Perched proudly on the River Neckar, Heidelberg is a secret world of Rapunzel towers and Quasimodo rooftops, says Ben Holbrook
I’m not entirely ashamed to admit that I’d never heard of Heidelberg. It’s not the kind of place that I would normally consider visiting. We entered the city along the River Neckar where Zoltan pointed out the ancient baroque mansions that descended the Amazon-green river banks, like neighborhoods of Dracula millionaires. My mind flooded with memories and visions of the fairy tale books my mother would read to me as a child.
The skyline was a wild and wonderful silhouette of Rapunzel towers and Quasimodo rooftops. “It’s actually a really big university town,” Zoltan explained, “there are about 30,000 students here, and there’s also about the same amount of Americans at the US military base.” It seemed crazy to think that about half of the city’s population was made up of students and American soldiers. But then again, after hearing how confident the local shop keepers were in English, with their American overtones, the influence was startlingly obvious. I’ve never been in a city, or country for that matter, where the locals can so comfortably switch from one language to another. Zoltan’s sister, Ildi, chipped in, furnishing me with her local knowledge: “It’s a place where German academics come, the city is actually twinned with Cambridge, in England.”
I felt embarrassed at how little I knew, that I hadn’t even known of the city’s existence. An ignorant Brit abroad? Me? Never!
Mouth open and camera at the ready, I was rewarded with a mighty castle that erupted from the trees, overlooking the city from above. I pictured a prince sat on a white marble bench, polishing his sword whilst waiting for dragons to slay. I imagined his unease as the overcast sky obscured his visibility, but I figured he’d have appropriate support – perhaps some leather-clad binoculars or a talking eagle that could scope things out for him. Water fountains echoed through narrow streets and funneled us onto the mile-long stretch of Hauptstraße.
Hauptstraße is to Heidelberg as Oxford Street is to London, but inexplicably more beautiful.
Couples wandered slowly, tasting each other’s ice-creams and occasionally tripping over on the uneven cobbled stones that paved the street. We stopped at a pub and ordered bratwurst and beer from a man big enough to crush my head like an egg. He had long, slick backed, black hair and ducked through doorways whilst his knuckles almost dragged along the floor.
“Would you like to try Heidelberg beer? It’s brewed locally.” I nodded, agreeing, careful not to say anything that may encourage him to grind my bones for bread. “And do you want the 6-er, or the 9-er?” I figured I could handle 9 inches of bratwurst, especially with my half litre of dark and fruity beer to wash it down with. But when my plate arrived, stacked with fried potatoes, sauerkraut and 9 individual bratwurst sausages, well, let’s just say it’s been a very long while since I’ve been unable to finish a meal. I wanted to take a photo, but was afraid the giant waiter was nearby; I didn’t want to look like a ponce. Heidelberg isn’t a place for ponces. It’s a place for dragon-slaying princes, bone-crushing giants, and strangely, the US Army. And did I mention the town was a Nazi stronghold from 1933-1945? But don’t let any of that put you off.