At Heidelberg for New Year’s

Wandering the Altstadt is like stepping into a storybook

The German version of the phrase, ‘Don’t miss the forest for the trees,’ could arguably be ‘Don’t miss the famous castle for the bargains at the end of the Weinachtmarkt.’

Getting into town after sunset, we had a delicious dinner at the Pälmbrau Gasse and then wandered over to see the remains of the holiday market near the Rathaus. Entranced with the hand-painted Turkish ceramics and silver jewelry, I went back to the hotel wondering where the famous Schloss Heidelberg was, actually.

I got my answer when we walked through the same plaza the next morning. Hint: Look up.

  • A large Renaissance castle ruin looms above the old city center of Heidelberg.
  • Cloudy landscape image wtih sandstone buildings along a river seen from above.

Towering above the center of the old city, The castle ruin sits 80 meters up the side of the Königstühl (King’s Chair) a 500-meter high foothill at the edge of the Odenwald Mountsains.

Originally constructed in the early 13th century as the residence for the Counts Palatine of the Rhine, the castle complex was expanded to actually consist of two castles at different elevations.

Despite its grandeur and location, the palace became arguably more famous as a ruin than it ever was as a noble seat. (This painting, from the 16th century, is one of the few depictions of what it looked like intact.

The higher castle was destroyed by fire and a lightning strike in 1537. What remains of the lower castle complex stood until it was destroyed by invading French troops, first during the Thirty Years’ War, then again in 1693, during the War of the Grand Alliance (Nine Years’ War).

Following the end of that war, Elector Charles III Philip decided against throwing good money after bad and moved his residence to Mannheim.

The crumbling ruins were scavenged by town residents who used the stone for their own construction projects, and the remains did not become a major tourist attraction until the 19th century.

Mark Twain, the American author, described the Heidelberg Castle in his 1880 travel book A Tramp Abroad:

A ruin must be rightly situated, to be effective. This one could not have been better placed. It stands upon a commanding elevation, it is buried in green woods, there is no level ground about it, but, on the contrary, there are wooded terraces upon terraces, and one looks down through shining leaves into profound chasms and abysses where twilight reigns and the sun cannot intrude. Nature knows how to garnish a ruin to get the best effect. 

Wikipedia – Heidelberg Castle. Accessed Jan. 25, 2023.

The Romantic French poet and novelist Victor Hugo was equally capitvated:

 “The Heidelberg Residence has a bit of everything. It is one of those buildings in which the beauties that are scattered elsewhere accumulate and form a mixture,” he describes his first impression. He feels this particularly when looking at the Ottheinrichsbau: “I can’t tell you what’s so unspeakable about this mixture of art and reality; there is struggle and harmony at the same time. […] It seems to me that this palace built by Renaissance fairies is only now in its natural state.”

Schloss Heidelberg. Press Release: Victor Hugo in Heidelberg. The French poet and the Castle.

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