To say Heidelberg’s history goes back a long way would be sorely underselling the city that has the oldest human ever in Europe named after it.
Yup, in 1907, a jawbone of Heidelberg Man was discovered nearby and is now recognized as the earliest evidence of human life in Europe.
The early ancestor of the Neanderthals even got a fancy Latin official name with the city mentioned in it, Homo heidelbergensis.
Jump ahead a half a million years, give or take, and we arrive at the time when much more distant relatives began centuries of building a stronghold above the Neckar Valley.
For several centuries Prince Electors of the Holy Roman Empire took turns adding on to it, until the end result was Heidelberger Schloss, or Heidelberg Castle.
Then, about two hundred years ago, the princes fell from power and the castle became quite a tourist attraction.
Mark Twain even wrote about it in his 1880 book A Tramp Abroad, saying:“A ruin must be rightly situated, to be effective. This one could not have been better placed.”
We noticed that the dude on the gate was, um, quite pleased with a certain body part and thought he might be alone, but…
…apparently it was quite en vogue
Want to own a castle? Rumor has it that if you bite through this knocker on the gate – it’s yours! Our guide filled us in on the legend of the “bite mark,” left by a witch who almost won the castle.
With all of that history behind us, we had to go forward, over the moat, through the imposing gate, and into the Schloss.
We might have even said that we were getting schlossed as we crossed large central courtyard. In fact, I’m sure we did, and that was before we saw what lay beneath us in the cellar.
A Tun of Fun
The Great Heidelberg Tun, which is the world’s largest wine barrel, is kept down there.
Actually this is the forth incarnation of the castle’s giant cask, going back to 1591.
They were originally used to collect the taxes, which were paid in wine, from the local growers.
At almost twenty feet high it’s about the size of a small house.
Funny, that’s the same thing Twain said when he saw the enormous keg. The behemoth holds about 58,000 gallons of vino, enough to fill nearly a quarter of a million bottles.
Those princes must have thrown some serious parties, and it looks like they didn’t want to stray too far from the barrel when they did, because they built a dance floor on top of it.
The Best View in Town
Back upstairs, the view of the town and valley from the castle walls was impressive, and made us want to descend into the thick of it.
We decided to go all the way down to the river Neckar and work our way back up. Standing on the Alte Brücke, or Old Heidelberg Bridge, gave us the best vantage point for a view of the entire castle.
In addition to the photo-op, we got to meet the famous vanity monkey that sits at the base of the medieval Bridge Gate.
No one knows just how or when the tradition started, but stories of the bridge monkeys go back at least five or six hundred years.
The previous primates stood watch at the old tower, but since it was destroyed, the new guy was placed on a part of the former city wall that survived.
The old tale tells of a monkey that served to symbolize the equality between the city dwellers and their country cousins crossing the bridge. The idea was that neither side was better than the other, so be sure to look back from where you came.
The current version was created by Professor Gernot Rumpf and erected in 1979, and his peculiar simian statue is holding up a mirror while seemingly questioning the viewer. An odd poem below him states:
|Why are you
gaping at me here?
Have you not seen
the old monkeys
Maybe then you
will find more of my same.
mich hie angaffen?
Hastu nicht gesehen
den alten affen
sich dich hin unnd her
Da findestu wol
Meines gleichen mehr.
Going to jail
Climbing up the hill we found that Heidelberg also has a long history as a college town.
Students from all over the world have been coming to study at Heidelberg University since 1386, making it the oldest university in Germany.
Up until the time of the First World War students were not subject to the jurisdiction of the town, so the university dealt out its own form of justice. The school prosecuted unruly behavior and punished the guilty in its own studentenkarzer, or student prison.
Over time, since college kids really haven’t changed much during the past seven or eight hundred years, doing time in the jail became something of a badge of honor for the students.
They began to decorate their cells with elaborate graffiti, at first using soot from the heaters, and later by smuggling in paint.
By the time the incarcerations ended, in 1914, many of the young scholars were intentionally breaking rules in efforts to get tossed in the pokey.
Luckily, someone had the foresight to preserve the jailbird masterpieces for posterity, making the studentenkarzer one of the most unique and enjoyable museums we have visited.
Getting a kiss
Another limb of the student body was the invention of the Heidelberg Student’s Kiss.
No doubt many of those little law breakers, as well as most of the other students, indulged in these sweet treats from time to time.
Of course, we had to try one too.
We found the little shop just off of the main square, and they are still making the delicious confections by the same family recipe that Fridolin Knösel made legendary in 1863.
In those days the university was exclusively attended by young men, and their minds would frequently wander off on to thoughts of young women.
Many of the ladies attending Heidelberg´s finishing schools frequented Café Knösel, so that of course attracted the boys.
But a watchful governess was never far away.
So, being an enterprising chocolatier and master confectioner, Fridolin invented the Heidelberg Student´s Kiss as a clandestine way for the boys to show their interest in a girl.
Simply purchase one of the chocolate covered cookie treats and deliver it to the girl of your choice.
Connection made right under the eye of the chaperone, and profit made for the shop.
Five generations later they are as popular as ever. Having tried (more than one of) the little delights, our guess would be that’s because they beat the heck out of a text message.
David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com
Thanks to Viking River Cruises for inviting us along and providing this adventure! See our full Cities of Light Voyage from Paris to Prague with stops in, Luxembourg, Trier, Cochem, Heidelberg, Wurzburg, Rothenburg, and Nuremberg. As always, all opinions are our own.
YOUR TURN: Which would you prefer? Jail or a kiss?