According to our onboard historian, Heidelberg is the warmest place on the Rhine. I can’t vouch for that because our day there was cold and rainy. We learned early in our travels not to let weather hinder our sightseeing. Heidelberg’s first claim to fame is the castle, which is a pivotal location of life in Heidelberg for both residents and university students. (The second is the university.)
There is no documented proof for the claim that Heidelberg castle was once called the Jettenbühl. The name “Jettenbühl” comes from the soothsayer Jetta, who was said to have lived there. She is also associated with Wolfsbrunnen (Wolf’s Spring) and the Heidenloch (Heathens’ Well). The similar spelling of the latter gives some credibility to the claim. The first mention of a castle in Heidelberg is in 1214.
The sandstone-colored ruins, consisting of several buildings surrounded by beautiful gardens, are among the most important Renaissance structures north of the Alps. The castle is on a natural terrace on the steep hillside above the town. The history of Heidelberg Castle is a cycle of construction and destruction.
The documented history of construction indicates it began in the 15th century. At that time, palaces were also fortresses for defense as seen today in the towers destroyed during one of several wars. However, some scholars believe the first foundations originated in the 11th century, divided into two separate complexes, an ‘upper’ castle and a ‘lower’ castle. The little available archaeological evidence indicates they were simple, defensive structures, not a comfortable residence. The first mention of two castles was in 1303. The last mention of a single castle is in 1294, indicating there had been more than one at some point.
Fire from a lightning strike in 1537 destroyed the higher castle. The lower castle is the site of the ruins today. The upper structure was never rebuilt, according to our historian, because the then owner chose to build a castle in nearby Manheim. I didn’t find documented evidence. Villagers later used the stones, wood, and iron to build their homes. (The Manheim castle bears no resemblance to castle ruins.)
The present structures had been expanded by 1650, before damage by later wars and fires. In 1764, another lightning bolt caused a fire which destroyed some rebuilt sections. The castle has been partially rebuilt since its demolition in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The given reason for not rebuilding the castle was a committee report that, while a complete or partial rebuilding of the castle was not possible, it was possible to preserve it in its current condition. Only one building, whose interiors were fire damaged, but not ruined, would be restored. This reconstruction was done from 1897 to 1900.
The oldest description of Heidelberg, from 1465, mentions that the city is “frequented by strangers,” but it did not really become a tourist attraction until the beginning of the 19th century. Tourism received a big boost when Heidelberg was connected to the railway network in 1840. Heidelberg has, in the years of the 21st century, more than three million visitors a year, and about one million overnight stays. Most of the foreign visitors come either from the USA or Japan.
Okay, that’s enough history, interesting though it is. Here are some stories that keep the tourism trade high.
The first story is the one people want to believe most.
Legend says the castle will be handed to any individual who manages to bite through the iron ring doorknocker on the thick wooden door to the residential courtyard. Apparently, a witch managed to sink her fangs some distance into the ring, but failed to bite through it completely and put a hex on it.
One of the castle’s other claims to fame is that it is home to the world’s largest wine barrel, so huge that it took 130 trunks of oak to make it. It holds 58,140 gallons of wine and has a dance floor on top of it. The story goes that an entire orchestra was smuggled into the barrel and sat patiently until the end of a banquet, when they burst into music. The sudden huge echo throughout the barrel achieved the intended effect of surprising the people. The story goes the court jester who guarded the cask was known for his ability to drink large quantities of wine. He died when he mistakenly drank a glass of water.
Two famous United States citizens have a connection to the Heidelberg Castle.
Mark Twain visited the castle and later wrote about it in his 1880, “A Tramp Abroad.” In a lengthy quote about the wine barrel, he ended with this statement: “An empty cask the size of a cathedral could excite but little emotion in me.” So, the question is: Would he have been more excited if the cask had been full and available for tasting the contents?
President Thomas Jefferson, a wine connoisseur, visited various places along the Rhine River, including the Heidelberg Castle. He naturally was interested in the huge wine barrel. He measured it and estimated it would hold 280,000 bottles of wine. The onboard historian said he had heard that President Jefferson commented the barrel with its dance floor top is large enough for several couples to dance. The historian further said he hadn’t been able to find it on the internet. I couldn’t either. If you do, please let me know! In any event, there is a staircase to the top and couples have danced on it in recent times. For the record, Jim and I kept our feet solidly on the floor.
From the castle which studies show has been in use consistently through the centuries, I turn now to a castle that has never been in use since the French troops devastated it during the Siege of Mainz in 1689.
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There is scanty documented history of the ruins of Ehrenfels Castle located above the town of Rüdesheim.
The generally held belief is that around the year 1220, the Archbishop of Mainz ordered the construction of a castle on the site of an earlier fortress and used the imposing buildings to control trade on the Rhine and the resulting tolls. In this, the archbishop had the help of the nearby Maus (Mouse) tower. Its strategically important position led to fierce battles during the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) before being devastated by French troops during the 1689 Siege of Mainz. Afterwards the remains of Ehrenfels Castle were left to fall into decay.
At the beginning of the 1990s, the land of Hesse, being the current owner of the ruins of Ehrenfels Castle, made funds for renovation available, saving the castle ruins from a fate of unabated decay. Yet I found no record that renovation took place.
The castle is famous for having held the Cathedral Treasures of Mainz in 1374 as well as the election of the Archbishop of Mainz, Konrad II. Today, its claim to fame is the grape variety, Ehrenfelser, named for the castle.
This concludes my series on the Upper Middle Rhine Valley castles. Next month, I will review two statues overlooking the Rhine, Lorelie and Germania.