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Heidelberg: City of the Student Prince

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Heidelberg is one of the lucky 13 cities in the Historic Highlights of Germany. That's no surprise. The city, home to the world's largest wine barrel, is not all Middle Ages as witnessed by the very modern 43-foot tall horse sculpture.

Photography by the authors.

Heidelberg is one of the lucky 13 cities in the Historic Highlights of Germany. That’s no surprise. We would guess it’s the most mystical and romantic destination in that country. It’s the city you visit already believing that Rothenburg-ob-der-Tauber 100 miles to the east is your favorite German city, then wham!, Heidelberg hits you. And now you have a new lover.

Heidelberg is not all Middle Ages. In 2000 artist Jurgen Goertz placed his S-Printing Horse outside the newly constructed Print Media Academy near the railway station. It measures 43 feet in height and weighs 90 tons and is one of the world’s largest horse sculptures. The inside joke is that the “horse consists of stainless steel elements that represent parts of a printing press and the printing process.”

We pass by on our way to the hotel.

We usually choose a hotel close to the main railway station but in Heidelberg you want to be near the Neckar River, so we cab it to the Hotel Hollander Hof. It’s right at the Old Bridge. There has been a hotel at this spot since 1588, but it was rebuilt in 1787. After World War II it was used by the U.S. Armed Services. (That’s often a hint as to the best hotel in town.)

The hotel suited us well. It had a helpful front desk, a substantial included breakfast and the traveler’s delight: free WiFi. The receptionist in Novotel, Mainz our previous hotel, one hour away by train, said they did not have complimentary web access and that few hotels in Germany presented it, but our experience is to the contrary.

We meet Christina Moeller of Tourism Marketing for cake in the Café-Knoesel round the corner. She tells us the biggest groups to come here used to be Japanese but now it’s too expensive for them. The largest numbers of visitors are American.

We ask, “Do they come fluent in German?” She smiles because all Europe knows Americans are not famed for being multi-lingual.

“We love Americans,” she says. “This was a U.S. military post from 1945 to 2013 and they often brought families. Now their main presence is Wiesbaden.”

We ask why is her city special? She lists:

• First, the city has the oldest university in Germany, built in 1386. Plus, because of the young people the streets are full of life in the evening; it’s a living scene. Moeller says she never worried when her two children were out at night.

• Second, Moeller claims the city’s wealth is in its soft Mediterranean climate. In Heidelberg they say, “Spring starts here in Germany.”

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• Third, they have an absence of industry. We think that’s why they weren’t bombed in World War II. But we don’t say it. The bombing of Dresden and its Siemens factories is a sensitive subject.

• Fourth, Heidelberg has its history — and a tolerance of others. The city allowed people who were not Catholic to come here, “even infidels were tolerated. The Holy Ghost Church was half Catholic and half Protestant.”

We meet our guide, Susanne Fiek. A cheerful blonde with a great smile, she offers us her book Heidelberg on Foot. It is written in German. We explain: We’re Americans. We are not multi-lingual!

She walks us over to the Old Bridge to meet the Bridge Monkey. There has been a monkey on the bridge over the Neckar since the 14th century but the records are elusive. It was on the other, east, side of a wooden bridge and many of those wooden bridges were washed away by floods. In the 18th century the bridge was a convenient barrier to the estates of the two separate prince electors but in 1979 Gernot Rumpf put up his bronze sculpture on the present, west, side of the bridge.

In former day the monkey held a mirror to impress those crossing they should look into it to see themselves and note they were no better than those around them on the far side of the bridge.

Suzanne has two other statues to show us: one, a statue on the Hauptstrasse of Robert Wilhelm Bunsen (of Bunsen Burner fame 1811-1899) facing the building where he and Gustav Kirchhoff did all their work on spectral analysis.

Bunsen, devoted to his work, was apparently the stereotypical absent-minded professor. He was walking one day with friends when a young man approached him and deferentially said, “Sir, may I ask you a question?” Bunsen told him to go ahead. He discussed the question and watched the student walk away. “What a nice young man!” he said. His friends looked at him in consternation. “Robert,” they said, “That was your son!”

The other statue of a man washing his hands is in the botanical garden at the university: it is Friedrich Mueller’s 1971 monument to Ignaz Semmelweis (1818 to 1865.)

The castle dominates the town and anyone who ever saw Sigmund Romberg’s Student Prince will be anxious to get up to where the voice of Mario Lanza enchanted Ann Blyth even as she got to gaze on the more handsome Edmund Purdon.

In the castle we also want to see the world’s largest wine barrel — built in 1751, it is 23 feet high and holds 58 thousand gallons of wine. We had been told elsewhere that owners of castles paid their servants in wine because the water available was not clean. Suzanne stretches to demonstrate the size of the barrel then laughs because she is showing us the equally famous Small Barrel.

Now we realize the first barrel is smaller but it’s all relative. The big surprise for us was not the big barrel but the extensive display of the history of pharmacy in the castle: “the largest exhibition in existence — spanning two thousand years of history.”

The German pharmaceutical industry had no real competition as the 19th century dragged into the 20th and the replicas from the past of several pharmacies in different monasteries clearly fascinate several visitors who, like us, have not allowed themselves enough time.

Susanne checks our shopping list again and off we go to the Psychiatric Hospital of the University in Heidelberg. Here is the Prinzhorn Collection of art created by patients who had been committed to the institution in the years 1919 to 1921 because of mental illness. Hans Prinzhorn died in 1933 of typhus at age 47, but the exhibition continues, as do his theories.

Prinzhorn’s book The Artistry of the Mentally Ill had great impact on psychiatry when it was published in 1922, but his career fell apart when his three marriages failed and he ended up living with an aunt in Munich. His patient called the figure illustrated Iron With Woman. You understand it better from the rear.

The art on display does show the anguish on the emotionally disturbed yet the colorful oil painting detail does seem to show the patient’s gratitude for order and his appreciation of his attendants.

We have one more stop, the University Library. Who doesn’t love the smell of books? But Heidelberg has something more to offer the curious: the celebrated Codex Manesse created in Zurich, Switzerland in 1300 to 1340.

This 426-page parchment manuscript has been called the “most comprehensive collection of ballads” and poetry in the German language and supposedly gives a window into the habits and affections of the German people from more than 700 years ago. It is, in a way, the iTunes list of the popular songs of the first half of the 14th century — illustrated.

The library has more, of course, but what charms us is seeing a detailed map of the moon in an atlas published in 1647, in a scientific publication a mere five years after Galileo had died following his years imprisoned by the Inquisition for the heresy of his views that the Earth was not the center of the universe.

We say goodnight to Suzanne and head for dinner at the student haunt, the pub Zum Roten Ochsen (To the Red Ox) assembled in 1703 from two adjacent homes. We talk to young Philipp Spengel, the sixth generation Spengel who owns the business. His mother is still active and runs the kitchen at lunch time, he tells us.

Herr Spengel is proud of the pub’s history. He stands beside a photograph of Otto von Bismarck and the letter his pub got when Germany’s famous “iron and blood” Chancellor wrote to say how much he had enjoyed dining there.

A photograph of another famous guest hangs on the wall: Mark Twain, who came for a day in 1878 and stayed a whole summer, undoubtedly finding it warmer than his famous summer in San Francisco. John Wayne and Marilyn Monroe signed the pub’s guest book, also, but the image in our mind that we take back to our hotel is the photograph seen in so many university student clubs the world over — those pictures of confident groups of young, enthusiastic students preparing to go to war. And believing they will endure, will survive because their side is in the right and has the blessing of God.

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.


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