Donnerstag, 30. Oktober 2008
I could tell you that it was Goethe who drew me to Heidelberg. Or that Turner’s landscapes had inspired me to come to the Necker valley. Or that I wanted to visit the spot where Mark Twain (probably) conceived the raft voyage which would bind his great novel Huckleberry Finn. But the honest truth is that it was beer. My quest for the best glass of beer in the world.
A Spanish friend told me about Vetter’s, the atmospheric, wood-panelled Heidelberg brauhaus with hops hanging from the ceiling, candle-lit tables and tall, slender glasses of effervescent ‘Heidelberger Frisch’. So great was my thirst – and my friend’s enthusiasm -- that last Monday morning I coaxed Maus and Mrs. Cat onto a sleek, white ICE train and made for Germany’s romantic capital.
Heidelberg nestles in a thickly wooded valley at the northern end of the Black Forest. It is Germany’s Oxbridge, home to countless regal ghosts and 30,000 students who spend their time either cycling to class or entwining their limbs around each other in the darker corners of the city’s bars. Narrow, cobble stone streets twist through the baroque Altstadt. Swans paddle under the ornate Alte Brüke. Above them all looms the imperious, partly-ruined, red sandstone Schloss which moved the soul of the eighteenth century Romanticism.
We stepped off the train and into a melancholic autumn afternoon. Clouds clung to the slopes. Water dripped from the pollarded plane trees. We walked the city’s streets, losing ourselves in its smells, sights and sounds then crossed the Necker to climb Schlangenweg – Snake Lane, a narrow walled path which wound up the steep northern bank. Above the Italianate villas with steeply-pitched roofs unfolded Philosophers’ Walk and the vista which had inspired many of Germany’s greatest thinkers.
‘This is a city where one immediately feels at ease,’ said our guide, a Southern belle, Twain aficionado and long-time resident. ‘You can love Heidelberg right from the start without knowing its history. Then subsequent knowledge adds pieces to the puzzle, yet the puzzle is always complete.’ Back in the Altstadt she traced for us Heidelberg’s remarkable evolution from small fishing village to capital of the Holy Roman Empire. She spoke movingly of Liselotte, the Heidelberg princess who witnessed the destruction of her beloved home by her brother-in-law Louis XIV. She guided us to the Studentenkarzer, the daubed-and-decorated prison where generations of interned students were allowed alcohol, paints and parties. Her retelling of Goethe and Marianne Willemer’s love story almost brought her to tears. But above all, our guide was fascinated by Mark Twain’s three month residence. In 1878 he penned here his second travel book A Tramp Abroad, tried to get to grips with ‘the awful German language’ and wrote, ‘One thinks of Heidelberg by day – with its surroundings – as the last possibility of the beautiful, but when he sees Heidelberg by night, a fallen Milky Way, he requires time to consider upon the verdict.’
One anecdote particularly entertained Maus. Since the 13th century a monkey statue had guarded Heidelberg’s bridge. But in 1786 the humourless Prince Elector Karl Theodor decided that the primate offended him and demanded its removal. For two hundred years only statuesque homo sapiens adorned the Altebrücke. Then a decade ago the monkey returned, its naked rump aimed directly at Theodor’s own proud statue. At its side are the words, ‘Why do you stand around and gape? Have you not seen the old Heidelberg Ape? Just look around you here and there – you’ll find more like me everywhere!’ In his hand the monkey holds a mirror.
Heidelberg inspires contemplation. At many inviting tables one can happily idle away an hour or a lifetime. One such watering hole was Hörnchen in the Heumarkt. After Charlotte left us, Mrs. Cat, Maus and I took refuge from the weather in this crammed student refuelling stop. Hörnchen was part Parisian café, part Berlin squat, part Greenwich Village coffee house. Students sat on its bar stools under crazy, mismatching Seventies lamps, drinking mango lassis and Moroccan coffee, debating how to change the world (or simply get each other into bed). On our first day in Heidelberg it was our greatest discovery, along with Vetter’s of course. We spent the evening there, devouring game goulash and wrestling with a pig’s knuckle. The ‘Heidelberger Frisch’ proved to be delicious; a light, lively beer with a suggestion of sour apples. I’ve never forgotten a pint of Cornish Doom Bar drunk on Dartmoor. Equally my life would be poorer without the joy of a cool glass of Castlemaine Perkins’ XXXX quaffed while overlooking Australia’s Gold Coast. Now Vetter’s ‘Heidelberger Frisch’ reaches the parts other beers cannot reach. Can there be a better beer in Germany? Whatever the answer, the pleasure of our first day in Heidelberg paled in comparison with the discoveries of the second…
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