Heidelberg was the first ‘smaller’ city we’d visited, although it’s not the tiniest town. Built up primarily around a university, it’s somewhat constrained by the river on one side and mountains on the other so it has stretched out lengthways along the riverbank. As a result, the old part of town is fairly well contained to one area and the ‘tail’ end of the city is the boring, modern part. If you want to stay near the station you do have to take a decent hike through this section (or hop on a bus) to get to the old part, which is totally charming.
So far on our trip Heidelberg was my favourite place, but we were also there in the off season. The town and it’s castle attract vast hoards of people in the peak season and I’m not sure the quaint old streets would be quite so charming when they’re packed out too tightly to move. Nonetheless it’s a gorgeous town. The side streets with their old buildings, window shutters, and restaurants are about as picturesque as you can get, ditto looking across the river to the other side of the town, and of course the impressive castle ruins on the hill.
We also had the best German food of our short trip here – both restaurants we went to were excellent. Im Guldenen Schaft (The Golden Sheep) is a 250 year old medieval-inn-themed restaurant complete with rather Tudorish looking paintings (the captions unfortunately only in German) and a reasonably priced menu with interesting furnishings throughout. I had a creamy chicken dish with spatzle that was essentially a German carbonara. But I like spatzle. It’s so simple yet there’s something about the texture and buttery flavour that is just delicious. Dad had roast pork that came with a bread dumpling the size of my fist – it was more like a giant ball of stuffing and probably the low point of the meal.
The second restaurant we visited was called Perkeo, named after the dwarf who supposedly ran the wine cellar up at the old castle. It was a relief to go into a restaurant where we could breathe, as everywhere we’d been to in Germany so far really seemed to have the heating cranked right up. The lamb with wine sauce was perfectly pleasant but the real star of the show were the cakes! They were enormous slices and, having gotten used to the heaviness of German cuisine we expected them to be rich and filling, but they were light and fluffy and marvelous! And needless to say we managed to eat the entire thing.
Back to the castle. You can walk up, or you can take the furnicular rail – we did the latter, with the plan to walk back down, but I’d injured my knee and it was getting dark by the time we left so we ended up taking the rail back down too. I didn’t realise just how large the castle actually was. Built over several generations, various wings of the castle had been constructed in various styles, up to the 17th century which was later than I realised. I thought it was only a 13th century ruin and that it would have a basic keep tower and not much else – but this part was really only one small part of the eventuating castle. It also has extensive garden terraces around it which were designed but never completed. All up it’s a much, much larger space than I was anticipating.
If you’re wondering whether or not to pay extra for the tour here – do it. Without taking the tour, you really only get to see the courtyard, the wine cellar (home to the largest wine barrel ever filled) and a museum of pharmacy, which is quite interesting (I love the old shelves and bottles). With the tour, you get to go into the older parts of the castle and get a sense for the way the different ages of it were built up, over, and into each other, integrating into the final keep which wraps around the courtyard. I was somehow surprised to realise that the oldest parts of the castle were whitewashed on the inside – I think I just expected exposed stone and timber, but it was really quite civilised. Of course, the balcony has an incredible view of the river and the town meandering down either side of it.
Those who know me will know that I really love old places and I enjoy wandering around and imagining the lives that went on there, so of course the first castle of the trip was my highlight so far. However, I did find myself starting to be annoyed – a feeling that has not dissipated as the trip went on – that none of these old-building-turned-museums seem to have a floorplan outlining what the castle rooms would have been like, how they interconnected and what their purposes were. You only get to see a fraction of the rooms of course, and while some are fully restored many are stripped completely back and all look the same, so to me a floorplan would go a long way to helping my imaginings. But perhaps there just aren’t enough people around who really love floorplans! Or maybe there’s an opportunity here for a sort of global historical project in the future…
The largest wine barrel in the world took me by surprise, because I went down the ramp and thought I spotted it – aha! That is indeed a very large wine barrel. Little did I know as I rounded the corner behind it, that it was the ‘new’ large wine barrel which has been refilled with wine in anticipation of revitalising sales. Lo and behold, THERE was the largest wine barrel in the world! And it was ENORMOUS. It felt more like a pirate ship than a wine barrel! (The viewing and inspection platform on the top, looking like a deck, really only added to this!)
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Taking the train out of Heidelberg and through some smaller towns, I immediately noticed that the houses which backed onto the rail lines had small back yards that were entirely made of veggie patches, and separated from the neighbours by a simple chicken wire fence. There were no expanses of unbroken grass as in Australia – the eponymous suburban backyard idyll. Of course, these houses are much older too and looked both small and run down – obviously not a wealthy part of the country. This consistency of productive garden beds really reinforced the idea that I’ve been turning over in my head that those less privileged can greatly benefit from some food security simply through having better access to and involvement in food production. And it need not be set up in an elaborate and expensive way.
I have a feeling that many Australian councils and districts would sneer at the sort of set ups we were driving past, condemning them as an eyesore – and they were a bit, in the middle of winter, with their chicken wire fences and muddy squares only intermittently broken up by a leaf of lettuce or similar. But I could imagine in spring and summer the bounty of fresh, healthy vegetables they could produce, certainly enough for the small dwellings they backed on to, and how much of a difference this could make when supermarket prices were out of reach or to an individuals sense of productivity and self-worth giving them something useful to do to provide for their families if unemployed.