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Heidelberg is a fairytale city in West Germany that weaves a spell over you as soon as you arrive. Walking the cobblestone streets of Old Town, you’ll want to duck into picturesque cafes, and curio shops filled with antique treasures. Stroll over the Old Bridge and gaze at the swans floating on the Neckar River, or look up for a fantastic view of the crumbling castle. Home to Germany’s oldest university, the city is full of students which add a youthful zip to the dreamy atmosphere.
My husband and I hired a guide, Susanne Khalig (eventchen-heidelberg.de) to get an insider’s perspective on this lovely town. Our first stop was wine shop Weinhaus Tehser that specialized in regional vintages. We decided against the $1,000 bottle locked in a glass case and instead bought a reasonable Riesling to enjoy later – $10-$15 gets you a lovely wine you’ll never see in Canada. Driving her grandfather’s Mercedes, Susanne pointed out the family home of the Queen of Sweden, Silvia Sommerlath. “She met King Carl XVI Gustave at the 1972 Olympics where she worked at an educational host. They married four years later,” Susanne explained.
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Nearby was the Heidelberg Zoo and we stopped to take a quick peek at the bears. It was a delight to watch the lumbering creatures interact as they waited for their lunch. Since our tummies were grumbling too, we headed to Zeughaus, the University of Heidelberg student canteen. Founded in 1386, the university is the oldest in Germany and its modern canteen has been named one of the best in the country. We heaped our plates with a dizzying array of fresh salads, meats, fish and bread and went out to the courtyard to soak up the sunshine. After, Susanne showed us the Student Prison, where naughty students were confined up until 1914 for crimes such as skinny dipping and over imbibing. These discretions are treated much more gently now. Most astonishing was the Old Lecture Hall which looked like it came right out of a Harry Potter movie. Weasley and Malfoy would be totally at home casting spells on each other in the back corner.
In the centre of the city, we hopped on the funicular, a sort of vertical, mountainside train, to see the magnificent Heidelberg Castle. Most of it was a crumbling ruin, having been attacked numerous times in the 17th and 18th centuries but there were a few indoor places to visit, including the wine cellar, home to a 220,000-litre wine barrel, the largest the world. We had to climb down a series of steps to get a closer view of the two-story wooden cask. “The Prince Elector who ruled the area used to demand a payment of wine from his grape-growing tenants and it all went into this barrel,” Susanne explained, wrinkling her nose. “Some cheated and gave him vinegar.” Nasty!
A second, 100-year-old funicular took us to the top of the mountain where we had a spectacular view of the city. A raptor centre was housed there and we were thrilled as birds of prey swooped over our heads as part of a demonstration.
Heidelberg offers excellent tradition cuisine. Our two favorite restaurants were Zum Goldenen Hecht (The Golden Pike) by the Old Bridge and the Schnitzelbank, a 35-seater tucked in an alleyway off Haupstrasse, Old Town’s main, pedestrian-only street. Both served delicious schnitzel, a pork cutlet that is pounded thin, breaded and fried. Crispy on the outside, moist and tender inside, it melted in our mouths.
On our last day, we took a relaxing ride aboard a solar-powered boat called the Neckarsonne. Gliding silently along the Neckar River, we had a close-up view of spectacular homes, water fowl, and, long stretches of verdant parkland.
Beautiful, historic and magical, Heidelberg is the type of place that feeds the imagination. Wasn’t that Dumbledore I just saw walking down the Haupstrasse?