Morning mist in Heidelberg
It drapes the city like a blanket, cloaking its spires in a veil that blocks out the sun. I exhale, my breath a fragile puff of vapour that dissipates in the November chill.
I am walking down the Hauptstrasse, the mile-long main street running through Heidelberg’s old town, or Altstadt. I join a steady, purpose-filled stream of students on their way to class, clutching books and folders as their footsteps echo on the flagstones. The cold bites at my bare fingers as I hold the camera up close, releasing the shutter with an audible ‘click’.
Sandwiched in a narrow valley, Heidelberg occupies the point where the Odenwald forest meets the floodplains of the Rhine. By all appearances it’s a handsome university town, a fitting home for Germany’s oldest institute of higher learning. Heidelberg University was founded back in 1386 as the third such institution of the Holy Roman Empire, and its long and storied history includes the likes of Martin Luther, sociologist Max Weber and philosopher Karl Jaspers.
Eventually I find myself on the Alte Brücke, the 18th-century bridge that spans the Neckar River, whose historic flood levels have been faithfully recorded on red sandstone. Its famous gateway is a remnant of the town wall, with two black domes as an added Baroque flourish.
Heidelberg’s ruined castle (or Schloss) sits 80m above the river, on the wooded slopes of the Königstuhl – aptly named the ‘King’s throne’. Only partially restored since its destruction in a series of wars and lightning strikes, followed by two centuries of gradual decay, the Schloss gained newfound popularity with the onset of Romanticism.
Victor Hugo came to love the ruins of this castle, and while on a visit in 1838, he wrote excitedly in a letter, “What times it has been through! Five hundred years long it has been victim to everything that has shaken Europe, and now it has collapsed under its weight.”
The view from the castle terrace, looking out over the city, is magnificent even in the fog. Today a rebuilt portion houses the German Pharmacy Museum, with a collection spanning two thousand years of medical science. But a big part of the castle’s allure lies in the fact that so much of it is still a ruined shell, leaving plenty to the imagination – especially the untold splendour of its halcyon days. In his book A Tramp Abroad, Mark Twain wrote of the Schloss:
“Out of a billowy upheaval of vivid green foliage… rises the huge ruin of Heidelberg Castle, with empty window arches, ivy-mailed battlements, moldering towers – the Lear of inanimate nature – deserted, discrowned, beaten by the storms, but royal still, and beautiful.”