Blend into the old square of Heidelberg…
You’ve started on a high note. Peak high. A ride on one of the most scenic train journeys in Europe stretching from Cologne to Heidelberg. Your mind is resonating with the sensory explosion, courtesy the Rhine river valley panorama. Little towns with tiny German houses, pointy old churches and broken medieval stone fortresses from Roman times. Hills rich with lush foliage, rolling vineyards, landscaped terraces and curvy roads kissing the gushing river that sparkles with the rays of sun. And you’re contemplating a strange paradox. In the birthplace of cuckoo clocks where keeping time is everything, how does time manage to stand so still? As if the journey wasn’t magical enough, you land in one of Deutschland’s most adorable towns…Heidelberg. Three million tourists a year. But why should statistics give anyone nightmares?
First, find a hideout
Someplace quiet, someplace nice, someplace pretty, don’t think twice. Check into Hotel Villa Marstall….its a a small boutique hotel with 18 rooms and minimal staff. Views of the Neckar river adorned with its quaint old wooden arched bridge from some windows. Few minutes walk from the old town. And breakfast in stone cellars. Jackpot! Lights out at the front desk when the clock strikes 8 pm. No reason to panic…its not a dorm. The main entrance locks up early, but you can let yourself in with the room swipe card. How’s that for a touch of home?
Head for Marktplatz
Barely five minutes of walk and you’re setting foot on the cobblestones of Marketplatz, the pulse of Heidelberg’s historical city center, Altstadt. The display boards tell all…the square layout, its landmarks and their historical significance. This has been the town’s hub since Middle Ages, not just for markets, but for all public proceedings…good, bad, and ugly, including beheadings, tortures and witch burnings. But that was then. Gory has now given way to glory, but the ancient tradition of people gathering continues. Before you even realise it, you’ve blended in seamlessly. As if you were always part of its throbbing canvas of life. Feel it. Get a peek of the hill castle…explore it later.
Pretty old buildings in soft lemon, cream, peach and teal colours line the square on three sides. The tall and narrow facades with gabled roofs are evenly and tightly packed together, their windows cheerfully brightened with colourful petunias and geraniums. At floor level, an array of cafes or shops sell local produce, candles, clothing, beer mugs and decorations. Stroll in and out of the inviting doorways, walking into an odd art gallery or a music shop. Pick up something local…like a dozen assorted schneeballen (they last up to a few weeks)…large tennis-ball shaped pastry, deep-fried and dusted with powdered sugar, chocolate, cinnamon, nuts, caramel and even champagne. (Know more about the schneeballen) Does the store owner stay in the quaint house above…and had it been his family home since centuries, you muse while he packs your purchase into a crunchy white paper bag. It feels inconveniently sized and hard…how on earth do you bite into one of these? Only one way to find out!
Stop at one of the most photographed buildings in the square and step back in time. The iconic Ritter Hotel is the only original 17th century house that exists in the town today. It had even served as a temporary town hall when the Town Hall was destroyed in 1693. Talk about survival! While taking several pictures of the brown sandstone facade, renaissance-era columns and the carved figures, notice the inscription on the front “Persta invicta, Venus” (Remain Forever Unconquered, Beauty). Indeed, the elegant building constructed by a French cloth dealer had retained its charm over centuries.
Shop at the Church
The limelight of the square? Clearly the odd-shaped, 600-year old Gothic-styled Heiliggeistkirche (Church of the Holy Spirit). You need to take a circle around its almost 60 meters long and 20 meters wide perimeter to familiarise yourself with the unique structure of this red sandstone building. That baroque roof was added later to replace the one that burned down…can you believe it? Soak in the salmon coloured interior, tall columns, high ceilings, and pretty patterned windows. Wonder about the wall that once split the space into two halves – Catholic and Protestant. Unusual is the word for it. The 15th-century tomb of the church’s founder, King Ruprecht I, and his wife, Elizabeth, their carved likenesses still distinct, are preserved inside. But the strangest element is the circle of tented stalls outside the church walls, sandwiched cosily between its buttresses, selling everything but religious souvenirs! Indulge yourself…go shopping at the Church.
Debate life sentences
At the left end of the Marketplatz, near the 18th century baroque style Town Hall (Rathaus) with its bell tower, balconies, dormer windows, arched entryways and a colourful coat of arms, is another interesting structure. The large Hercules fountain statue is a favorite resting place for people to catch their breath. Now chew on this. In medieval times, criminals were chained here and left to take their last breaths! How ironical is that?
Munch on lunch
Despite the astounding buzz of activity, there’s something utterly enjoyable about Heidelberg’s Marktplatz. Intelligently designed layout, maybe? Because you never have a full view of the whole square from any angle. Lunch on your mind? Grab the last free outdoor table at a busy corner bistro before hunger pangs get the better of you. German meals can wait for later. Large helpings of hearty tomato soup, garnished with big dollops of cream? Thinnest, crunchiest pizza served on a rustic wood plate? Sure! Sounds of the organ waft from the Church, chimes sound from the Town Hall bell tower and a street musician strums Bach on his violin. Music is all around and you heart is singing. If your instinct tells you that Heidelberg will go down your memory lane as one of the loveliest places you have visited, believe it. Fuel up and get ready to conquer the map. You’ve barely scratched the surface. The whole town is waiting to be discovered. Including the Heidelberg castle on the hill with views to kill for.
To be continued…
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