Monday, December 30, 2013

December's Adventure: Day 2, Heidelberg

Sunday found us having a leisurely morning as I cooked breakfast for my cousins. We talked about the next stop on our travel adventure: Heidelberg!

Heidelberg is about an hour from Kaiserslautern and is host to the oldest university in Germany (founded in 1386!). On the Neckar River, it is a picturesque city left intact even after the wars of the 20th century.

However, not all of Heidelberg has been left intact. In fact, the city's most famous sight, its castle, is actually partially in ruins! It has been struck by lighting and burned as well as subject to destruction during 17th century wars. Portions of the castle remain and are available for tours.

For our trip to Heidelberg, we decided that a visit to the castle was definitely in order. I've visited it thirteen years ago during my first trip to Germany, but haven't been since even though I visit a friend in Heidelberg somewhat regularly. We were in for a special treat this particular weekend at the castle: it was the one and only weekend of the castle's Christmas market, too.

My cousins and I took the train from Kaiserslautern to Heidelberg and walked to the foot of the Königstuhl mountain where the castle is located. We decided to take the funicular railway (more information about it here) up to the castle as the stairs are killer (the gradient is 45 degrees at one point on the funicular railway!). We waited with crowds of people then smooshed into the railcars with them and took a quick ride to the castle grounds.

Since the day before, I had been marveling with my cousins at how incredibly friendly the locals had been at the Christmas market. I felt like it was unreal. When we reached the grounds of the castle, I had my faith restored that I was still in Germany and all was as it should be: when I asked at a gift store about a tour of the castle, the lady was super blunt with me and told me (basically) that she would not have any information about tours because she didn't work at the castle's office. Ahh...there it was: German bluntness. I felt so much better after that, because I was wondering if the chatty friendly people in the woods were even real. I've had plenty of people who have been so kind and helpful to me when I've asked for help, but I'm also used to more blunt answers and no small talk. The super friendly, chatty people in the woods the night before must have just been happy from that beautiful Christmas market and glühwein.

Heidelberg Castle gate
We found the correct spot to buy tickets and decided to take a tour of the Heidelberg Castle. I would recommend it because visitors are allowed to visit inside the castle as part of the tour. Without the tour, visitors are only allowed to see the outside of the castle. Our guide was knowledgeable and personable. Since I've been studying German history and art, I chatted with him during some of the free time on the tour. I even amazed him when I asked him if the altar and the surrounding area in the chapel was wood (I had bet my cousins that it was, even though it looked like marble at a distance). He knocked on it, showing that it was indeed wood and asked if I had taken the tour before. Nope, I had a class this summer where our instructor taught us that in many churches and chapels, what looks like marble might actually be wood. The next time you're in an older European church that has been around since the Renaissance, look closely at the marble walls and altars. It might not be marble at all!

After the tour we visited the Heidelberg Tun, or the giant wine barrel, in the basement of the castle. It's huge, said to be one of the world's largest wine barrels. At one point, the castle employed a dwarf court jester, Giovanni Clementi, revered for his drinking ability, to watch over the wine barrel. Castle inhabitants called Clementi "Perkeo" because they'd ask him various questions, such as if he'd like another glass of wine and his answer was "perché no?" ("why not?" in his native Italian). It is said that he was able to drink vast quantities of wine but the day he drank a glass of water he died. A statue of him still oversees the barrel and Perkeo's legend lives on.

Even better yet? I have a picture of some guy in a costume from when I visited Heidelberg this fall during Herbst Fest. I now realize that this guy is meant to be Perkeo! Mystery solved.

We continued the tour of the castle grounds on our own and stopped by the Apothekenmuseum (Pharmacy Museum). There wasn't much time to see it but it's worth a short visit. Continuing outside, we tried to enjoy the Christmas market outside of the castle. It was so crammed full of people that we didn't stay long.

My friend who lives in Heidelberg met us after our castle visit and took us to her favorite German restaurant in Heidelberg: the Schnitzelhaus Alte Münz (Neckarmünzgasse 10, Heidelberg). It's a short walk outside of the tourist center and is a small, atmospheric restaurant (though not without some questionable art -- check out the poster hanging near the bathrooms!). The main attraction is the restaurant's offering 100+ different types of schnitzels. Beyond schnitzels, offerings are slim besides fries, salads, and käsespätzle, which is understandable given the descriptive name of the restaurant. I don't eat schnitzel, so my choice was the käsespätzle. It was typical käsespätzle and tasted good.

Everyone else ordered different types of schnitzels and were happy with their choices. The serving sides are HUGE so my cousin was happy with her decision to order the small portion (which also saved a few euros). We were all pleased with our meals, the good service, and the cute interior of the small restaurant. We were lucky enough to get seated even without reservations; however, since the restaurant gets busy, for a smoother visit reservations are recommended.

Full and happy, we continued down the Hauptstrasse (main street) in Heidelberg, window shopping and enjoying the festive environment with some additional Christmas markets along the way. We then said goodbye to my friend and walked back to the train station to travel home.

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