In this journal:
- a Nazi cult podium for ritual sacrifices;
- world’s largest wine barrel;
“Why are you staring at me?Martin Zeiler, 1632
Haven’t you seen the old monkey in Heidelberg?
Look around and you probably will see –
more monkeys like me!”
The City of Students
My train slowly pulled into the central station of Heidelberg. This is the fifth largest city in the region, so not exactly the shining metropolis that people flood towards. However, this gem is particularly famous for different things base on who you are asking. For most of the younger folks, it is about the prestigious university in Heidelberg as well as the parties that come with thousands of 20-year-olds, while for a lot of travel gurus, it is about the historical old town. Well, what would this city mean for you? Let’s see what your answer is!
After getting off the bus, I was standing right in front of the main street of the old town: Hauptstrasse. The city is divided into a new town where most of the modern facilities such as shopping malls and tech firms are located, and then there is the side with old quarters and houses, with Hauptstrasse going straight through it. I will focus mostly on the old town, because it is one of the most marvelous places in Germany, and this is also the area with all the famous, as well as unknown attractions. I hope you are ready, because this kind of German beauty requires certain levels of mental preparation.
It is hard to walk in the historical downtown without noticing the formiddable castle looming above one’s head. The best view is from Marktplatz, right in the heart at the east end of Hauptstrasse, which, even to many local’s surprise, is the longest pedestrian shopping street in the entire Germany! Here, one can take in all the glory of the broken walls and ruined watchtowers hovering halfway up to heaven, while not missing all the fountains and statues in the mortal world. This is all thanks to the fact that Heidelberg was left alone during WWII bombings, and escaped the crisis unscathed while most other cities were practially razed off the map. My hostel sat just 30 seconds of walk from the plaza, and I settled down in my little bunk before heading out for a stroll.
The most prominent feature of the old town is probably Karl-Theodor-Brücke, also widely known as Old Bridge. Even though it is built in 1877, this structure is comparably young in contrast to most of the buildings you see above, as the city center had remained the same since middle ages. The gatehouse of the bridge, for example, dates from 13th century. However, the colloquial name comes from the fact that this is actually the 9th bridge built on the same foundation, since the very first bridge was probably built by Roman enginners who found this site to be the easiest crossing point of the Rhine-Neckar river system.
However, after the Roman bridge collapsed sometime before 4th century, the city went without a bridge for a millenia. The second bridge only came in 1284. And then it collapsed, and was rebuilt; round and round it goes. I stood by the shores of the Neckar River, and looked across the stony bridge. Suddenly, I felt so much warmth inside, even though I was a man on the road, on the run, in a country that I wish I could have grown up in, yet would never be able to. Time does not run backwards, and my broken childhood would never be undone. I may be alone; and maybe I shall be alone forever, but that is not the end for me. I started travelling when I was 15, and ever since then, I had grown, matured, lost a lot of nights’ sleep, earned a lot of scars on my knees. And now, sitting on a small bench looking towards the golden sunset in the west, I realized: the universe does not care about you, or me, or the entire humanity; this is just the 4600000000th sunset on the planet, and there will be 4600000000 more.
I do not want to live a life just to be wasted apart. Yes, even though I have eaten three lifetimes’ instant noodles; I have slept on virtually any hard surface there is; I have been ridiculed, beaten, stolen; but I am still here. I may have grown up being a hollow shell of a person living other people’s expectations, yet travelling seems to be the thing that brings genuine joy to me, even though it sometimes comes in the form of unexpected journeys like this very moment. I cannot wish for a time machine or a lifetime of love and fame, but I can work for my own dreams and satisfactions. Many have been disappointed by me, and many will. However, as a person, his or her body should return to the lifestream of our planet fully used, completely exhausted, having done every thing desired by the soul. I am not willing to give my youth, my energy, my time away to a cubicle filled with memo sticks and junk food, even if that means I may betray everyone and everything I have come to know.
I slowly savored every last drop of the most philosophical sunset I had seen, sitting on a small bench by the gentle river. It was cold before, but now, I felt nothing but a heartwarming determination. Ever since graduating from university, I had been lost in myself. I lied to the true self, tricking it into believing that I should be normal. As a last ditch effort, I found a job; I did a horrible job; I lost my job. Maybe I was born a horrible listener and an even worse worker; or, maybe, I was done listening to people telling me who I am not and what I should do to be a “real” me. I was done being told “good boy” and berated when I am not a machine in human disguise. I am done. I am fucking done with this broken system and its stupid games. And right at that moment, with warm tears streaming down my cheeks, slowly losing heat to the winter wind brushing against my face, did I realize that I shall give in no more.
By the time I snapped back to reality, and decided to accept the person who I have become, the sun had completely disappeared. It was just me, the castle, and lights. I may have no money, no family, no love, but I have myself, and this world. For me, this will be enough. Darkness had creeped onto the bridge, and it was time for me to go back. I lied down on my bed, and thought about the world and my life in this world, and quickly fell asleep under the gentle gaze of the ancient castle.
I began next day with another short walk to the bridge. During yesterday’s self-realization session, I somehow managed to forget checking up on the famous monkey lying at the end of the walkway. A statue of monkey had been sitting in this location since 15th century, and it was used to remind people where they have come from. The mirror it holds tells the visitors that no matter if you are coming from inside or outside the city, you are part of the same. The current monkey is designed by a professor from the university just a few blocks down the road, and was erected in 1979. A mirror is held by the monkey in its left hand, while the right hand gestures a mano cornuta, as a prevention to the evil eye. Right beside it, a tiny statue of little mice accompanies the lookout. It is said that rubbing the mice would bring fertility, the monkey fingers for a return to Heidelberg in the future, and the mirror for wealth; ya know, typical touristy bullshit.
What few tourists rubbed their hands on, however, is the poem, written in German, and its contents are the quote featured in the beginning of this journal. It elevates the statue to a meta level. By mocking the reader wasting time on the action of reading the poem, the tourist is turned into the monkey itself, snobbishly looking onto the other tourists out of the know, like a statue silently judging every passer by, preferrably with a hand in the butt just like the original statue in 15th century did.
I also paid a visit to the Kurpfälzisches Museum, a little city-run institute in an old mansion with a cute red facade, right on Hauptstrasse. I was the only visitor during my entire stay, and the gigantic mansion was divided into a few different areas, each focused on a different period of history in the city, from the Roman settlement ruins to the heyday of university town, and eventually to its modern dichotomy. I then paid a visit to the Heidelberg University Museum, which, hilariously, has a better collection of the city history from 1300s onwards, than Kurpfälzisches Museum. This is because from that period on, the university had basically become the reason for the city to exist. Besides normal textbooks, piles of professors’ belongings, and student souvenirs, the museum also has a lengthy collection of the church-related items on display.
The museum manager also allowed me a visit to the grand hall of the old campus, which she had to unlock herself. This is the place where every student graduates from the university ever since 16th century. Heidelberg Unversity was founded in 1386, so if you really think about it, this school of higher learning predates both Inca and Aztec Empires. During its peak in 17th century, nearly 1/2 of the citizens were either studying or working in the university, and even now, about 25% of the total population are students. This just shows how important this school is to shaping the local culture and city landscape, way before wars, politics or city developments took place.
Right around the corner is probably my favorite: Studentenkarzer. It was really common for higher education facilities to feature a system of student self-policing in 16th century, and this building right beside the main student quarters were used as a way to incarcerate students who committed minor offenses such as drunkeness, verbal assaults, all the way to staging a duel. The punishments were handed out by student associations, and ranged from days to weeks. The delinquent could still go to class and attend other functions, but had to live in the simple rooms during the period. However, this quickly devolved into a rite of passage before graduation among the students, all male by the time. They would pro-actively harrass normal citizens and others just to be put into Studentenkarzer, which rarely had spare rooms available. Eventually, visitors were allowed to go inside the building as well, and the entire system fell apart: this only meant that the punished students can have their own party houses all to themselves, so within decades, there was not a single piece of flat surface that had not been etched with memories of these drunken, laughing, and singing students trying to make the most out of their last days in school.
The entire building has been preserved, and it is rather strange to see youthful swear words carved into the walls by people who had already returned to the planet for hundreds of years. What lives did they lead? Who did they marry? Did they enjoy their lives after these last celebrations of innocence after the nights here? Nobody knows, and nobody will ever know. I was feeling a bit peckish after leaving the time-machine to the bygone student eras of mine, and headed off to the Marstallcafe, the canteen on the school campus, where everyone is welcomed to pay and dine.
This was originally the barn where the nobles would leave their horses, and after the university took over the fortress later in the ages, it was converted into a student canteen. As a result, its large, continuous hall nearly resembles scenes from Hogwarts, and offers up cheap buffet by the weight for everyone brave enough to sit among German-speaking students who I desperated tried, and failed, to blend in with. It was a terrifying experience to be sure, because I was reminded of my lunch loner days in high school. Yikes! Not again!
It was finally time to pay a visit to the constant in the city, which even predates the university itself, Heidelberg Castle. A quick funicular ride took me 100 meters above the Königstuhl hillsides, and I was at the courtyard of the old castle grounds in no time. The impressive red walls protrude from the slopes, forming a large formidable barrier against the roofs of the commoners down below. Though mostly in ruins since 1700s, this castle still managed to impress every single visitor in the past 300 years.
The complex began with a series of constructions sometime in late 13th century, and by 1400s, it was the seat of the king of Palatinate, ornately decorated and heralded as the Palace of Kings. It was the height of the existence of Heidelberg as a whole, as the university was booming, the clergy was preaching, and the castle was a shining beacon high above the city. However, a few series of power struggles later, the need for a castle in Heidelberg was no longer there, as Mannheim had become the new seat of power after Thirty Years’ War and Nine Years’ War. The castle began to crumble after the damage dealt by the bombardments dished out during the conflicts, and quickly were taken over by stonemasons trying to quarry away quality materials.
For example, the above Dicker Turm was a massive defense tower first constructed in 1500s. Later, in 1619, Elector Friedrich V decided to reinforce this main tower with even more bricks. At the end, this monstrocity was a full 7-floors of defenses, with walls up to 7 meters thick, and totalled a 30-meter diameter. Sadly, only the remnants could be seen today, as it was brutally destroyed during Palatinate War of Succession in 1693, along with a large elborate banquiet hall situated at the top floor.
After crossing the old stone bridge over a moat that had been dry for centuries, I officially entered the complex, standing on top of the inner courtyard. It is surrounded by large halls on one side, and a few buildings on the other. The northern wall is nothing but a barely-standing piece of destroyed old apartments, but its facade fascinated me. It features over a dozen carefully crafted statues of past rulers of the region, such as Friedrich V, who was responsible for a lot of work done on the castle. His chubby belly formed a stark contrast against many classical Roman goddess statues that are featured on rooftops and facades around the world.
Most of the buildings serve no contemporary functions, so only a few of them were ever restored. A large banquet hall is now an event venue, and then there is a restaurant, which was shut for the season. A small underground section is converted into the pharmacy museum, which features a few full authentic sets of pharmacy items just like what I saw in Dubrovnik’s Franciscan monastery. The castle used to have an old pharmacy as well, and it was one of the most successful in regional history, as it served the kings and nobles before and after conquests.
What is the most fascinating, however, is this gigantic wine barrel called Heidelberg Tun, which gives a new meaning to “drinking a ton”, while, in this case, you can say drinking a tun. My comedy surely will land me a dozen girlfriends; I am sure of it. Even though many tourists think this is merely a publicity stunt of some medieval Karen who wanted to make memes to post onto her facebook group, this wooden barrel the size of a house actually served practical purposes when it was finished as the fourth in its lineage in 1751. Back in the days, goods could be used to pay taxes, so in this region full of wine producers, the tax came in the form of hundreds of thousands of liters of wine. Thus, sometimes, this 220000 liter/58000 gallon wine barrel, the biggest one in the world, would be carrying a foul slurry of all kinds of wine mixed together. However, most of the time, this barrel remained empty, since taxes had not been stored in the barrel for a long time. Nowadays, it enjoys its newfound life as a tourist attraction, and a dancefloor. Yes, a new dancefloor was constructed on the top for some extra-special cellar presentations, and I am sure I can woo any girl on this gigantic drink.
The castle also has a large ground for a series of gardens. However, a lot of renovations were taking place, so it offered nothing more in terms of grassy sceneries, but a sweeping view of the entire old town across Neckar. However, the panorama photo above I can show you is the best I can do without chopping the image, as the blog layout is rather narrow, sincere apologies. From the Old Bridge, to the old town churches, to Marktplatz, and then the castle, you got them all. After taking in all the view, I went back to the funicular and ascended to the next station, exchanging lines from the newly-renovated modern line onto an old wooden carriage that goes straight up to the peak of Königstuhl.
The funicular system is one of the oldest in the country. The lower one was initially opened in 1890, and the upper one in 1907. The lower system was originally on water ballaster, and later were switched to match the upper system in electricity-usage. The gradient is the steepest I have ever ridden, because they are both near 45 degrees in angle, which is as close to elevators without being called elevators. Once we reached the top, the view back down to the valley was simply gorgeous, and the clearing from the track gave the best opening to see the castle underneath.
Once at the top, I began slowly descending onto the city down below via a hiking trail, since the funicular price is rather expensive for its touristic purposes, and I definitely needed to lose some weight after eating way too much during earlier trips. The hiking trail was well-maintained and clearly marked, accompanied by a mountain biking track that probably caused a few deaths and definitely a lot of maimings. Within 2 hours, I slowly finished my knee-breaking hike, and retired in the comfort of my quaint little hostel.
Next day, I decided to go for an adventure on the other side of the river with Olivia, a Swedish girl on her way to take trains from Sweden to Barcelona for school. And you thought your morning commute is long. She says that it was the condition of her scholarship to travel by land and document her entire journey, but to me, a frequent flyer, I am pretty sure that is a human rights infringement. Regardless, we finished getting ready, and began out march across Neckar.
Firstly, we crossed the Old Bridge on this slightly gloomy day, and then, steep slopes of Heiligenberg confronted us. A gruesome 15 minutes later, we were at the famous Philosophers’ Walk. This is where the philosophers and professors used to hang out during the olden days, discussing their ideologies and theories. Another 10 minutes of following the path, we were in the woods with no signs, no directions, only with a vague idea of heading further up the hills.
After nearly an hour of me doubting whether we were heading east or north, and Olivia taking breaks with snacks, we reached a place that was so eerie and quiet that it may as well be haunted. This is Thingstatte, a large open amphitheater created under the doctrine of indoctrination by Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s right hand man. He believed that constructing a structure in which to hold lectures, film propagandas, and perform near-Satanic cult rituals, could strengthen the will of the German people. Nearly 1000 were envisioned, but only 45 were ever built. This one on Heiligenberg, whose name literally means Holy Mountain, was constructed in 1934 on top of ancient Celtic burial grounds and a Roman temple dedicated to god Mercury, in order to maximize its spirituality. On the first day of opening, 20000 people showed up here just to watch Goebbels himself speak at the podium. Nobody knows how many non-Germanic people were sacrificed with large crosses on this platform, and I sincerely do not want to know.
Just a few steps up the hill, at the very peak, we encountered a ruin from a bygone era that few have managed to record. This used to be called Monastery of St. Michael in 16th century, and many names before that were lost in history. Archaeological studies have found that it came from rock foundations laid in 1023, but documents showed that there could have been a religious building here around 870. However, what it is now, for sure, is a pile of rubbles falling apart, with just an information board telling passers-by the tragic history of these monks who could not hold out against time.
After the climb much longer than expected, we were starving despite the many snack breaks. Somehow, as if by black magic, a little house appeared in the woods, with a restaurant sign hanging outside, along with a chimney spewing out steam of fragrance. Hunger pushed aside the anxiety that this might have been a classic fairytale trap, and we barged in. It turned out to be a rather excellent local restaurant, even though neither of us had any idea how to read German. Olivia went for a käsespätzle, which I have known dearly ever since gaining weight under the supervision of Cathrin a few years ago, while I decided another 2 chins were not worth it, and went for a schnitzel. After the meal, we practically rolled down the hill as inflated balls of burpy meat.
Once in a lifetime
Yet, the road continues for a lone wanderer. I bid Olivia farewell, who, I believe, till this very day, still carries that gigantic take-out box full of käsespätzle in her backpack. Let us pray that one day she will be able to finish it. I hopped onto a small train heading towards north, and looked back onto the old town one last time.
Heidelberg seemed to be the perfect trip for me. Everything worked out: a scenic old town, cheap food locations, ancient castles, hidden secrets, relaxing hikes, nerdy transportation facts, a great travel companion, and a quiet lodging; everything hit the perfect tune, creating a harmonious melody that is still echoing in my mind. As if for this rather last-minute trip, the stars aligned themselves and provided me with one of the easiest and most rewarding destination ever. I did not get any headache for planning, and neither did I feel any regret for missing out on something. Heidelberg is that kind of place, one where you cannot go wrong.
“Thanks, the heavenly spheres, and I hope you guys can help this vagabond out again.” I thought so to myself, as my train slowly chugged along the grassy fields and forests covered with foliage, up to a tiny village of medieval past…