Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Charming Heidelberg - A Synopsis

Heidelberg, Germany, is well-known world-wide. It is nestled between opposing hillsides where the Neckar River flows into the Rhein Valley. Artists and poets have been inspired by its beauty, songs have paid tribute to its charm. Many noteworthy scholars are connected with Heidelberg where they enriched the world with their intellects at Germany's oldest university. This article will take you on a tour to some of the most important sights in this charming city.

We start our tour at the square known as the Bismarckplatz, which is Heidelberg's most important transportation hub. From here one can reach every part of the city by bus, streetcar or Taxi. We then enter the Hauptstrasse, the main street in the old part of the city. With its 1.6 kilometers length it is the longest pedestrian zone in Germany. When going down the Hauptstrasse, one can take a look down the various side streets and into some of the hidden courtyards to get the flavor of Heidelberg. Along the way we will also find plaques that remind us of famous people who lived there in the past.

A short distance along the Hauptstrasse, we find a bronze statue of Robert Wilhelm Bunsen who lived from 1811 to 1899 and who, among other discoveries, perfected the Bunsen burner, a common piece of laboratory equipment that is still used in laboratories around the world. Behind the statue is the building in which Bunsen caused one or the other small explosion with his many experiments.

Further on we come to the Providenzkirche (Church of Providence) which was built from 1659 to 1661 on a lot where a house had been destroyed during the 30 Years War. After the destruction of Heidelberg by the French in 1693 the church was re-erected at the same location. Its name is derived from the ruling Prince Elector's motto: "God will provide."

A little further, the Kurpfälzische Museum (Palatine Museum) is situated in the building that is known as Palais Morass, built around the year 1710 by Johann Phillip Morass, a professor of law and high official at court. In 1906, a collection of so-called antiquities was put on display in the Palais Morass, thus founding the Palatine Museum. Here the visitor can find paintings and copperplate engravings showing the castle and its electors as well as, among other things, a plaster cast of the lower jawbone of Homo Heidelbergensis, the oldest find relating to prehistoric man in Europe.

We leave the Hauptstrasse for a short excursion to the Universitätsplatz (University Square). The oldest city wall and a gate were located where the street that runs along the Universitätsplatz now is found. The oldest part of the city starts here, and extends in the direction of the castle. Behind the Löwenbrunnen (Lion's Well) stands the baroque building that is known as the Alte Universität (Old University). It was built from 1712 to 1735. The University Administration and the University Museum are located inside along with the principal lecture hall which is still used for special occasions. On the south side of the square is a rather plain looking building which was built in the years 1930-31 with money collected by American friends of Heidelberg. The driving force behind the fund drive was US Ambassador to Germany then, Jacob Gould Schurman, after whom the building is named.

Around the corner is the Universitätsbibliothek (University Library), the central library of the University of Heidelberg. It holds special collections in literature concerning the Palatinate and Baden, Egyptology, Archeology, the histories of art and South Asia. Opposite the library is the Peterskirche (St. Peter's Church). Its predecessor at this spot was mentioned in official records in 1316 and although it lay outside the city wall nevertheless was Heidelberg's parish church. The building we see today goes back to the 15th century. In the small cemetery and in the inner and outer walls of the church there are monuments to the memory of professors and prominent citizens dating from the 15th to the 19th centuries, among them that of the first woman university professor in Europe who died in 1555.

At the back of the Old University is the student prison called the Karzer. For a small entrance fee one can look around this historical place of student confinement. The walls are adorned with graffiti with which the incarcerated students commemorated their stay there. It was used from 1712 until 1914, during which time the University administration had a legal right to detain students. Students could generally be confined to these quarters for up to 14 days for such offenses as drunkenness, playing practical jokes or disturbing the peace, especially at night. After two to three days on a diet of bread and water, inmates of the jail were allowed to accept food from the outside. They could attend lectures and also be visited by other prisoners.

Back on the Hauptstrasse, the building that today is the Hotel Ritter was built in 1592 as a private home by a wealthy cloth merchant. The location, size and rich ornamentation were a sign of his wealth. He lived in the house until his death in 1618. It is the only private house that survived the devastating fires of 1635, 1689 and 1693 because it was built of stone. From 1693 until 1703 it was used as city hall after which it became a hotel, what it has remained without interruption until this day. The splendid Renaissance facade is regarded as one of the best in Germany. A knight's bust (Ritter means knight) which crowns the facade is responsible for the name of the building.

Next to the Hotel Ritter, the Marktplatz (Market Square) as the name implies, was and still is used for market activity. In the 15th century, the burning of witches and heretics also took place on this site. On one end of the Market Square is the Rathaus (Town Hall) which dates back to about 1700. The other end of the Marktplatz is dominated by the Heiliggeistkirche (Church of the Holy Ghost). The foundation stone for the church was laid in 1400. In the course of its history, the church was used by both Catholics and Protestants, even simultaneously. Starting in 1706, a partition was erected so that both congregations could hold their services without any mutual disturbance. In 1936 the separating wall was removed and the church is now exclusively Protestant.

A short distance from the Marktplatz, down by the river, the bridge that is known by everyone as Alte Brücke (Old Bridge) is officially called Karl-Theodor Bridge. Up to the year 1784 the river was spanned by a covered bridge supported by stone pillars. Drifting ice, high water and war made it necessary to repeatedly rebuild the bridge until it was built entirely of stone. The inner part of the two picturesque towers forming the bridge gate is actually part of the city's medieval fortification and goes back to the 13th century. Next to the western tower squats the bronze statue of the Brückenaffe (Bridge Monkey). The Brückenaffe holds a golden mirror in the face of visitors and greets them with the words (loosely translated): "What are you looking at? Have you never seen the old monkey of Heidelberg? Look around and you'll find many more!"

This was a brief introduction to the charms of Heidelberg. There are more sights and greater details about the history of Heidelberg provided by a two-hour guided walking tour called "Charming Heidelberg" upon which this article is based and which is available as an iPhone App via iTunes. You can see it on iTunes at: http://itunes.apple.com/app/charming-heidelberg-tour/id406468337?mt=8

Sources: City of Heidelberg; Heidelberg, City Guide in Colour, Edmund von König-Verlag, Heidelberg, 1993; Heidelberg, Günter Heinemann, Prestel-Verlag, München, 1983; Marco Polo, Heidelberg, Reiseführer mit Insider Tips, Mairs Geographischer Verlag,1994; Wikipedia