What a wonderful year it’s been! I thank each and every one of you for your really positive comments and support! We promise to keep your travel curiosity satisfied next year, but this is our last post for 2017 (as always, just a tad late!).
so it was with some sadness that we left our cozy mountain retreat in Zûrs on Friday, December 15th. However, the open road beckoned, and we set off after an epic snowfall (with really nicely cleared roads) for Lucerne, Switzerland. This whole detour through the Alps was necessitated by the fact that we are really cheap travelers (when it makes sense), and we had to wait until Monday to get a frequent flyer flight out of Frankfurt at the lowest points level. Hence, our journey through the Alps (and the bonus of picking up another country on the way).
What can I say … the drive through the Alps the day after yesterday’s snowstorm was just amazing! We did stop in Lichtenstein for lunch, but it literally only took about 20m minutes to drive from Austria to Switzerland.
Then we had a magical drive to our destination tonight, Lucerne. Lucerne lies on one of the plentiful alpine lakes in Switzerland, and we arrived about 4:00 in the afternoon, just as darkness was beginning to fall.
However, despite Jim’s best laid plans, our approach to the hotel did not go according to plan. He had first tried to map the entry route to our hotel, Les Balances, on Google Maps, but gave up when the app crashed with the ominous “spinning rainbow pizza of doom” (it’s an Apple thing). Failing that, Jim called the hotel to ask directions. With those in hand, he plotted our approach on the GPS. Ruh roh! It would have worked just fine except that there was a Christmas market right in the middle of the square we needed to drive through to get to our hotel! Backing out of the old town, I jumped out to ask two traffic guys how to get there. One didn’t speak English (a pretty rare thing in Switzerland) and the other guy sent us back to the other side of the river to try a different approach. After ending up in another Christmas market, we skirted the edge and got bak over the bridge to the correct side of the river. The crazy thing was that we could see our hotel from the bridge. However, all roads led away from the hotel, and we flagged down a traffic cop to ask directions, She sent us into a pedestrian walkway makes very clearly as a no driving zone. We pulled to the side of the minuscule street and called the hotel. They told us that notwithstanding the signs, guests of the hotel were allowed to drive on the pedestrian cobble-stoned streets. The sight of a few delivery vans made us feel marginally better, but JIm needed a really large martini after we had finally arrived and handed the car over to a capable valet. Whew!
We awoke the next morning to rain (instead of the predicted snow) and set off to do a bit of sightseeing and to grab a latte. For the most part, we walked along the edge of Lake Lucerne, and then turned inland to the old part of town. There was a lovely and fragrant Christmas tree market right by the lake.
Probably the most notable sight we saw was a memorial to the Swiss Guard soldiers lost in the French Revolution. As a protective force, they were pledged to guard the French King Louis XVII and Marie Antoinette. However, by the time they were called up, it was obvious that the French monarchy was going to fall, but the Swiss Guard members fulfilled their duty anyway. The memorial to their bravery is a resting lion carved into a stone wall in a lovely park.
Finally after a day of trooping around Lucerne, Jim and I returned to the room just in time to see a really beautiful snowfall with fat, fluffy flakes falling right outside our balcony. Out lovely stay in Lucerne was capped off by a fabulous meal in the old sector just across the river from our hotel called Stern.
Tomorrow, we drive on the Autobahn up to Frankfurt, where we will overnight at the airport hotel. From there, we fly home to celebrate the holidays with our family. Again, from the bottom of our hearts, thank you for your support and Happy New Year! Stay tuned for our next adventure, which is right around the corner, as we cruise down to New Zealand andAustralia from the port of Los Angeles.
OK; Wow! We packed a lot into our brief visit to Vienna! Friday was our last day on the Tauck tour, so we had scheduled activities in town through midafternoon. This is another one of those great moorings where you are actually parked in the town you are visiting so you do not have a super long bus ride to get to the action. Alas, we are not close enough to walk to the major attractions. The area where we are docked is in the more modern part of town, and about a 15-20 minute bus ride to the center of town.
Vienna calls itself the City of Music, and with good cause. IN addition to the very productive years Mozart spent here composing for the Hapsburg Court, the city is home to Johann Strauss, Senior, and Junior (composer of the Blue Danube waltz), Franz Schubert, and the one-hit wonder, Falco (“Rock Me, Amadeus”). However, the city also supported the musical creations of many other musicians who briefly lived here, including Beethoven, Hayden, Salieri, Liszt, Brahms, and Mahler. We have been advised by various friends who have lived in and visited Vienna that the one “must do” thing as a tourist is to attend a concert here; preferably in one of the churches, which reputedly have near perfect acoustics. I am happy to report that we have tickets tomorrow night for an Advent concert at the biggest cathedral in Vienna, St. Stephen’s. But more on that later …
Today’s agenda involves a driving tour around the inner city, a visit to Schōnbrunn Palace and its impressive Christkindelsmarkt, followed by lunch at an Italian palazzo overlooking the Albertinaplatz. Then we have some free time in town before we go back to the ship.
Vienna dates back to Celtic and Roman times, but for nearly 600 years, it was the center of the Hapsburgs seat of the Austro Hungarian Empire. It prospered through medieval and Baroque times, and today is home to about 1.8 million inhabitants. It is the second largest German-speaking city in the world, and has remained very prosperous. Although nearly 95% of the city was destroyed in World War II, the city was liberated by Russian soldiers, and it took until 1965 before it was fully rebuilt. Today, it is an international city, world-recognized for its culture and innovation. It is a pre-eminent city for conferences and business gatherings, and attracts over 6.8 million tourists per year. Both the UN and OPEC regular host meetings here, and several organizations list it as one of the most-livable cities in the world.
The city is laid out in a very practical fashion. Beginning with Emperor Franz Joseph, the old city fortifications were removed, leading to massive redevelopment around the city center. It is usually recognized as a marvel of modern city planning, and there is a ring road around the entire city center called the Ringstrasse, accessed via a great tram system. We know; we used it! Interestingly, in District 1, which encompasses the old town, 12% of the area is taken up with the Hofburg Palace, which began construction in about 1200, and every Emperor thereafter just added on to it.
In our bus tour, we also ventured through the Swartzenburg district, which is the center of the Viennese cafe culture. Interestingly, in 1913, Vienna was home to Adolph Hitler, Leon Trotsky, Joseph Tito, Sigmund Freud and Joseph Stalin. In fact, for a while, it was known as “Red Vienna”.
On the drive around the Ringstrasse, we admired the St. Charles Church, considered the gretest Baroque church in Austria. It was commissioned in 1713, one year after the city survived a huge plague outbreak, with construction starting in 1716, and being completed in 1737.
Another completely impressive edifice is the State Opera House, which opened in 1869, and it hosts the longest opera season in world, with the Vienna Philharmonic as its resident orchestra. Our tour took us past the Parliament building and the Rathausplatz, where the town hall is a masterpiece of Neo-Gothic architecture. As noted earlier. There is a huge Christmas market located here; one of 27 located in the city of Vienna.
Vienna is also home to a huge number of buildings constructed in the Art Nouveau style. In Vienna, it is called the Secession style of architecture, and the multi-story buildings are very light and lovely. Everywhere we go, the city is pretty, and orderly and majestic, with little to no graffiti anywhere. The inhabitants appear prosperous and busy.
Finally, we moved outside the City center to see the Schönbrunn Palace, which is like Vienna’s own smaller version of Versailles. We had a guided tour at the palace, and then we were free to visit the palace grounds and the Christmas market located there. Again, Jim and I are somewhat amazed at the vast numbers of locals who come to visit there markets along with their children in tow. Today is a really cold, blustery day just above freezing, although the sun is shining, but I still can’t imagine bring a baby out in this weather. I will say the baby carriages look to be extremely well-padded (as are the babies themselves), but I just can’t fathom it! But in point of fact, the Christmas market and Schonnbrunn Palace are mobbed.
Finally, we packed up and left the palace on our way to lunch. We had lunch back in the city center right off the Ringstrasse, at Palazzo Palladvini. The highlight of the meal was a performance by young choral group singing Christmas carols in German. As these songsters age, they will be eligible to join the Vienna Boys Choir (at least the boys will). Then we had a little time on our own, but Jim and I were cold and wanting to pack, so we headed back to the ship, full of ideas for what to do tomorrow after we left the ship.
Dec. 10, 2017:
After bidding the MS Joy and her friendly crew behind, Jim and I were transferred to our hotel in Vienna, the Grand Hotel Wien. The Viennese call themselves “Wieners” meaning those who come from Wien, which is the true name of Vienna. We’ve arisen to an absolutely gorgeous sunny day, even if it is only about freezing, and somewhat windy. We understand wind is common in Wien.
After dropping our stuff at the hotel to wait for us until our room became available, Jim and I headed out to wander along the Ringstrasse and experience life in this beautiful city!
From our hotel, we walked back to the area where we had lunch yesterday because we were on a mission (at least Jim was). We knew there was a Starbuck’s close to the Spanish Riding School (where the Lipizzaners perform), and we were hoping to at least catch a glimpse of the horses since we had not figured out we needed to get tickets in advance (at least 2-3 months in advance). No such luck, but we did score the desired Starbuck’s mug.
Then we proceeded to walk around the Ringstrasse. Being as we were in Vienna (and the temperature was hovering at freezing), we popped into a café about half way around for a coffee and a strudel. Along the way, we saw the Opera House, the Parliament Building, and the Rathausplatz. We also walked down into the area surrounding St. Stephen’s Cathedral along the main shopping street, Kantnerstrasse. The plaza around St. Stephen’s hosts yet another Christmas market, but we were more interested to find out that we could pick up our tickets for tonight’s concert. Then we wrapped up our walk by strolling down the Kantnerstrasse, which was decorated with these reflective bits of glass, which caught the afternoon sun just beautifully!
Jim and I kicked our feet up at the hotel for a couple of hours, and then headed out on the public tram to go over to the Rathausplatz so I could photograph the Christmas market all lit up. It really was magical, and then we headed off to dinner. We capped this special day by attending the Advent concert at St. Stephen’s Cathedral. The concert featured the music of Mozart, Bach, Schubert and Hayden, and was simply magical! Tomorrow, we take a train to Innsbruck to embark on our skiing adventure in the Austrian Alps. Stay tuned!
Good morning! It’s another cold morning here today, but at least no rain is predicted. On today’s schedule, we will again walk into town to meet a local guide, and wander around medieval Passau.
Passau lies in the lower southeast corner of Germany, still in the district of Bavaria. It is situated at the confluence of three rivers: The Danube, the Ilz and the Inn Rivers. Because the old town is built on an island in the center of the confluence, it is subject to pretty massive flooding, even in recent history. In fact, our guide walked us past some landmarks in the old town showing the water level in many past historical floods. The second worst flood ever was in 2013, and the water came to over the windows on the floors one floor above street level.
The narrow alleyways of the old town have been taken over somewhat with shops and galleries of artists. In fact, there are vibrantly painted cobblestones on the street pointing you in the direction of this artists’ quarter. There are also lots of little shops and cafes, and it is easy to imagine how lively this area could be in the summer time with tables and chairs lining the alleys.
Because of its felicitous location at the confluence of so many major trading rivers, Passau’s history of inhabitance dates back 4000 years (to 2,000 BC) when Celtic settlers first lived there. Naturally, such a prime river location also enticed the Romans, who were in turn overrun by Germanic tribes. However, by the mid 5th Century, a monastery had been established there, and in 739, an English monk called Boniface established a diocese there, which was the largest diocese in the German Kingdom/Holy Roman Empire.
We walked to the point in the old town where you could see both the Danube and the Inn Rivers. Sadly, the photo I took did not do it justice (so it is dead to me), but use your imagination. In this same area stands the Romanesque Monastery Nederburg, originally established in 736, which was substantially upgraded by a wealthy noblewoman, Saint Gisela from Hungary, who took her vows after her husband died. Across the River Inn, we had a pretty good view of the Pilgrim’s Church, which was built just after the last really bad plague epidemic hit Passau in the mid-17th Century. It is said that if you are really a devout pilgrim, you will climb the 321 steps to the church offering a prayer on each step. The truly zealous will make the climb on their knees.
The Pilgrims’ Church with its 321 step path leading up to it
Then we wandered up to the area surrounding St. Stephen’s Cathedral, which is a Baroque masterpiece. The Church was built beginning in 1688, and houses the largest pipe organ in Europe. In fact, I believe it is the second largest pipe organ in the world; the first purportedly is the organ in the First Congregational Church in Los Angeles. In any event, the St. Stephen’s organ has 17,774 pipes and 233 registers.
In the plaza in the back of St. Stephen’s is the Bishop’s palace and it is unbelievably grand. However, we were more interested in the huge Advent Candle Calendar which is positioned out front of the Bishop’s Residence. Legend has it that these Advent candles originated in Passau with a pastor who ran an orphanage. One year, when he was unable to give gifts to each of the children, he fashioned a Advent calendar out of a wagon wheel to help the children count off the days to Christmas with a new candle each day. These days, Advent candles are still very popular in Germany, but they only hold four candles, one of which is lit for each of the Sundays before Christmas. We have seen carved and decorated Advent candle holders in just about every German Christmas market we have visited.
The area in front of the Cathedral is a large plaza. Guess what?! It just happens to be the site of Passau’s Christmas Market! Most of the goods here looked fairly similar to other German markets. However, we have it on the good authority of our Tauck Director that Passau is known for its really great hot dogs, which are sold in quarter and half meter lengths. Naturally, I had to find some of the locals enjoying these treats to verify it for myself. Yup! They looked awesome!
We had two big treats on our agenda this morning. First, we attended a lesson in the art of gingerbread making by the resident baker at the famous bakery “Simon”. While the lesson was informative (and came with a complimentary cup of glühwein), the samples were the best part! Of note, we learned that there were three main types of gingerbread. It started with the oldest type dating back to medieval times, which was not only sweetened with honey; the dough was mixed several months in advance and the honey preserved the wet dough mixture. Then as molasses started to be available from the New World, the mixture was sweetened with molasses. Finally, the most refined recipes started using refined sugar, and that is still considered the premier type today.
Then we had the fortune to be able to attend a concert in St. Stephen’s Cathedral played entirely on the organ. It was amazing how the organist was able to project the sound from the pipes to make it seem as if the sounds were coming from different parts of the church. As much as we enjoyed the concert, it was FREEZING in the church, so Jim and I were quite happy to skip further explorations of the market in favor of a hot lunch in a cozy restaurant right on the plaza. Then it was back to the boat!
Statue of King Maximilian is called the “rain tester”
This morning we awoke in the medieval port of Regensburg. Although the snow stopped yesterday sometime, it is still cold and windy here (just slightly above freezing). The town actually dates back to Roman times where it was a garrison outpost for the Roman Empire. We’re met at the dock by our local guide who has lived in Regensburg most of her life. Just steps from where our ship is moored, we step into the twisted cobblestone streets of the old town, and see the remains of the fortress walls for the Roman garrison.
However, the town really gained true prominence during the medieval period when it was an important trading town along the Danube. The merchants in town were so wealthy for the age that instead of building half-timbered homes, they built entirely from stone, which probably explains how Regensburg has been able to escape destruction by fire. Instead, the entire medieval city core remains fairly intact, which is why the entire town is UNESCO World Heritage site. All buildings in town center are preserved inside and out, down to the color they are painted. Today, the town is home to three different universities with a total student population of about 30,000, which is pretty huge considering that the town’s total population is just 140,000 people. It also prides itself on being a cultural center for Germany and is home to numerous art collections and music celebrations throughout the year.
However, because it is such a huge university town, students are frequently housed in apartments in old town in the old medieval buildings. Here is one such building being used for student housing.
By this time, we had mostly seen the old town, so we had some free time to see the Christmas markets. However, it was pretty bitterly cold this morning, so Jim opted to go back to the ship. I made a quick reconnoiter in town, but then dashed back to the ship to pick up my computer and go grab a coffee in a WIFi friendly café and post a blog.
This afternoon, we had a special treat in store; a visit to a private Christmas market located in town at the site of the former St. Emmeram’s Abbey, now know as Schloss Thurn und Taxis-huge castle owned by Thurn and Taxis royal family-scene of private Christmas market.
Entrance to the Thurn and Taxis Palace
What was different about this market is that it is all laid out with a mindset of making your visit a really enjoyable experience. Towards that end, there were countless seating areas with firepots (and glühwein drinking stands) scattered throughout the grounds of the castle. There were also much nicer food stands than those at the majority of the markets we’ve seen, and there were local artisans demonstrating their artistry in media such as wood, blown glass, and ornamental iron. It was fun just to watch them, but there were also some higher end craft items on offer here, too. In sum, this may have been our best Christmas market yet!
So, dear Readers, yesterday was a travel day for us so not much to report, except that we finally had our first day of snow all day. Yippee! Jim figured out how we could take the high-speed train from Cologne, where our last tour ended, to Nuremberg, where our new tour is starting today. It really was super easy, with a couple of caveats … 1. There are two train stations in Cologne, one of which is the super nice terminal which is think is for short hops intercity, and then ours, which was the Deutz station. The bummer about that is that there is virtually no seating in the terminal, and limited retail opportunities (read: 1 option for coffee, and it was bad). 2. Even with “first class” tickets, there is no place to store larger bags so it is some what of a logistical challenge to get all your stuff on the train and stored somewhere in the train in the few minutes the train is in the station. Even so, we had comfortable seats and good WiFi on the train, so our 3 hour trip to Nuremberg was pretty easy. Here’s some pictures of the countryside as we bombed along at 120 miles per hour.
This morning, we had several options for our sightseeing explorations. Jim and I opted for the WWII tour. It snowed all night, so that presented us with a lovely change of pace.
There are many reasons why Nuremberg is a good place to learn about the Nazi history of the War, but first let me give you a little history of the area. I don’t know about you, but I still have painful memories of learning about the Holy Roman Empire, and then I promptly forgot it all. Let me try to dumb it down a little for you. In general terms, Charlemagne was responsible for forming the Holy Roman Empire in the year 800 AD under a grant of divine power from Pope Leo III, which purported to reach back to the Roman Empire. The Western Roman Empire had ceased to exist over 300 years before.
Nuremberg itself was established 950 AD, and gained in importance when it became a Free Imperial City of the HRE. The city was the home of Emperor Charles IV, author of the Golden Bull, which established the Imperial Diet (parliament) of the HRE. Charles IV is buried in Nuremberg Cathedral. Geographically, Nuremberg is located in Germany’s largest state of Bavaria. The area surrounding Nuremberg had become an industrial power in the years leading up to WWI. However, with the loss of that war, and the imposition of heavy war reparations against Germany, many Germans were angry and under some severe economic stress caused by both rampant inflation and the Great Depression.
Enter Adolph Hitler, who was born in Austria to a family of modest means. He dropped out of school at age 16, and for a while, lived in a workhouse for the poor. Hitler immigrated to Germany, and by 1925, had already led the failed “Beer Hall Putsch” in which he tried to take over control of the government. Instead of being sentenced to death for treason, a tribunal of conservative judges, who supported the aims of his party, merely sentenced him to a few years in jail. That sentence was ultimately commuted, and he served only a few years of his sentence. By 1933, Hitler was a German citizen. In that same year, the German President, Hindenberg, named him as Chancellor of Germany, and he was already in charge of the Workers Party, which became the Nazi Party. In short order, Hitler made his own laws, started by getting rid of all other parties; Germany became a police state with no freedom of press or speech, and lots of spying. 1st concentration camp was opened in Nuremberg. Jewish businesses boycotted, trade unions banned and books banned shortly thereafter. Also, physically and mentally handicapped adults and children sterilized. By 1934, Hitler had assumed all state powers.
In part for its historical significance as the former seat of the Imperial Diet, and in large part because of its deep support for the Nazi Party, Hitler chose Nuremberg as the site of the annual Nazi Party rallies which drew hundreds of thousands of people to the city. In furtherance of this, Hitler based a huge Zeppelin field in the center of town, surrounded by stadium seating and viewing boxes for Nazi officials. We visited the Zeppelin field as our first stop. Somehow, the snow covering it all really added to the feeling of alieness of it all. Hitler also built a huge parade grounds for showcasing Nazi troops on parade and youth Hitler squads performing nearby.
Another reason Hitler chose to focus the Nazi Party here was he had a close friendship with the local police chief, Julius Streicher, who was extremely anti Semitic. Streicher also founded a newspaper, Der Sturmer, full of lies about Jews, and was very responsible for many of the war crimes carried out against local Jews. He was convicted of war crimes in the Nuremberg Trials and sentenced to die.
Our next stop was at the Documentation Hall. The building was constructed by Hitler as a huge Nazi Party Congress Hall based on the design of the Coliseum in Rome. It was never finished, and the building has now become the site of a comprehensive museum exploring the causes and phenomenon of the rise of the Nazi Party, with a whole exhibit dedicated to artifacts from the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals.
Finally, our tour of WWII history ended with a visit to the courthouse where the Nuremberg Trials were held. In addition to being able to see a film of the actual trial, it was cool to be able to see the courthouse. From the exterior, we could see the windows of Room 600 where the trials were conducted.
The building in which the trials were held;
Finally, it was off to the old town. The entire old town area was a walled city, and unlike a lot of European towns, many sections of the old wall are still standing.
We also could see the Imperial Palace, but we did not get close enough to take any photos. However, we were bound for the center of the old town Nuremberg Cathedral is located and the Christmas market spreads out in the square in front of the church.
The old town was really charming with all the snow all over the Christmas decorations and the Cathedral. The Cathedral houses the grave of Charles IV, so it remained a fairly important pilgrimage site all through the Middle Ages.
Now that we’re in Germany, we’re interested in seeing how the Christmas markets differ here in Bavaria. One thing we learn right away is that this part of Germany is really big on gingerbread, which is known as lebkuchen. There are all sorts of different types, and one of the vendors let us sample his traditional style lebkuchen. Another thing that is very popular here are little thin grilled sausages, which are served three in a bun with mustard. You know we had to try those! We didn’t notice too much different in terms of the types of handicrafts sold in the market here with one main exception; the famous Nürnberg prune people! These little dolls are made of prunes and other dried fruits with a walnut for a head, and are decorated as all different types of townspeople. Cute but kind of creepy!
I did buy the obligatory Christmas ornament. Then it was time to return to the bus, because we have an early departure this afternoon.
We are travelling on a tributary canal called the Mainz-Donau (Danube) Canal which ultimately will connect us to the Danube. Because this canal actually crosses the continental divide in Europe, it has to first go up and then come down which requires a crazy number of locks to accommodate the elevation differentials. Jim and spent the afternoon in the observation lounge in the front of the ship so we could watch our navigation. One of the most interesting aspects of this is that the canal actually crosses over a couple of highways, so a bunch of us raced upstairs to be able to snap pictures as we sailed over the road. Tomorrow we will dock in the university town of Regensberg, and we look forward to learning more about it.
Jeez, it’s cold this morning! When we could finally see outside (after 8 in the morning this far north), the day is grey and misty and about 29 degrees. Overnight, it snowed, so it is beginning “to feel a lot like Christmas”! Every once in a while, I venture outside to the top deck to snap some pictures and then rush back inside to get warm. Finally, about noon, we come into the city of Cologne. From the river, we can see the back of the Cathedral of Cologne with its soaring crenellated towers. What a sight!
Once our ship docked, right next to the Cathedral, we join a walking tour of the city. Our first stop is at the Cathedral, or more properly, Hohe Domkirche Sankt Petrus, the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter. In medieval times, there were three holy cities to which religious people made a pilgrimage: Jerusalem, the Vatican, and the Cathedral of Cologne. The reason this church became such a holy site is that the holy relics of the three Magi who witnessed Christ’s birth are enshrined here.
We took a fairly brief walking tour in the old town area. Had we had more time to spend here, I would definitely have gone to the German Roman Museum which has some amazing excavated Roman ruins, including a huge mosaic floor and the remains of parts of the aqueduct system that served the city.
However, it’s already late in the day by the time we dock and do the tour, so Jim and I had to prioritize. Thus, we visited the Cathedral and saw the golden cask holding the holy relics and admired the stained glass windows, and then we ventured into the HUGE Christmas market spread out all around the church.
This is the first Saturday we’ve ventured into the markets in a large city, and OMG; it’s packed! Because its such a cold grey day, the Christmas decorations in the market really pop, and they have another Christmas pyramid here.
Jim and I imitated salmon swimming upstream for a while, and then he peeled off to go back to the ship. I didn’t last much longer, and then I found a nice coffee shop in a hotel nearby where I could sit in peace for a bit and use their WiFi to upload another blog post. Then I also headed back to enjoy our last night aboard the MS Inspire. Tomorrow, Jim and I take the train from here to Nuremberg, and start our exploration of the Christmas markets along the Danube River. Stay tuned!
This morning we docked in Speyer, Germany, and then made a shorter drive to the university town of Heidelberg. We’re still in the southwestern part of Germany, in the state of Baden Württemberg. The town is located on the River Neckar, with a population of about 150,000 people; about a quarter of who are students.
Heidelberg is also home to a giant ruined castle that is just charming. We parked right by the river and then walked uphill through the crooked medieval streets to a funicular, which would take us up to the Castle. From where we’re parked, you can see across the river to a beautiful twisting path that goes up into the tree-studded hills called the Philosophers’ Path. However, since it’s still raining, there was little chance we were going to go exploring over there.
Our local guide was an expat American (married to a German man), who first took us up the funicular (about a 90 second ride), and then walked us around the Castle grounds. Our first stop was in front of a 19th Century former mansion, which has become a fraternity house for one of the Heidelberg fraternities. Those fraternities are somewhat controversial because they were originally only open to students from wealthy/noble families, and there was also a tradition of those students engaging in duels with rapiers. Even today, about 6 of those fraternities remain on campus, and it is still considered a badge of honor to have your cheek sliced open by your dueling partner. Notwithstanding this barbaric tradition, the Heidelberg University is one of the oldest (established in 1386) and most respected universities in Europe. Today, it is world-renowned for several research facilities, including four of the Max Planck Institutes. The operetta The Student Prince is set in Heidelberg. The university is also a birthplace of the German Romanticism movement, which grew out of the ideals of the French Revolution.
Heidelberg was also a favorite place to Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), located as it is on a powerful river like the Mississippi. Mark Twain liked it so much that he and his wife and their kids lived in the town for quite some time, and he was able to overcome his writer’s block by talking to the university students. He was even allowed to join one of the fraternities. There are several notable quotes attributed to Twain from this time. Two of my favorites are: when asked about how difficult it is to learn German, Twain said, “ It takes 30 hours to learn English, 30 days to learn French, and 30 years to learn German.”; and “Some German words are so long they have a perspective.” While he was here, he wrote his book “A Tramp Abroad”.
The ruined Heidelberg Castle is a major draw for many. It sits atop a hill overlooking the town, and has been built and destroyed almost more times than you can count.
Our guide shared with us quite a bit of the history of the Castle, including its various periods of construction and destruction. The Castle was built on the remains of a monastery starting in the 1200s. One part of that history involves the period in the early 1600s when the Castle was owned by Prince Elector Frederick V of the Palatinate, who married Princess Elizabeth Stuart of England and Scotland (daughter of King James I, and VI, respectively). Both were teenagers when married, and apparently, it was quite the love match. He even constructed a gate within the Castle grounds for her to see on her daily walks engraved with all sorts of fantastical birds and animals. He died tragically in war just a few years after they were married, but he still managed to father a bunch of kids before he lost his life.
There was also a portion of the Castle constructed by another Prince Elector known as Ottheinrich, who was one of the most-beloved of the Electors because he was very progressive and open-minded. I particularly enjoyed walking around the grounds to be able to photograph them with the small dusting of snow that fell last night. Finally, we also saw the largest wooden wine cask in world which is inside the Castle. It holds 58,000 gallons, and took 15 years to build. From the area where the wine cask is stored, you can wander out on the Castle ramparts for some really awesome views of the town below.
We then had a brief introduction tour of the main town, which includes one of the longest shopping streets in Europe. Scattered along that street, we see some small brass plaques set in the cobblestones outside some of the homes and businesses. Our guide explained to us that they were Stolpestein (stomping stones) engraved with the names and date of birth of the person who lived or worked at that place, along was the dates they were captured and executed by the Nazis.
Out tour over, we met for lunch at a brewery called Vetter, and had a traditional German lunch, including soft pretzels, pork specialties and spaetzle mixed with Gruyere cheese.
Then it’s off to shop at the 7 (count them) Christmas markets in Heidelberg.