HEIDELBERG: ‘A Beautiful Background for a Normal Life’

… And Following in the Footsteps of Mark Twain

By Richard Varr

WRITER’S NOTE:  This is the first of several GERMANY highlights I’ll be adding to my blog over the coming weeks.

Heidelberg Castle at night. Photo by Richard Varr

Heidelberg Castle’s seven meter-thick walls and statued facades jut up through the Neckar Valley’s verdant and hilly landscape, while towering over the red-roofed Old Town below.

View of Old Town from Heidelberg Castle. Photo by Richard Varr


I’m exploring one of Germany’s most charming towns on a brilliant sunlit day – savoring a beer in the 1887 Schnitzelbank Pub, gazing upon the ornately-gabled Renaissance façade of the 1592 Knight’s House, and even stealing a dance with a woman I had just met on the 1788 Old Bridge.

I soon realize that I’m seeing and feeling this medieval town with perhaps the same passion that Mark Twain wrote about 130 years ago.

On the University campus. Photo by Richard Varr

Twain visited for a day in May and ended up staying three months, particularly enamored with the raucous student life at Germany’s oldest university founded in 1386.  “Heidleberg is wonderfully old and wonderfully young at the same time,” says my tour guide.

Today, 30,000 students attend the progressive and intellectual university, albeit in a fairytale-like setting.  “The past is always a part of Heidelberg, but it’s also very much forward thinking,” my guide adds.  “It’s a beautiful background for a normal life.  That’s the way I think of it.”

Twain penned his Europe adventure A Tramp Abroadand included his time in Heidelberg.  He wrote about the now famous student prison that jailed mischievous pranksters and the popular but often bloody student duels, from which swordsmen sported their facial scars like badges of honor.

Heidelberg's pedestrian Hauptstrasse. Photo by Richard Varr

“The combatants were watching each other with alert eyes; a perfect stillness, a breathless interest reigned,” Twain wrote.  “The instant the word was given, the two apparitions sprang forward and began to rain blows down upon each other with such lightning rapidity that I could not quite tell whether I saw the swords or only flashes they made in the air…”

Twain’s adventure in Heidelberg includes much of the same you can experience today – from the castle to Old Town, and from the 15thcentury basilica to the university.

In Heidelberg Castle, the world's biggest wine barrel. Photo by Richard Varr

In the castle, for example, I discover the Great Tun, claimed to be the world’s largest wooden wine barrel which now supports a dance floor above it.  Constructed in 1751 from 130 oak tree-trunks, it can hold more than 58,000 gallons or 220,000 liters.  “When Mark Twain was here, there was no wine in it anymore, just like now,” my tour guide explains.  “And Mark Twain said, ‘an empty wine vat would not impress me if it were the size of a cathedral.’”

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