Sunday, 31 July 2016

"Teutonic Chronicles" 4: Heidelberg, Schwetzingen, Tübingen, der Rhein, Würzburg

Links to Parts 1, 2 and 3.

After Leipzig I went to Heidelberg, where I stayed for 2 weeks doing a "Sprachenkurs" with the Goethe-Institut. If you are in any doubt about where to go in Germany, I would recommend Heidelberg immediately - perhaps just obscure enough not to be an obvious tourist destination, yet known to Brits and others enough that it is full to bursting with around 40,000 students of every nationality, it is an absolute dream - one of the oldest surviving German cities (escaping WWII bombing through fortuitous events nobody quite understands, but they may have involved fog that particular night), it boasts a majestic Schloss that you would barely know is ruined until closer inspection, so impressively intact is its infrastructure; a number of wonderful churches; a charmingly restored old bridge; and a beautiful Altstadt/Old Town that is the city's life and soul. Oh, and a golden ape holding a mirror - more on that later.

I was here in Heidelberg for a language course. Most language courses, though, do not put you up in a 4-star hotel that would normally be well over 100 euros per night and has a weird obsession for British nomenclature. I am talking of the Hotel Chester, only one year old and lying slightly out of town in the SRH campus towards Mannheim, and winner of 2015's Best Newcomer Hotel. It's not just the name "Chester" - the opulent and well-stocked cigar lounge is called Churchill, for instance. I won't gabble on about the comfort in which we spent these two weeks, we denizens of the international community ranging from those who didn't know a word of German until they arrived to those who are seeking to cement their relatively high level. But it really was very luxurious. I can't decide if the breakfasts, the sauna, the roof terrace or the cigar lounge was my favourite part. We were spoiled rotten, and felt thoroughly pampered by the end of it. The course itself went very well; our class' teacher, a retired Goethe-Institut instructor called Siegfried Schmohl, was the most delightfully quirky old man you can imagine with a marvellous sense of humour and a gift for illuminating analogies. It didn't feel like being back in school at all! He began, for instance, the entire 2 weeks by an exhilarating long digression on his name, Siegfried, splitting it into the words Sieg and Fried (Victory and Peace) and then facilitating a discussion on opposing natures of the two, of Siegfried in the Nibelungenlied, on why nobody is called Siegfried any more because of its associations with nationalist undertones, on Wagner, and on what a hero really is. Not a bad way to begin!

But the classroom probably isn't a particularly exciting location for a blog post. Far more interesting to talk about Heidelberg! One of its particular highlights is the "Philosophenweg" (or Philosopher's Path) - about 2 kilometers in length, it spirals steeply up the heavily wooded side of one of the two hills between which Heidelberg is nestled. From a number of vantage points, you can gaze down on Heidelberg's baroque rooftops, directly across at the Schloss on the lower slopes of the opposing mountain, and to the River Neckar flowing through the city and under the Alte Brücke. The path is punctuated by monuments to poets such as Joseph von Eichendorff and Friedrich Hölderlin, to convince the sweating pilgrims that they are doing something at least vaguely cultural.

The Altstadt is a bit more cultural, of course. The Alte Brücke that one finds in Heidelberg today isn't the original - that was destroyed by the SS toward the very end of the war in 1945, to stop the Allies' advance - but it's a gorgeous approach to the city's Altstadt and its many hearty German pubs (including one which, as Siegfried memorably informed us, proclaims that "Goethe could have stayed here but didn't", in contrast to every single other pub in Germany which proudly states "Goethe stayed here in 1802" or whatever - and in reference to a story where he turned up to find there was, well, no room at the inn). The golden ape I referred to earlier (or "Affe" in German) has been a landmark of the town since the 1400s, and Martin Zeiller's 1632 poem on the subject still stands on the reconstructed bridge - though the primate today is a 1979 replica. He squats with a looking-glass, representative of vanity (and the mocking poem makes it clear that one can find many such monkeys in Heidelberg, as in any city).

Also of cultural interest were our many excursions during our 2 weeks together in Heidelberg. The first of these took us to Schwetzingen, not far from Heidelberg central, and proud owner of a "Summer-Schloss", where the Kurfürst von der Pfalz (a kind of regional prince) spent some of the warmer months. The Schloss itself is not especially impressive, but the gardens (baroque, after the English style) are a thing of wonder: pools, lakes, aviaries, fountains, rivers, ornate topiary... the first prince who had them designed wanted as international a flavour as possible, leading to the fascinating juxtaposition of things like a French rococo theatre, a temple to Apollo and a vast Turkish-style mosque overlooking a lake - empty inside, never used for religious purposes, as it served merely as a monument to the international outlook of the Kurfürst.

Later that first week I took myself off to pay Tübingen a visit, both to see its manifold charms and to get back in touch with an old friend studying Law there. There's a case for both Heidelberg and Tübingen as being "the Oxford of Germany"; perhaps Heidelberg is the less accurate if only because it has rather more going on than Oxford does, and the accompanying countryside is slightly more dramatic. But Tübingen is very Oxford-like, from the punts drifting down the Neckar (though they are, of course, called Stocherkähne here) to the leafy surroundings and splendid libraries. The castle that overlooks it, too, is worth a visit, now with its very own anthropological slant and museum of antiquity; the surrounding area is important both for Roman presence and remnants of Ice Age man.

While some of the others visited Mainz (which I had already ticked off the list), I took advantage of some family contacts in the area and went off for a drive around the region, taking us from Baden-Württemberg to Hessen and into Rheinland-Pfalz. I was driven through Mannheim - the city after which New York was designed, fact fans, with its bisecting alphabetical and numerical street designations - and up to a triumphant memorial above Rüdesheim commemorating the victory over the French in the Franco-Prussian War of 1871, stern visage and warlike appearance looking out toward the border with France (I find it strange the French didn't tear it down after 1918, so harsh were the other sanctions). The view from this statue over the magnificent Rhein is particularly spectacular; winding our way down from this vantage point, we got a ferry over to the other side of the Rhein - no bridges here, they'd spoil the aesthetic - passing mountain-side Schloss after mountain-side Schloss along the way. Our final destination on this particular jaunt was the smallish town of Ladenburg, where Dr Carl Benz first invented the motorcar, which was then driven by his wife Bertha (without his knowledge!) on a famous inaugural trip 66 miles long; the accompanying museum in Ladenburg is lavish and informative. As with all childless relatives, the couple I was with (my great-uncle's niece and her husband) bought me enough meals for an army: goulash for lunch, and a gourmet steak on a sizzling hot stone for dinner.

Our final "day excursion" took us to Würzburg - another gobsmackingly beautiful German city (gosh, this must get tiresome to read...). The visit was a little tainted, perhaps, by the fact that a notorious axe/knife attack had taken place on the train to Würzburg that very week, along with the shooting in Munich and a suicide bombing in Ansbach. So far, as far as I can tell, the German response to these atrocities has been calm and level-headed. We are not seeing a Donald Trump or a Marine Le Pen emerge victorious in the way we have elsewhere. Of course it can be a little unnerving at times, but then shootings have occurred in Cumbria too, and stabbings in Oxford; everywhere is dangerous, and it's best not to think about it too much. Würzburg itself was in fine form under a summery sun, displaying a particularly gorgeous cathedral, a lovely bridge over the review, and - without doubt best of all - the Residenz of the Furstbischof (prince-bishop) of this tiny principality during the 18th century. It is the finest such building I have ever seen. The frescoes are utterly unparalleled, in both size and quality, depicting leaders of 4 continents (Asia, America, Europa, and Africa) paying homage to the Furstbischof. Given Würzburg's relatively small role on the international stage now, we might find this a touch comic. But opulent buildings of the past - think of the Pavilion in Brighton - often seem a touch absurd even as we admire the achievement. What is particularly striking about the rooms in the Würzburg Residenz is not just the quality, or the staggeringly fast rate at which the architect Tiepolo and his team worked, or even the high calibre of tour guides they employ today, but the degree to which, in 1744, the sculptor and painter co-ordinated their efforts, meaning it is sometimes hard to tell where a particular figure on the ceiling becomes 3D out of his 2D surroundings. The Kaisersaal was probably my favourite room, but all of it is absolutely magnificently done.

Amid all of these jaunts - and when taking a break from classwork - we did find time to explore Heidelberg a bit more, of course. Another side of the city I briefly discovered was the proliferation of Burschenschaften - in effect, American-style fraternities or British-style drinking societies, but with their own nationalist and conservative German flavour (the names are often Teutonia or Germania or the like). But the main event in terms of discovering Heidelberg was when we took ourselves off to see the ruins of the Schloss, travelling up to it by Bergbahn (mountain rail). The Schloss offers a stunning sunset view of the city and the river itself, and its grounds and courtyards are a stunningly atmospheric setting ... oddly appropriate for the musical which took place there that night, of all things Cole Porter's "Kiss Me Kate". The moment an FBI car stormed into the 17th century castle keep-cum-theatre, bringing General Harrison Howell and his men to confront the actress Lilli and her erstwhile husband, was a particular highlight.

More anon, as I return to Bavaria!

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