Story and photography by Bo Zaunders

Heidelberg distant view

Stopover Heidelberg

How about a prison that everybody wanted to stay in, at least once?

My wife and I found it in Heidelberg, Germany’s old university town on the Neckar River.  It’s called Studentenkarzer (Student Prison), and was used from 1778 until 1917, after which it was turned into a museum and tourist attraction. This is where University officials locked students up, mostly for minor offenses, such as drunkenness and setting free the townspeople’s ubiquitous pigs. Students could be held for up to two weeks, subsisting on bread and water for the first three days, but then allowed to invite guests, attend lectures, and have food and wine brought in from the outside. A stay at the Karzer became hip, as desirable as a scar inflicted in one of the University’s fencing clubs.

Heidelberg one for all

An old stairway took us to what was surely the world’s oddest and most fun penitentiary. The cells are completely covered with graffiti – initials, names, and silhouetted portraits of the students, even poems. One cell bears the inscription “Palace Royale” over the doorway, and an extraordinarily high wooden toilet seat is named the Royal Throne. One of the poems reads:

“One for all, all for one!
Because we as five honest people
Simply found bricks in the street,
And kindly delivered them to the police,
By throwing them in through the window –
Here we are, martyrs to our honesty!”

If the poem encapsulates the spirit of the Karzer, Heidelberg itself presents the very image of romantic Germany.


To begin with, the setting is just perfect, especially as seen from the Philosophenweg, or Philosopher’s Walk, on the opposite bank of the River Neckar. From there, after a steep climb, you turn around and see below the old bridge spanned by two spitzhelm towers (so called because they look like Prussian helmets), and beyond it the Old Town, embraced by high forested mountains, complete with church spires, and crowned by the grandiose ruins of a 17th century castle.

Add to this the exuberance of student life. Founded in 1386, Heidelberg University is the oldest in Germany, and of the city’s population of 140,000, more than 30,000 are students. Duels and the Karzer may be things of the past, but drinking is not. As we followed the narrow twisting streets and alleyways, one of the first places we ran into was Zum Roten Ochsen, the most classic of all the taverns in Heidelberg’s Old Town. A famous student hangout, it has long been popular with out-of-towners as well – a guidebook tells me that this is where Mark Twain, Marilyn Monroe, and John Wayne sat down for beer and bratwurst.

Apropos Mark Twain, he arrived here in 1878, intent on finishing Huckleberry Finn and, after the success of Innocents Abroad, to start another travel book titled A Tramp Abroad.

Planning to stay in Heidelberg for only a day, he so fell in love with the city that he extended his visit for three months.

Heidelberg features big in A Tramp Abroad. Describing it from the vantage point of the Schloss Hotel – which no longer exists as a hotel – Twain goes on for a page or two, ending on this high lyrical note:

“One thinks Heidelberg by day – with its surroundings – is the last possibility of the beautiful: but when he sees it by night, a fallen Milky Way, with that glittering railway constellation pinned to the border, he requires time to consider the verdict.”

Dueling, of course, was then alive and well, and Twain made quite a study of this particular obsession, drawing pictures of the swords used, and marveling at the pride students took in having their faces disfigured with scars –  “…so prized that youth have even been known to pull them apart from time to time and put red wine in them to make them heal badly and leave as ugly a scar as possible.”

Like all visitors before and after, Twain toured Heidelberg’s old castle. Now, as we followed in his footsteps – choosing to hike rather than take the one-stop ride on the funicular - our local guide led the way, infecting us with her enthusiasm for the city’s historic past. The word Neckar, she told us, is a Celtic word meaning “wild man.” Of course, the Celts left the region a long time ago - well before the Romans came in 40 CE, constructed a fort, and stayed for about 200 years.

A short climb and we stood in the middle of an inner courtyard, surrounded by not just one castle, but several palaces, each highlighting a different period in German architecture, from 14th century Gothic to High Renaissance. For 500 years this was the residence of the powerful counts of the Palatine, or the Prince Electors, each one of whom contributed his own architect and building style. Pointing to a richly decorated arch, our guide told us that this was Elizabeth’s Gate, a birthday present from Prince Elector Friedrich V to his young bride, Princess Elizabeth, daughter of King James I of England. Destroyed by war and no longer to be seen was the magnificent garden he also built her and the theater in which a play by Shakespeare was performed for the first time in Germany. Open for our inspection, however, was the Heidelberg Tun, supposedly the World’s Largest Wine Barrel. Seven meters high and eight and a half meters wide, it stands in one of the Renaissance palaces, and – believe it or not – has a little dance floor on top of it. This enormous (now empty) cask was built in the 1700s and was once guarded by no other than the court jester Perkeo, a Tyrolean dwarf with a gargantuan thirst, famous for never refusing an offer of a glass of wine, and for consuming an average of eighteen bottles of wine a day. Legend has it that he died as a result of being talked into drinking a glass of water.

Heidelberg Perkeo

Perkeo has now become a symbol of joy, a Heidelberg hero. As we went back to exploring the Old Town, we noticed that a hotel bore his name, and, not surprisingly, so did a tavern, complete with a statue of Perkeo with a raised goblet.

Wandering about, we were treated to everything one would expect in a romanticized German town: multicolored narrow houses with dormer windows and flowerboxes, market squares with fountains and bronze statues, cobblestone streets, and any number of outdoor cafés and restaurants. Speaking of romantic Heidelberg, in one of the narrow streets, beneath a cascade of flowers, hung a café sign showing a picture of a student kissing a girl. The café is the oldest in the city, and the sign is an ad for a chocolate created by Fridolin Knösel, once the café’s owner and pastry chef. He called his creation “Student’s Kiss,” and designed it especially for young girls who back then, in the 1800s, were not allowed to flirt with the students. A delicious substitute for the real thing, Studentenkuss, turned into an overnight success, and is at this point not only a popular chocolate but also - like Perkeo - a city trademark.

Visiting the Old University, we lingered for a while in its sumptuous Lecture Hall, a veritable orgy in intricate wood paneling, gold, and allegorical paintings, all very romantic and 19th century.

Heidelberg Hotel Ritter

It was time for lunch and, following the recommendation of Charlotte Frey, our excellent guide, we went to the nearby Hotel Ritter.

Although Heidelberg was miraculously spared from Allied bombs during World War II, it was not so lucky when Louis XIV invaded it during the Wars of Succession in the late 17th century. That hostility left few buildings standing, a notable exception being Haus zum Ritter St. George, a magnificent Renaissance structure from 1592, which in more recent times has been turned into a hotel. There, in one of the imposing vaulted rooms on the ground floor, we feasted on roast escalope of venison with juniper-sourcream sauce, followed by a Grand Marnier parfait. Thus energized, we were ready for our next venture: a boat trip on the Neckar River.

Once again Mark Twain enters the picture. If I understand it correctly, the boat trips he took while staying in Heidelberg so triggered his imagination that, after a three-year writer’s block, he was suddenly able to finish Huckleberry Finn. Our little excursion 129 years later, though far from that momentous, was quite enjoyable. Gliding up and down the river in a silent, emission-free so-called Solar boat added new camera angles and proved extremely soothing.

As we learned more about the city, we were amazed at the number of famous poets and composers who either studied here or, like Twain, came and fell in love with Heidelberg: Goethe, Schuman, Eichendorff, Longfellow, Tennyson, Hölderlin, Ginsberg… the list goes on. And, of course, this is the setting for Romberg’s operetta “The Student Prince,” and where Weber wrote his Romantic opera Der Freischuetz.

Heidelberg street w. girls cyclist copy

Our visit to Heidelberg came about on an impulse. We had had some business in Scandinavia, and were to continue on to northern Italy. Instead of hopping on a plane - except that you don’t exactly hop on an airplane these days - we decided to take the train. Not only would a train ride (especially in Europe) be extremely comfortable and relaxing, it would allow us to enjoy the scenery as we passed through almost half of Europe, and enable us to make some interesting stop along the way.

Generally, I disapprove of squeezing too many places into one’s travel schedule, but what a fortuitous thing our stopover in Heidelberg turned out to be. Back on the train and heading for Italy, we were both in a state of disbelief over how much we had been able to pack into the barely two days we were there. I haven’t even mentioned our tour of the reverently preserved home of Friedrich Ebert, the son of a tailor, who, in 1919, became the first democratically elected president of Germany. And then there was a simple but  enjoyable late dinner at Palmbrau Gasse, an old warehouse on Hauptstrasse turned cool restaurant. Their Flammkuchen (an Alsatian onion and bacon tart) was delicious and their beer, which came from a strange periscope-looking device, was even more sensational.

Small wonder people have been attracted to Heidelberg for a such a long time – judging from the jawbone of Homo Heidelberginesis, the first human being known to have set foot in Europe; tourism goes back 600,000 years.




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