Big Castles and Strong Brews: A Surprising Afternoon in Heidelberg

The German town is home to a lively university.
Big Castles and Strong Brews: A Surprising Afternoon in Heidelberg
About 1 million people visit Heidelberg Castle each year. (S.Borisov/Shutterstock)

Finishing up lunch and looking out the window, things didn’t look so promising. Sitting on a river cruise ship tied up alongside the shore on a tributary of the Rhine, everything out there looks rather industrial. Yes, in a tidy, efficient, very German way, but still—not much to pique the interest.

And once I boarded a coach for an afternoon tour, winding along on the Autobahn, we proceeded through cities whose names meant nothing to me. Ludwigsburg, then Mannheim. A sprawling chemical plant on the left shore of the river. Then, a cartoonishly huge power plant, whose towering stacks were the picture of mechanization and might.

But then, seemingly all of a sudden, the bus entered into a tunnel of trees. It was very late autumn, but still, the fall colors hung on the trees, mostly yellow and golden, with a splash of red here and there. The road had narrowed to two lanes, and hikers and cyclists now appeared at the sides. It was a perfect autumnal scene. And very soon, it got even better.

Rounding a corner, a whole palace appeared all of a sudden. Warmed by the afternoon sun, it glowed. Once a very important piece of German real estate, it was now, in part, a ruin. And until today, I didn’t know a single thing about the place.

River Serendipity

When taking a river cruise, the destinations can sometimes seem a little random. Which is the nature of the voyage—the ship makes its way upriver or downriver, and the ports come to you. From charming and small towns to world-renowned destinations such as Vienna, Budapest, and Paris.

I had only vaguely heard of Heidelberg and almost skipped the afternoon trip. But that’s the beauty of this kind of journey—and travel in general. That is, you can wake up in the morning, maybe not so excited about the day ahead, and then be completely surprised and swept off your feet by a place.

And that’s exactly what happened here.

“Heidelberg is a romantic city, but it isn’t particularly old—at least by German standards,” my guide explained as we disembarked the coach. The famous university here, which is Germany’s oldest, opened its doors in 1386. This, she said, has made this small city of about 160,000 a very youthful place. “About one in four residents is a university student,” she said, pointing out a fraternity house built just around the corner from the castle.

Like most other palaces and fortresses, this one was built in many stages, periodically destroyed by fire, war, and even lightning strikes, and then reconstructed in various styles.

“Use your imagination,” said the guide. “Entering through this gate, we’re coming not by foot or coach, but on horseback.” The history is interesting, with the guide walking us through 1,000 years of the Holy Roman Empire.

But as we descend the cobblestones toward one of the most significant Renaissance structures north of the Alps, I’m distracted by something: a Tina Turner song blasting from one of the banquet halls. Outside, two young, college-aged women practiced their moves, dancing completely in synch to “Nutbush City Limits.” It isn’t clear what exactly is happening, but moments later, they disappear inside, presumably to take the stage. It would’ve been fun to witness their big moment, but there’s plenty more castle to tour.

As we emerged onto a big promenade, the city spread out at our feet.

“I think it’s obvious why anyone would want this for their fortress,” said the guide, pointing out the sweeping valley below, dominated by the Neckar River. We also took a little time to see the massive Great Heidelberg Tun, an absolutely massive wine vat once able to hold 58,000 gallons of the good stuff.

“Once you had the biggest barrel of all the princes, you had to invite them all over to see it,” the guide explained.

The Heidelberg Tun, constructed in 1751, is a huge wine vat in the cellars of the castle. (Nixy Jungle/Shutterstock)
The Heidelberg Tun, constructed in 1751, is a huge wine vat in the cellars of the castle. (Nixy Jungle/Shutterstock)
We headed into town, not by horse, but by bus. There wasn’t enough time to see much; the day was now getting late, and that autumnal sun was making its way steadily to the horizon. But as we arrived in the city center, the views back up to the castle were beautiful, the rambling, half-destroyed structure presiding over everything from on high.

Local Beer and Good Company

My guide advised that I needed to take a little walk through the well-preserved old town (which didn’t experience much bombing in World War II) and experience one special beverage. One that once held a record in the Guinness World Records. I wound my way through the market squares, past old churches, and toward the archways of the city’s Old Bridge and its famous monkey.

“Rub the fingers, and you’ll return to Heidelberg for certain,” the guide had told me—noting that, in her case, it was even more powerful. She fell in love with a local man and just never left.

Heidelberg's Old Bridge. (Mapman/Shutterstock)
Heidelberg's Old Bridge. (Mapman/Shutterstock)

But it’s not the Old Monkey of Heidelberg I’m looking for today—it’s a glass of strong beer. In fact, it was very strong—for a time, it was the very strongest in the world. Right in the heart of Altstadt, Vetter’s feels every bit like a typical German brew house, with dark wood and big, shiny mash tuns right in the middle of the restaurant. Joined by a friend, we ordered local sausages and crusty bread spread thick with lard and onions, as well as frosty half-liters of Hefeweizen.

Plus, Vetter 33. When first brewed back in 1994, it was the world’s strongest beer, with an alcohol content of 10.5 percent. They’ve dialed that back since, but it remains dense and sticky-sweet. I drank a few sips, and I was done. A good nightcap, though, to a day that started doubtful, and a town that impressed, in so many ways. And the power and capacity that travel always possesses to surprise and delight, even—and especially—when you least expect it.

When You Go

Fly: Frankfurt International Airport (FRA), one of Europe’s biggest and busiest, is less than an hour from Heidelberg. However, many visitors will, like me, arrive on a river cruise with a lovely cruise line such as AmaWaterways.
Getting Around: The city is easily navigated on foot. Reaching the castle from the old town is made easy through the town’s funicular—simply get off at Schloss station or continue on up to Königstuhl for amazing views.
Stay: Though I stayed on the river cruise ship, the Hotel Villa Marstall is a small, boutique property with elegant rooms in the heart of it all, sitting on the banks of the river in the middle of Old Town.
Take Note: While Heidelberg Castle is lovely for just a stroll, those interested in the historical details really should hire a guide.
Toronto-based writer Tim Johnson is always traveling in search of the next great story. Having visited 140 countries across all seven continents, he’s tracked lions on foot in Botswana, dug for dinosaur bones in Mongolia, and walked among a half-million penguins on South Georgia Island. He contributes to some of North America’s largest publications, including CNN Travel, Bloomberg, and The Globe and Mail.
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