This week, Gumbo was hanging out at what might be called the capital of Romantic Germany, Heidelberg Castle. It’s among the most important Renaissance structures north of Italy, and one of the foundations of Heidelberg’s tourist industry. TravelingCanuck, remembered it from when he was stationed in Germany in the 1980s.
But I think I’ll take a pass on describing it, and leave that to Mark Twain, who spent several months there in 1878, and wrote about it in A Tramp Abroad.
Heidelberg Castle must have been very beautiful before the French battered and bruised and scorched it two hundred years ago. The stone is brown, with a pinkish tint, and does not seem to stain easily.
The dainty and elaborate ornamentation upon its two chief fronts is as delicately carved as if it had been intended for the interior of a drawing-room rather than for the outside of a house. Many fruit and flower clusters, human heads and grim projecting lions` heads are still as perfect in every detail as if they were new. But the statues which are ranked between the windows have suffered. These are life-size statues of old-time emperors, electors, and similar grandees, clad in mail and bearing ponderous swords. Some have lost an arm, some a head, and one poor fellow is chopped off at the middle.
There is a saying that if a stranger will pass over the drawbridge and walk across the court to the castle front without saying anything, he can make a wish and it will be fulfilled. But they say that the truth of this thing has never had a chance to be proved, for the reason that before any stranger can walk from the drawbridge to the appointed place, the beauty of the palace front will extort an exclamation of delight from him.
That’s only the beginning, and you can find the rest HERE. He also describes one of the castle’s special events, a re-enactment of the burning of the Castle by French troops in 1689. That’s still a couple-of-times-a-year special event, and the picture shows how spectacular it can be…but in the two years I lived there and on three visits since, I’ve never timed it right!
Even without the fireworks, though, I have a soft spot for Heidelberg and the castle. I lived in Heidelberg as an army brat 1959-61 and finished high school at Heidelberg American High School, the military dependent school. We lived in a strip of army-owned housing in Heidelberg’s Weststadt; our little district was called Mark Twain Village (now closed, along with all the rest of the U.S. military in Heidelberg.) And, both my senior prom and graduation were held in the Throne Room of the Castle.
So, naturally, both the shut-down base and the castle were on my agenda when we stopped there for a few days at the end of our summer trip in July. We wandered around town, took a boat ride up the Neckar, visited the Heiliggeistkirche (Gumbo blog HERE), and headed up to the castle, riding the now-modernized Bergbahn (seen above) up from the ancient Kornmarkt below. You can see part of the castle in the background there.
The cable railway stops at the castle, and then continues up, after a change of cars at the next station, to the top of the mountain. We went there later, but our first destination was the castle. Leaving the station, you start to get great views of the city below you. The middle picture shows the Old Bridge (Alte Brucke) and the lower has the Holy Spirit church; together with the castle, they're Heidelberg's main visual icons.
A few steps away, and the ruins of the castle start to show themselves through the trees. Unlike many other war ruins in Germany, including quite a number to be seen in Berlin, this is not World War II; the damage here was done in the time of (and by!) Louis XIV of France. Heidelberg Castle's oldest bits date to the 1290s, when it became the seat of the Palatine Elector, one of the nobles privileged to vote in elections for Holy Roman Emperor.
As the Palatine rulers became more powerful, they added on to the structure. Sometimes some more rooms, sometimes more walls and fortifications. Until the mid-16th century there was an upper castle; after it was destroyed by lightning and fire, it was abandoned and the lower castle enlarged yet again.
But it was not all upward and onward, as various forces contended for power and wealth, and sometimes the Heidelberg rulers were on the wrong side. That particularly became an issue with the Reformation; Heidelberg's area was neither fully dominated by the Catholic Church, nor by the insurgent Protestants. Incidentally, Martin Luther visited in the 1540s to argue one of his 95 Theses with fellow theologians; while in town he was treated to a tour of the castle.
Early in the 1600s, Protestant princes rebelling against the Holy Roman Emperor named Elector Frederic V King of Bohemia, and he took the post, touching off the Thirty Years War between Catholic and Protestant. Not only was he fairly quickly driven from Prague (his one-year reign earned him the epithet of "Winter King") but was forced to leave his own Heidelberg realm undefended. The city was seized by the Catholic General Tilly, and then re-taken by a Swedish army. When the family finally moved in again in 1649, there was a lot of rebuilding to do.
The Winter King's wife, by the way, was Elizabeth Stuart; Charles I of England was her brother, and her grandson, after her brother's line died out, became King George I of England. Frederic had the gate above built for her as an entrance to her gardens. He had it built in sections; it was assembled overnight as a surprise birthday gift in 1615.
But back to the wars. Nothing lasts forever, not even a dynasty, and when the then-current dynasty ran out in 1688, there were two claimants for it. One was local; the other was the French Duchess of Orleans—and she had the backing of Louis XIV, and he had an army. French troops demanded that the new Elector turn over the title and the town; the Elector left, and French troops blasted part of the castle and set it afire before leaving. They returned in 1693 to finish the job.
By 1697, peace had returned, along with the Electors. Their first thought was to tear the whole thing down, and build a new palace in the valley, re-using whatever materials and decoration were salvagable. But, as with many other homeowners after a disaster, he found that he didn't have enough funds for that, and instead patched up the living quarters of the old castle, leaving the fortifications in ruins.
Among the items built or rebuilt at that time were the Renaissance-facaded Otto-Heinrich wing (above, and the Great Tun, a huge wine barrel, so big that it has a dance-floor constructed on a platform above it (my parents square-danced there!). The vat was built to hold the rent paid in wine by local growers, and legend says that the Elector's court jester, a dwarf named Perkeo, drank it dry. Or was in charge of guarding it, depending on your preference of legend!
By 1720, though, things were getting testy in town...again. The Holy Spirit Church, reflecting Heidelberg's split, was being used by Catholics and Protestants, on opposite sides of a wall that ran down the nave. When the Elector attempted to turn it entirely over to the Protestants, unrest broke out, and the wall was re-erected; it lasted well into the 20th century. And the Elector, fed up with the castle and the people and the town, packed up and moved his court up the river to Mannheim.
Heidelberg Castle was never a royal seat again—although it almost got another try. The next Elector, Karl Theodor, decided to move back; he had renovations done, shipped his household goods (the Holy Spirit church was used as a warehouse!) and planned his housewarming. However, the day before the move, a huge lightning storm hit the castle and gutted the newly-renovated rooms. And that was that.
Many people would argue that the 1764 lightning and fire was Heidelberg's best stroke of luck. Instead of resident royalty, it got a tourist attraction par excellence, which has been drawing visitors and spenders since around 1800. By that time, scavengers were helping themselves to stone and anything else movable; by 1803 the Castle had gotten its first conservator and the rest (as indeed all before it!) is history.
Oh, one more thing...the puzzling picture with which we started this Where in the World: It was taken from the bottom of the surviving defense tower, looking up.