Heidelberg’s Castles & Prisons

Heidelberg is a picturesque baroque-style city located along the River Neckar in south-west Germany. Surprisingly, it is among the warmest regions of Germany, with naturally occurring almond and fig trees, wild parakeets and swan geese. Who would’ve thought?

I had stayed the night in a great hostel. Although not a castle, I had a view of Heidelberg’s castle from one of the hallway windows. I had shared a dorm with 4 other girls, all from Korea. Apparently Heidelberg is a popular stop for those coming from Asia. Although the hostel said they don’t serve breakfast in the morning, they did supply free coffee, tea, cereal and milk. That was enough to constitute as breakfast for me! I had an easy Monday morning sharing stories of home with Eva from China, as well as one of the Korean girls and a girl from Taiwan. They had a hard time pronouncing my name but to be honest, I only understood Eva’s name out of the three! We still had a great breakfast together.

After checking out of the hostel, I made my way for the Alte Brücke, a cobblestoned bridge over the river Neckar. It features two towers and an iron gate at the end, which were once a part of the city walls. These towers contain the dungeons once used to house Heidelberg’s criminals. Over the portcullis is a plaque acknowledging the Austrian troops that defended the bridge against a French attack in 1799.

Once inside the city walls, I took a stroll through to the Marktplatz, located in the very centre of Alstadt, Heidelberg’s Old Town. This square was used in medieval times for public proceedings. Witches and heretics were burned at the stake here, and petty criminals served time handing in cages, for all to see and torment. Witches beware! Creepy stuff.

While walking through Marktplatz, two Korean girls approached me saying “Picture? Picture?”, so I agreed to take their picture for them. Then I found out that they actually wanted a picture WITH me. I was unsure of why they wanted to take a picture with me, so afterwards I asked why. The two girls in broken English started pointing to my eyes, cheeks, hair and chin saying “You are very beautiful!”. Apparently I have what Koreans call “small face”. I quickly learned that this wouldn’t be the first time today that this will happen. It happened four times before the day was over. Korean Facebook will be seeing a lot of this face tonight!

From Alstadt, I visited the nearby Heidelberg University, the oldest university in Germany. Inside the Old University building is the Alte Aula. This hall, with its Neo-Renaissance interior, was designed and decorated during the university’s 500th anniversary in 1886. Today, it hosts concerts and university lectures.

Next to the Alte Aula is the University’s student prison. Although it hasn’t been used in the last 100 years, it was used often to punish its students from the University’s founding until 1914. Within the prison, there remains much graffiti, some of which describes why the student was imprisoned there. Some examples explain internments for acts such as throwing a stone at a city official.

After lunch I took the hike from the Kornmarkt (can you guess what they used to sell there?) up to the Heidelberger Schloss. This castle is among the most important Renaissance structures north of the Alps. It is first mentioned in 1225, and was host to many famous nobles, including King Frederick V of Bohemia, and Princess Elizabeth Charlotte, the sister-in-law of King Louis XIV of France.

Inside the castle complex is the Deutsches Apotheken-Museum, which holds a collection of over 20,000 objects related to the ancient science of apothecary. This museum covers over 2,000 years of pharmacy history and is the largest of its kind in the world. There were whole pharmacy shops set up with original furniture and jars filled with ingredients. Some of the original remedies asked for some really creepy stuff, such as one that asked for crocodile blood and another that called for powdered mummy. Humans were once seen as a medicine, but thankfully that has since changed.

I also attended a guided tour of the palace’s interiors. There were two towers guarding the fortress that had walls 21 feet thick but that didn’t stop the French from trying to destroy the castle. The towers both held the fortress’s supply of gunpowder so one spark and the castle nearly blew itself up. The parts that remained though contained painted ceilings and sculptures on the wall that appeared to be coming out of the wall towards you. Inlaid wooden doors and floors made everything into an optical illusion. Was it flat or was it 3D? It could be really hard to tell. Inside the castle’s cellars is the Great Tun, a huge wine vat that can hold 222,000 litres of wine. Four such barrels have existed in the castle, the current one constructed in 1751 from 130 oak trees. The wine stored here would have been collected from the citizens as payment for taxes. Victor Hugo mentions this wine vat in his Les Misérables as does Mark Twain in A Tramp Abroad and Herman Melville in his Moby Dick.

Before leaving Heidelberger Schloss, I was sure to hike to the very top of the castle gardens at sunset, to get spectacular views of the city from above. I then returned to the Kornmarkt in time for dinner using the funicular.

There was some spare time before my train to Frankfurt so I wandered Alstadt further to explore the shops and displays of the local Christmas Market, considered one of the prettiest in all of Germany. The 140 “olde worlde” wooden huts blend well into the historic squares of the Alstadt while illuminations and Christmas trees add to the yuletide spirit. Karlsplatz, located directly below Heidelberg’s castle, hosts the city’s Christmas on Ice. Surrounded by trees glistening with hundreds of stars, locals and visitors alike can skate around the open air ice rink and listen to the live music. I was hungry since I hadn’t really had lunch, so I found a hut with a huge German woman inside (she must have been close to six feet tall!) and found out she doesn’t speak English. Oh no. So I got across that I wanted something really German, and she handed me some spicy Heidelberger bratwurst with sauerkraut. That sausage was very spicy, which warmed you up from the inside like whiskey does. It was delicious and especially good with the temperatures dropping. The Germans sure know how to make their sausages!

Once in Frankfurt, I realized I couldn’t have chosen a better place to stay for my stopover. Tomorrow I am headed for Schwalmstadt, but there are not many places to stay the night in Schwalmstadt. So I decided to stay over in nearby Frankfurt, a rather industrial city famous for its airport. My hostel was directly across the street from the train station, so the location was fabulous for an early train tomorrow. And when I checked in, I was told that there was free dinner being served in the hostel’s pub in half an hour. I settled in just in time for a huge pasta dinner. What luck! The hostel’s pub was buzzing with other travelers from all over the world, travelling alone, just like me. The hours flew by over dinner and it was great to meet so many like minded people. I had an absolute blast.

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