Heidelberg – an academic marvel and one of Germany’s cutest historical towns
We left Mainz and the Rhineland behind us today, continuing our journey and moving on to Heidelberg, Germany’s best preserved Baroque town. Heidelberg is by far one of the most beautiful towns we’ve seen in Germany so far….
The train journey from Mainz was quite short which meant we got to Heidelberg with plenty of time to do some exploring!
Built along the banks of the River Neckar, in a narrow valley surrounded by mountains, Heidelberg is essentially a university town (students make up 20% of its 150,000 population) with a long history as a respected academic city.
Heidelberg University is in fact the oldest university in Germany (established in 1386) and was the third university established in the Holy Roman Empire. During the 14th and 15th centuries Heidelberg University was reportedly viewed as the key academic centre for theologians and law experts. Even today the university has a reputation internationally as a premier academic institution, especially for humanitarian disciplines. Interestingly, Heidelberg University played a key role historically in the era of reformation as many theological discussions and debates were held in its main hall and, in 1518, Martin Luther defended his theses within its walls.
The university was just one of the historical sights we enjoyed today whilst exploring Heidelberg’s altstadt (translation = old town). This is one cute little town! Most of the city of Heidelberg survived WWII intact, you see, so the altstadt here is fantastically preserved.
Heidelberg was originally a Celtic* town, then a Roman garrison town (10BC to 260AD), then part of the Holy Roman Empire. It was during the time of the Holy Roman Empire that the town reached its peak in terms of political importance, as the Electors of the region built their castle here. During the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), however, much of the town was destroyed and the court was moved to the nearby town of Mannheim instead. Since then Heildelberg has remained a relatively small university town. Its relative unimportance in the global political arena is part of the reason, I think, it has been allowed it to remain relatively unchanged for 350 years.
*Who knew that the Celts lived in mainland Europe as well as the British Isles?! I didn’t! I have always associated Celtic language and culture with Ireland, Wales and Scotland; turns out, however, that the Celts lived throughout Europe during the Iron Age, as far South and Northern Italy, as far East as Portugal, and as far West as Turkey. To the North they reached the British Isles, where the Celtic language is still spoken today. By 500AD he Celtic tribe sin mainland Europe were mostly gone, however, conquered and assimilated by the Romans and/or the Germanic tribes. High in the hills above Heidelberg remains of a Celtic settlement have been found, one of the few remnants of this ancient European tribe.
Our foot-powered exploration of the old town centred around the hauptstrasse (translation = central street), which runs for over 1.5kms and is the longest pedestrian shopping street in Germany. The buildings lining the hauptstrasse are beautifully maintained and house more cafes, restaurants and souvenir shops than a town this size should need – I guess someone has to feed and water the 3 million tourists that visit Heidelberg each year! We spent our whole afternoon losing ourselves in the narrow cobbled streets of the old town, discovering Heidelberg’s charms for ourselves. Always above us, however, was the imposing Heidelberg Castle. Now mostly in ruins, this once magnificent structure must have once been awe-inspiring to behold.