Looking to explore a really old palace ruin that will always offer you something astonishing and remains one of the most recognized and time-honored romantic ruins in the world? Look no further than the Heidelberg Castle in Germany. It is arguably one of the western world’s most romantic places, which still, after over 800 years of changes and challenges, boasts that heady mix of mystery and fantasy that keeps more than a million visitors a year completely enthralled. Today, it dominates the old town of Heidelberg and its red sandstone towers loom elegantly against the backdrop of the lush forests atop Königstuhl Hill behind it and the generous flow of the Neckar valley below it. It’s like the cherry on top of all conventional pictures of Heidelberg, lending the otherwise fairly humble city, real dignity and tourist pizzazz.
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The home of the prince electors of Europe from about 1214, this palace was constructed to be the palace of kings from a historical as well as a metaphorical perspective. Something like the palace of the popes in Avignon, France, it was designed and constructed to reflect the cream of European Renaissance values of the time; not only did it succeed in this astonishingly, but it continues to fire up even 21st century imagination. It was built over a period of centuries and reflects all manner of architectural styles, literally from Renaissance to Gothic.
And certainly up until the time of the Thirty Years War in Europe in the 17th century, it upheld all these values of the best of the best of what European aesthetics were about, indeed, it was widely considered and respected as one of the man-made wonders of the world, in the 1600s.
First constructed as a single entity, over the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries, this massive architectural undertaking developed into a kind of show-piece complex comprising – according to medieval texts, book illustrations, tapestries and etchings, at least an upper and a lower castle, comprising a chapel, an array of ramparts and towers, and an impressive spread of gardens.
The 17th and 18th centuries saw other palatial estates built in Europe according to the same scale and beauty ideals as the Heidelberg Castle, but these centuries heralded a bad time for the palace itself. Not only it was it bested by others aesthetically, but it also suffered the ignominy of destruction: direct attacks were mounted against it for the first time ever, during the Thirty Years War, and lightning saw the castle bruised and battered and parts of it completely destroyed.
If you think of the use of the cannon and other forms of destructive ammunition already in force at the time, you can imagine how this was no match for the ancient stone work. The great French classical writer Victor Hugo, who wrote so fondly of the place, saw a bit of cynical humor in the destruction by lightning, famously commenting that it was as though heaven itself had intervened for the destruction of this beautiful building.
There were plans to have the whole castle completely removed from the landscape, in the late 18th century, but when the leadership of Heidelberg at the time realized the cost that this would entail, they patched it up, still not able to prevent bits and pieces of quarrying for stone from taking place here and there, to say nothing of pillaging of other building materials such as wood, on a petty scale, ultimately leaving the palace in a glorious state of ruin.
At the dawn of the 19th century, infused with the values of Romanticism, the society of the time recognized the unequivocal value of this castle and it became honored and celebrated as a heritage site, effectively putting an end to the stealing of building materials. Romantic aesthetic practices glorifies the mystique of ruins and this enormous broken piece of architectural heritage was completely perfect, according to their values, which fuelled an initiative to ferret out stories about the place, and the gardens in particularly were the source of great secrets and untold mysteries.
Artists such as the British landscape artist JMW Turner and his contemporaries, gloried in the castle ruins and reflected them often in their work, and stayed there frequently to observe the space. It was, however, under the proactive work of Charles de Graimberg, a French baron, that the integrity of the ruin was ultimately saved for posterity. Out of his passion for the place, de Graimberg became a voluntary warden of the castle and was instrumental in developing its first guide book and indeed, in marketing it to society of the time as a tourist attraction. Photography only came into its own in the late 1800s, and the fledgling state of tourist culture at the time, saw the marketing of etchings and other kinds of prints of the ruin, made by artists of the time. By the end of the 19th century the palace was the subject of discussions by the leadership of Heidelberg, with regard to its complete overhauling, with plans to restore it to its former glory.
Ultimately, the decision was taken that the whole Heidelberg Castle could not be restored completely, but rather, it could be repaired and its status as a ruin with historical and heritage values honored. The American satirist and social commentator Mark Twain sung the praises of the ruin, in a key text, in which he commented that the most important part of any ruin from a tourist perspective, was its position. “This one could not have been better placed,” he wrote, describing picturesque turns of landscape that embraced it, and adding: “Misfortune has done for this old tower what it has done for the human character sometimes – improved it”.
One thing that you must not miss, if you’re visiting the Heidelberg Palace, is the Heidelberg Tun. It’s the world’s biggest wine barrel that holds over 58,000 gallons. It was built in the 1750s and it comes with various fascinating tales about its upkeep and the need for such a huge wine vat at the time.
The German Pharmacy Museum (Deutsches Apothekenmuseum) is located inside the Heidelberg Palace ruins. It’s a completely fascinating and detailed purvey of medical history and offers you impeccable, surprising and sometimes rather horrifying insights into the tools and pills, the bottles and machines that comprised medieval medicinal solutions, which sometimes resembles more of a witch’s studio than a modern pharmacy.
The months of February to December of each year offer the Heidelberg Palace as a wedding venue. Surprise your friends and make your wedding an event to remember in the most extraordinary of ways in the world’s most romantic ruin. Modern Heidelberg is a very sophisticated city in terms of its hospitality culture and while there are two restaurants in the palace ruins itself, your guests will be rest assured of comfortable and beautiful accommodation in the city.
The palace’s gardens are still the repositories for the most delights and mysteries that an experience of the ruins can bring. Understood to have not quite been completed at the time of the initial design and construction of the palace complex, it is redolent of several different types of gardening architecture, and the hands of different gardeners with their own unique sense of gardening style, over the years, and consequently, there are many pathways and viewpoints to explore and glory in.
Today a visit to the Heidelberg Castle is considered a standard stop on Rhine River cruises and is a tourist destination of note, drawing in enthusiastic visitors from as far afield as Japan and the United States of America in their droves. Organized tours to the castle will generally focus on the exterior of the ruins and the different elements and history of the place.
Don’t forget to embrace the extraordinary views that you will see from its ramparts, as you think of the castle’s glory days. The castle is open to visitors on every day of the year except on Christmas Day, and while it closes at 6pm each evening, new admittance after 5.30pm is not permitted. Visits feature a range of guided tours in German and in English, and there is a permanent exhibition of Romanticism and Medieval exhibits, which you can see as part of a guide-led tour.
Tours cost a nominal €7 for adults, and less for concessionary tickets, but there are additional costs depending on the nature and size of the tour you’re embarking on. As always, with a tour of this nature, there is bound to be a lot of walking and looking: wear comfortable shoes and pace yourself carefully!
If you’ve done all the tours and are suffering from a bit of Heidelberg fatigue and want to see more of the region, have a look at the Maneheim Baroque Palace in the city of Mannheim nearby, the Schwetzingen Palace and Gardens in the town of Schwetzingen and the Dilsberg Fortress ruins in the valley of Neckar.
Schlosshof 1, 69117 Heidelberg, Germany