” to her.
Our standard daily walks took us along the river Neckar, which is nestled between steep, pine-covered hills and immediately bordered by quaint German houses and the tramways. Walking west along the river, we usually turned around at Neuburg Abbey, a working Benedictine monastery originally established in the 12th century, with an attached brewery and open air pub. When Leo came to visit we definitely gave into temptation during a long walk and stopped in for a nice sausage and fresh beer. I did enjoy the bits of German food I had- even the butter pretzel I bought on a whim at the corner bakery, that ended up being just a pretzel with gobs of butter inside.
The Philosopher’s Way
Bordering Ziegelhausen is a network of trails that ultimately leads to the Philosopher’s Way (or Philosophenweg), one of the more famous sights – or rather, activities – in Heidelberg. The well-marked and well-trodden trail winds up and down the hillsides to the north of the Neckar, and allows for perfectly-framed views of the Heidelberg castle and city center through the trees. There are also several historical sites to visit on the trail itself, including Thingstätte and the ruins of St. Michael’s monastery.
Thingstätte is an open-air amphitheater built as part of the Thingspiel movement in pre-war Nazi Germany. The original idea was the return to ancient Germanic practices of open-air performances and meetings, and ultimately use them for propaganda presentations. Out of the planned hundreds, only 40 were built across Germany during the 1930s. For a monument built to connect more with natural and historic roots, the structure was uncomfortably incongruous with the surrounding forest. Brutalist architecture doesn’t exactly mesh well with the riotous color and forms of the wilderness. But of course, the point was not to come visit a thing of beauty, it was to visit a piece of history – one with lots of lessons learned (right? We aren’t going back to facism anytime soon, because that would be backwards and stupid and cruel, right?) When Leo and I hiked up to Thingstätte with Charlie one brisk Sunday afternoon, we joined dozens of other hikers and visitors. Local families and tourists alike explored the stage and stands, and like us, picnic-ed in the sun. It was nice to see such a diverse group of people walking over the stones laid by hate, and I’ve read that lots of these amphitheaters are now used for rock concerts or music festivals. A much better use than Nazi propaganda, for certain.
Just a bit further back in the hills are the ruins of St Michael’s monastery (Michaelskloster). It was a bit of fresh air afterThingstätte, and it was fun trying to identify the different rooms of the old monastery while Charlie insisted on climbing all the old stone walls. A trek up the tower led to a magnificent panorama across the Neckar river valley in the golden afternoon sun.
Heidelberger Schloss and City Centre
A must-visit in Heidelberg is easily Heidelberger Schloss, or Heidelberg Castle. The earliest construction on the castle began in the early 13th century, and it has examples of construction and restoration from the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries, making it a prime example of renaissance architecture.
Not knowing anything about the castle or any Heidelberg history, we joined a guided tour in English. Our tour guide spoke softly with a thick German accent, and that coupled with the complicated miasma that is royal and wartime history means that I remember exactly nothing of what we heard that day, but it was worth taking the tour if only to get to go inside the buildings. It’s definitely evident that the castle and its grounds are made up of architectures from different time periods and wildly unique tastes. I found it a bit jarring, like someone trying to put together a picture with pieces from different puzzles.
Outside the tour, we went into the cellars and saw the largest wine vat in history, the Heidelberg Tun. It can hold 219,000 liters of wine, and held even more at the time of its construction before the wood dried and shrank slightly. There are steps to go around it and up on top of it, and it made me wonder what kind of quality the wine would be in such a large barrel. Perhaps my favorite stop in the castle grounds was the German Apothecary Museum, housed in the basement of one of the ruined castle buildings. Walking through its halls you experience the history of pharmaceuticals from ancient times to today, and there are lots of neat artifacts to look at and make you deeply appreciate modern medicine.
The main pedestrian center of Heidelberg is always bustling with tourists and university students, and it was here that I began to sympathize with Rick Steves and his opinion that it was too touristy of a town. The main strip was heavily commercialized, with boutique shops, brand name stores, and chain restaurants. There wasn’t really anything to distinguish it from any other European town, except for maybe the pretzel designs worked into the brick sidewalks. After wandering up and down the street, we asked a local in a gift shop what traditional restaurant she might recommend after I had purchased a traditional pewter goblet with scenes from a German fairy tale. From her guidance, we did manage to find a steamy, wood-paneled German pub that was bursting with atmosphere. We had Charlie with us – she was welcome everywhere we went, and the waiters immediately brought her a bowl of water and she settled down calmly under the table. We drank beer and ate käsespätzle, Heidelberg’s version of mac and cheese: egg noodles with emmentaler cheese and caramelized onions.
I enjoyed my time in Heidelberg. The city, like a lot of German cities I suppose, is impeccably clean, easily accessible by public transport, and full of people that speak English. I will say that I prefer the more rugged and raw culture of France, but I would be happy to pop over into Germany again soon, especially if I get to see the adorable schnauzer Charlie and eat some more pretzels.
Whiskered Snout! I figured it would be something like that before I looked it up. Did you get your hair highlighted or is that just a trick of the ambiance?
Definitely a trick of the ambiance! I ain’t that fancy, now.