It is not ‘the most visited’ German town by American tourists for no reason
28.10.2011 - 30.10.2011 15 °C
The time has come to embark on yet another weekend away with my parents. Yes, I know what you think. In mid thirties I might be just little bit too old for that. But truth to be told, the older I am the more I am enjoying these trips. Just like last time when we met in Berchtesgaden, this time we arranged to meet on Friday evening in Heidelberg – perhaps the most popular German town with the American tourists (and as we found out, also the Chinese).
A logistical challenge for these weekend trips is that usually, we all start from different places. It was also the case this time and with my parents leaving from the south of Bohemia, the Duke taking a train from Dusseldorf to Frankfurt airport and me setting off by our (now recovered) car from Eschborn to pick him up on the way, it was rather impressive how we managed to meet up outside the hotel within ten minutes of each other.
Given the time (8pm), we just checked in and headed straight out again in a quest to explore the local cuisine. The town was surprisingly sleepy for Friday night and to an untrained eye, nothing suggested this was the place that beat Berlin, Munich and Hamburg in the visitor-count stakes. We soon found out where everyone was though. Our first attempt to patronise one of the recommended restaurants fell on infertile ground and the more eateries we passed, the more desperate our attempts to get a table without prior reservation.
Our luck was about to turn though when we came across a rustic style pub / restaurant with traditional local cuisine. Palmbräu Gasse was invitingly full of festive atmosphere with dim lights, traditional interior, friendly staff and most importantly, delicious food. It also seems to be the restaurant of choice for Chinese and Japanese tourists who like to indulge in the German Schweinehaxe (pig leg); no doubt a ‘must-try’ dish recommended in Asian travel guides.
Once in, we tried to do our bit for the German economy by sampling as many items on the menu as possible. In combination with great discussion and proportionate number of drinks, it was way after midnight when we left. Not quite ready to call it a day yet though, we browsed around the old town until we found a student-style café that was still open.Here we ordered the last couple of rounds before finally deciding it was time to go to bed.
Our Hotel am Schloss was conveniently located in the old town below the castle, so when we woke up around 8am, from our room window we were treated to fantastic views of Heidelberg hills bathing in rich autumn colours, decorated with old but wealthy looking mansions and the remains of a castle perched on top of the hill. The hotel breakfast was quite nice, although the previous night started to take its toll. My dad gave up on joining us in exploring the castle and instead, self-medicated on sleeping pills to shake off his headache, indulged in a couple of extra hours in bed.
The hard core three of us set off up the hill towards the castle. I love autumn and it was a real treat watching the colourful landscape enhanced by the morning sun along the way.Not even the very steep and badly cobble stoned road we were walking on could dampen my mood. The best view was, however, from the castle terrace. It seemed to be fair that the partially ruined castle itself is much less spectacular on the Heidelberg-facing side, not distracting from the great views of the town, the river Neckar and the surrounding hills. At the same time though, the town-facing side of the castle does not give away the magnificent architecture of the courtyard.
Once in the castle grounds, we took our time admiring the exteriors, as well as visiting the German pharmacy museum in one of its wings. Whilst the exhibit descriptions were mainly in German, the variety on display from old pharmacy counters to laboratory equipment and examples of herbal as well as animal, mineral and human based medicine made it interesting even for those of us who did not understand that much of the writing.
In the windows facing the courtyard, we spotted a number of people inside the castle. Keen to also get in, we looked for the right entry point and accidentally ended up in an area, which hosted the largest wine barrel in the world called the Grosses Fass. Before we got to the biggie himself, there was a smaller barrel along the way which could easily be mistaken for the real deal – actually we took some self shots in front of it before we spotted its bigger cousin.
From there, we went back to the courtyard and when we almost started giving up and set off to the castle gardens instead, we spotted a ticket booth offering guided tours in English. As far as we knew, my dad was still in a pill induced coma and with my mum happy to be translated to, we got tickets for a tour starting in 10 minutes. For 4 Euros per person, this was a nice way to see the inside of the castle and learn about its dramatic history. Severely damaged during the 30 Years War and subsequently burnt a couple of times for a good measure, we though ‘if only the castle walls could talk’.
The tour took us to early afternoon and by then even my drugged dad recovered from his mini-hangover. Having agreed we will collect him in the hotel before heading for a late lunch in town, we took the opportunity to stroll to the castle gardens. During the tour, we got to see a rather impressive replica of the gardens before being destroyed in the 30 Years War, and none of us was quite sure if they were restored afterwards or left to crumble. As it turned out, the latter was the case. So instead of extensive grounds with sculpted shrubbery hedges, manicured loans and elaborate flower arrangements, we found ourselves walking through a leafy park covering a fraction of the original gardens. Still, the views from the park were fantastic and we slowly walked along the path with the afternoon sun highlighting the castle and the old town of Heidelberg below us.
Knowing my dad, we were quite relaxed about taking our time in getting back to him. He was probably enjoying his cosy time in bed and we were busking in the afternoon sun. As a result it was almost three o’clock by the time we picked him up at the hotel and found a cosy table in the very same restaurant we failed to stop at the previous night - Schnookeloch. The pub / restaurant came recommended to us by one of the receptionists at our hotel and we really liked the traditional interior with plenty of old pictures, hats and heraldry of fraternity clubs decorating the walls.
By the time we finished our lunch, everyone was happy to do some more sightseeing. The Duke and I wanted to see the famous Heidelberg University, which is also the oldest university in Germany. Even though we located the square at which the old university buildings were to be found, somehow we didn’t get to see anything that spectacular. Compared to the rest of the town where there are some real architectural gems to be admired, the university houses failed to impress. It is, of course, also possible that we were at the wrong place and it was entirely our fault. But all in all, we were a tiny bit disappointed. Having said that, at the very same square we found the best Christmas store any of us has ever seen. Multiple levels of the most imaginative Christmas decorations in just about any style from natural to glassy, ceramic and wire. With the approaching festive season, we could easily imagine how cosy Heidelberg feels when the Christmas markets spread through the streets and Glühwein (mulled wine) is served at every corner.
The Hauptstrasse (Main Street) was heaving with people and eventually we decided to get off through some of the smaller and contrastingly abandoned streets. Our destination was the nearby river Neckar.The sun made an occasional appearance and so we could watch the patchwork of trees at the opposite bank in late afternoon sun. Despite the warm glow, it was quite noticeable winter was approaching and once we arrived back at the old bridge, my parents decided to head back to the hotel to warm-up, whilst the Duke and I set off across the bridge. It was nice seeing the town from a different angle again but before long, our fingers started to get numb and it was time to join my parents in the hotel.
Walking through the slowly dimming streets, we came across a well hidden notice board showing ‘before’ and ‘after’ reconstruction pictures of Heidelberg. The differences were just astonishing and it was obvious that lots of money was invested in making Heidelberg the well-kept looking town it is today.
Once at the hotel, our exploits from the previous night caught up with us and without intending to, the Duke and I succumbed to an afternoon nap. My parents were probably wondering no one was pestering them to go out for dinner, and so at around half past seven we got rudely woken up by a knock on our door. Just as well though as it would have been quite easy to stay in and stretch our nap into a good night sleep. Conscious of the drive waiting for us the next day and satisfied we had our share of partying the night before, we had a civilised dinner like other grown-ups and were in bed way before midnight.
The tricky bit of our weekend was yet to come though. Once settled in bed, we realised the clock was changing to a winter time in the middle of the night and two things should happen:
1. We would get an extra hour in bed
2. We would have to change our clocks
Neither the Duke nor I, however, were prepared for our clocks (read: mobiles) automatically adjusting in the middle of the night and so it so happened we did not get an extra hour in bed but two.So much so that by the time we got up, my parents already had breakfast, were all dressed up and ready to go. Needless to say we made them take their coats off and sit with us throughout the breakfast, until we finished our dose of morning calories and drained our cups of tea.
It was Sunday late morning and none of us felt like heading straight to Düsseldorf. The Duke, as the most travelled through the German lands, recommended stopping in Idstein – a place he used to live in for a few years when still working as a consultant. We arrived just before midday and after initial difficulties finding a couple of parking spots, we left our cars in a parking lot on the edge of the historical centre and set off to explore the town on foot.
I can honestly say we all loved Idstein. The whole town looked like it was newly painted just yesterday and that extended to the tower and the castle. Each house was decorated in different colours with many sporting elaborate wooden carvings. Unlike in many ‘historical centres’, the beautifully preserved houses from 17th century stretched across many streets and we spent a couple of hours walking around and admiring this charming place. As it was quite early and the Duke and I only just had our breakfast, we decided to skip lunch and voted in favour of some ice-cream.
Truth to be told, the ice-cream dishes were the size of a main course. We all did our best though and slowly but surely ate to the bottom of each bowl. Nicely full and happy we made this stop, it was time to set off towards Dusseldorf. My parents decided to stay in our place over night and give me a lift to work the following morning, on their way back to the land of us Bohemians. Once back at home, we slowly unpacked and spent the rest of the afternoon happily chatting between cups of tea.
The great weekend was topped up with a dinner in our local Italian restaurant in the ground floor of our house. The Duke and I are positively spoiled and if we happen to fancy a meal in a restaurant, it only takes us a minute to walk down the few floors into our very own eatery.
One of the problems I have when writing this post is the huge number of absolutely fantastic pictures we took during this weekend. I tried to pick a nice selection but if you want to see more, feel free to browse through our gallery and feast your eyes on the many sides of Heidelberg and Idstein.