When I asked my German coworker for her best recommendations for Western Germany, her first choice was the university town of Heidelberg.
Yes. This is the same Heidelberg that travel writers in English (eg. Rick Steves) have shunned for years, calling it too Disneyfied by the nearby American army base in its recent past. Yet domestic German tourists have always embraced the romance of this charming medieval town, built of uniformly ochre red bricks and overlooked by massive castle ruins. So why such polarized opinions?
I've got much more confidence in my German coworker's opinion of course, and booked ourselves into Heidelberg for 2 nights after Aachen and Cologne, before venturing south into the Black Forest. As the weather grew uncharacteristically wet for mid September, we started our morning seeking shelter from the relentless rain inside one of the ruined keeps of the castle. The panoramic view of the medieval town was simply breathtaking, good weather or not.
I can appreciate why certain travel writers mock Heidelberg for its immense popularity -- its crumbling castle for instance is perennially ranked among Germany's most visited landmarks. But despite daily invasions by multi-national (but mostly German it seemed!) tour groups, the castle grounds are vast enough not to feel overcrowded and the balcony still offers some of the best views of the university and the old town beneath.
The castle itself is best known for the world's largest wine barrel, though I found the Apotheken Museum to be much more interesting, especially after seeing an eerily similar exhibit halfway around the world last year at the historic town of Wuzhen. Apparently both the German and the Chinese herbalists treasured the medicinal qualities in such enchanting items as dried lizards and salamanders.
We took the little funicular back down to the old town. After passing through the university campus and checking out the open-air farmer's market on Markplatz, we arrived barely in time to claim one of the last remaining lunch tables at Hackteufel amidst a roomful of jovial older German visitors.
I've already heard good things about this place prior to our visit, but it turned out even better ... it's Porcini season AND Federweisser season at the same time! So that's exactly what we ordered ... a flask of sweet Federweisser (or Neuer Wein as it seemed to be called in this region) for my wife, and a Porcini soup to share between the two of us.
The Porcini soup came out amazing -- thick, meaty slices of wild Porcini simmering in a generous bowl of creamy goodness, fragrant and woody enough for me, yet not overly pungent for my wife's sensitive tastebuds. This was probably the best Porcini I've had outside of Italy, and definitely the best soup of our 24-day trip.
The main dishes however were less spectacular in comparison. My Schweinebraten tasted somewhat tough and bland even with the gravy, and I probably enjoyed the sides more than the main. Having a lighter lunch in mind my wife ordered the Wurstsalat with Bratkartoffeln, which turned out better than my pork roast. Though I have to say ... having lunches in Germany one can never complain about the portions.
So the best parts of the meal turned out to be the soup and the Neuer Wein, which by that time had become so complex and delicious that it was on the verge of becoming real wine (and possessing real kicks!).
Bill for Two Persons
|Porcini Soup||6.9 Euros|
|Wurstsalat mit Bratkartoffeln||10 Euros|
|Neuer Wein x 2||5 Euros|
|TOTAL before tips||36.9 Euros (CAD$51.7)|
Our favorite memory of Heidelberg was an after lunch stroll on the opposite bank of the Neckar, crossing the Alte Brücke, walking the shoreline along Neuenheimer Landstraße and returning via Theodor-Heuss-Brücke. It's a great alternative to the Philosophenweg -- similar fantastic view of the Alte Brücke and the castle, without having to hike up the narrow path in the rain. Being closer to the river had its advantages, as we got front row view of an episode of the police boat chasing down a stand-up paddleboarder.
Finally we boarded the mini cruise we've been looking forward to, a 90 minute journey up the Neckar Valley towards Neckarsteinach. Our boat actually came 40 minutes late, in a manner uncharacteristic of German punctuality, amidst jeers and frustration from a mostly German crowd. But once the cruise went underway and everyone had either a cold beer or a summer Radler in hand, the ambiance lightened and people seemed to even enjoy watching water levels rise while the boat passed through two locks.
The real attraction of course was the pastoral landscape along this picturesque stretch of the Neckar, from Heidelberg to Neckargemund to Neckarsteinach. It was through these waters that timber from the Black Forest has flowed downstream towards the Netherlands for centuries, and even today the river remains busy with cargo traffic.
Passing on both sides were quaint little towns with tall church steeples, lush greenery and forests, and then the occasional campsite full of recreational vehicles which has unfortunately become typical of rural Germany. But to the credit of nature conservation along the Neckar, we also spotted several grey herons waddling in the shallow water in search for dinner.
The scenery became even prettier as we arrived at our destination of Neckarsteinach, a lovely town crowned with four little castles on its surrounding hilltops. The medieval core of this small town remains well-preserved with 500-year-old half-timber houses and twisting alleyways, all leading to its two churches, one Evangelical and one Catholic.
By this time the earlier drizzle had grown into a torrential downpour. We would have loved to hike up to a couple of the castles in better weather, without the delay in the boat arrival, and with a reliable train schedule to guarantee our return to Heidelberg. But on this day none of that worked out ... the local S-Bahn service was cancelled due to scheduled track maintenance, and we had to figure out where to catch the elusive Train Replacement Bus.
That's when we were greeted by a little angel at the bus stop, a young girl of perhaps 9 or 10 years old asking, "Hi, do you know where you're going?" in perfect English. She turned out to be our lifesaver as we've been waiting at the wrong bus stop! Soon we were able to locate the train station, and the temporary bus stop for the Train Replacement Bus. We arrived back at Heidelberg on schedule, which was nothing short of miraculous.
Being still full from lunch we decided to skip proper dinner, and spent our evening wandering around the old town and munching on street snacks such as this crusty marzipan Schneeball, grilled Bratwurst from a Kebaphaus and Eis from a typical Italian-owned ice cream parlour. In typical tourist town fashion though, a 2-scoop Eis cost 2 Euros instead of our familiar price of 1.6 Euros in most other towns. But that's just an fact of Heidelberg's popularity, especially to domestic tourists.
Bill for Two Persons
|Bratwurst mit Brötchen||2.9 Euros|
|TOTAL before tips||7.8 Euros (CAD$10.9)|
We took the last scheduled bus from Universitatsplatz back to our hotel. Booking Ibis Heidelberg next to the train station was definitely the right move, especially considering our late arrival at 22:00 the previous night and our early departure at 08:30 the next morning. We certainly can't complain about 62 Euros in high season for reliably clean rooms, just 50m from the Hauptbahnhof. The next morning we would hop on an early train and start our 4 day journey into the depths of the Black Forest.