Castles, churches and kisses

2012-06-23 09:15

I felt much better about the short, brutal and smelly lives of the peasants in Heidelberg when our tour guide told us that a recent study had found that each man, woman and child in the 1600s consumed 2 000 litres of wine a year.

When you are that blind drunk all the time, I guess you don’t notice there are no showers and the rulers are greedy despots.

In comparison South Africans each drink a measly 22 litres of wine a year – a shoddy showing indeed for a wine-making nation.

Heidelberg Castle – overlooking the picturesque city that is home to about 150 000 people – was voted Germany’s number one tourist destination recently by a German Tourism survey.

Apart from spectacular vistas of the city and the Neckar River that runs through it, the castle also boasts a wine barrel that holds a whopping 220 000 litres of wine –tax collection storage for the local wine farmers who had to pay one-tenth of their production in taxes.

The resulting wine was disgusting – hence the addition of herbs and spices to mask the vinegar vintage.

And farmers paid with plonk, not the posh stuff they could sell at a premium. But the wine was life-saving – it was safer than drinking the water, which harboured disease.

The castle’s roots stretch back to the 1400s when it was a timber settlement, and as the years passed successive princes added their own touches.

Today it represents Gothic, Baroque and Renaissance styles, and on Saturdays the locals dress up to bring the past peoples of the castle to life.

Though the partially ruined building is the city’s showpiece and dominates the cityscape, I was sorry I didn’t have more time to wonder the cobbled streets of the old town, which as much as the castle bare the marks of the changing times, political upheavals and religious wars that have passed through this part of Europe.

The centuries-old faith wars between Catholics and Protestants is evident everywhere in the bricks and mortar of the town, with some funny results.

The Jesuit Church, for example, was started while the Catholics were in charge but patched up when the Protestants were, and the decorations reflect this tussle.

Even funnier is the Church of the Holy Ghost, which was split down the middle to accommodate both types of Christians – complete with an organ that plays from both sides of the dividing wall.

If you gaze upwards while walking through the streets you’ll find ornate carvings of the Madonna gazing down at you – marks of allegiance during a Catholic period.

Conversely, a suitably austere plaque marks the anniversary of Martin Luther’s visit here to deliver the Heidelberg Disputation.

One thing that both Catholics and Protestants have always agreed on, though, is how to conduct a romance (unless it’s cross-denominational!) in Heidelberg – with a Student Kiss.

Still owned by the same family, Mrs Knösel oversees a recipe perfected in 1863 by her ancestor, Fridolin.

She gleefully doles out her sweet treats, along with the story.

The Student Kiss was how young men got around the chaperones of their sweethearts – the chocolate was such a treat it was impossible to resist and it doubled as a substitute for an illicit kiss.

Another of this university town’s quirky stories is that of the student jail – decorated in graffiti drawn with the black of candles, it was a right of passage in its day and sentences ranged from three to 40 days.

Also, if like me you love Christmas paraphernalia, check out the town’s permanent shop dedicated to decorations and German-made gifts.

It’s so disappointing to go home with a souvenir made in China!

After my mad dash around Heidelberg’s main attractions – including a slap-up sauerkraut, bratwurst and Riesling lunch at a monastery, I had to get back on the train to Frankfurt to catch my plane home to Joburg.

A mere hour from Frankfurt airport, this German city is well worth pencilling into your European tour – but do it justice and stay a while.

Next time I will.

» Follow me on Twitter @GayleMahala
» Edmunds was a guest of the German National Tourist Board 

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