An American in Southwest Germany

Mark Twain at the Neckar River

Der Blick vom Heidelberger Schloss auf Heidelberg hat etwas Romantisches.
In the Footsteps of the American Author in Heidelberg

BW Story - CMR

In the Footsteps of the American Author in Heidelberg

We discover Heidelberg and the Neckar Valley with our tour guide Klaus Mombrei, following the footsteps of the American author Mark Twain. 

Stadtführer Klaus Mombrei alias Mark Twain bei einer Schifffahrt auf dem Neckar.
City guide Klaus Mombrei as Mark Twain on a boat trip on the Neckar River. | © TMBW, Foto: Gregor Lengler
Mark Twain schrieb gerne und erfolgreich Reisegeschichten.
Mark Twain enjoyed writing travel stories. | © TMBW, Foto: Gregor Lengler

The Neckar River is not the Mississippi River. But you can also have some exciting adventures around Heidelberg - if your name is Mark Twain and you are a writer looking for stories. If necessary, you can just make them up. In his book ‘A Tramp Abroad’, the American author writes about travelling along the Neckar River in a raft: “We glided silently along, between the green, fragrant banks, with a feeling of joy and contentment that grew and grew”. Unfortunately, the wooden vessel hit a pier in Heidelberg and the raft capsized. Fortunately, he and the rest of the crew were able to reach the banks of the Neckar River and safe their lives. Is this true? Probably not, but Twain wasn’t writing reportage, he was writing travel literature. So why not fib a little?

Who Was Mark Twain?

The American Author

Who Was Mark Twain?

Mark Twain was born Samuel Langhorne Clemens in Florida in 1835. He is best known as the author of the books about the adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, both of which were international best-sellers. As a keen observer of those around him, his writings are often humorous and sometimes snarky and ironic. He holds up a mirror not only to the Americans, but also the Europeans. After all, Twain loved to travel, and to write about it.

Why Mark Twain Loved Heidelberg

Romantic Southwest Germany

Why Mark Twain Loved Heidelberg

On 25 April 1878, the author and his family arrived in the port of Hamburg and soon travelled to southern Germany. He had left America looking for a change of scenery. He also had money worries and urgently needed material for a new book. Mark Twain got around a bit, visiting Lucerne, Baden-Baden, Venice, and Milan. The family stayed in Europe for about a year and a half. The author enjoyed the continent and even learned a little German (but also complained vociferously about ‘the awful German language’). On the other hand, Mark Twain loved the romantic student town of Heidelberg and the Neckar region, which he explored extensively. He writes: “One never tires of poking about in the dense woods that clothe all these lofty Neckar hills to their tops.” He also notes, with a touch of irony, as is his wont:

“Germany, in the summer, is the perfection of the beautiful, but nobody has understood, and realized, and enjoyed the utmost possibilities of this soft and peaceful beauty unless he has voyaged down the Neckar on a raft.” 
 – Mark Twain

And because the American dedicates several sections of his travel book to Heidelberg, he has now found a contemporary alter ego there: City guide Klaus Mombrei occasionally does city tours dressed as Mark Twain - in a white suit with a cane and a hat.

Von der Scheffelterrasse hat man einen wunderbaren Ausblick auf das Heidelberger Schloss und die Altstadt.
From the Scheffel Terrace you have a wonderful view of Heidelberg Castle and the Old Town. | © TMBW, Foto: Gregor Lengler

Following in the American Author’s Footsteps

“At some point, I was asked if I would do it,” explains the guide. And he filled the role he had taken on rather by chance with such life and humour that he couldn’t get out of it, and didn’t want to. These days, he only does tours like this occasionally on request, and today we are among the lucky ones: we are exploring the old town together and cruising along the Neckar River for a while. In ‘A Tramp Abroad’, Mark Twain reveals a few surprising things about the river and its castles and about Heilbronn and Bad Wimpfen. At one point, for example, he writes: “In many places the Neckar so narrow that a person can throw a dog across it, if he has one […].”

Heidelberg Castle - an Abandoned Ruin

At the time, the author was living in the no longer existing Alberts Schlosshotel, which was situated on a cliff above the river. He enjoyed the wonderful view of the water and Heidelberg, noting that it sits in a gorge shaped like a shepherd’s crook. There is more about Heidelberg at sunset: “I have never enjoyed a view that had such a serene and satisfying charm about it.” He describes the castle ruins as “abandoned, dethroned, battered by storms, but royal still, and beautiful”. So it is no surprise that visitors from the United States are still drawn to his poetry and prose and like to follow in his footsteps in good old Germany and especially in the Heidelberg region.

Im Heidelberger Schloss steht ein riesiges Weinfass mit einer Plattform darauf.
Heidelberg Castle has a huge wine barrel with a platform at the top. | © TMBW, Foto: Gregor Lengler

Graffiti on the Walls

“Howdy, howdy, der friends in Germany,” the Mark Twain imitator greets us at the giant wine barrel in Heidelberg Castle, explaining with a mischievous undertone that, in his opinion, the barrel was used to store cream rather than wine. It’s a pleasure to listen to the guide, and at some point, everything blends together: the original Mark Twain, his Heidelberg alter ego, the Neckar region then and now, fiction and reality. It is charming and fun, and the real Mark Twain would probably have liked it, as he was also a fan of irony and playing with words and truths. Back in the here and now, we move on to the Scheffelterrasse (Scheffel Terrace) with its wonderful view of Heidelberg and then to the student prison, the “Studentenkarzer” down in the old town. It is world famous as the students imprisoned here for disturbing the peace by night or being drunk used to pass the time by painting the walls, so you can see political graffiti from the late 19th century in these small, dark rooms. Mark Twain described the prison as follows: “The walls were thickly covered with pictures and portraits (in profile), some done with ink, some with soot, some with a pencil […] and whenever an inch or two of space had remained between the pictures, the prisoners had written plaintive verses, or names and dates.” He adds: “I do not think I was ever in a more elaborately frescoed room.”

Der Studentenkrazer liegt in der Altstadt von Heidelberg. Die Wände wurden von einsitzenden Studenten in früheren Zeiten bemalt.
The Studentenkrazer Prison is located in the old town of Heidelberg. The walls were painted by imprisoned students. | © TMBW, Foto: Gregor Lengler
Das Studentenkrazer in Heidelberg ist berühmt für seine dunklen Räume und die politischen Graffiti aus dem späten 19. Jahrhundert.
The Studentenkrazer Prison in Heidelberg is famous for its dark rooms and political graffiti from the late 19th century. | © TMBW, Foto: Gregor Lengler
Neckar Castle Tour

Mark Twain on the Neckar River

Neckar Castle Tour

Mark Twain unternahm viele Ausflüge, auch nach Neckargmünd im nördlichen Baden-Württemberg
Mark Twain went on many excursions, including to Neckargmünd in northern Baden-Württemberg | © TMBW, Foto: Ermano Wagner
Bei der "Vier-Burgen-Rundfahrt" geht es durch einen idyllischen Teil des Neckartals.
The 'Four Castles Tour' takes you through an idyllic part of the Neckar Valley. | © TMBW, Foto: Ermano Wagner
Vom Blauen Turm in Bad Wimpfen hat man einen weitreichendem Blick auf die Altstadt und ins Neckartal.
From the Blue Tower (Blauer Turm) in Bad Wimpfen you have a great view of the old town and the Neckar Valley. | © TMBW, Foto: Ermano Wagner

At the Neckar jetty we board a boat of the ‘White Fleet’ with Klaus Mombrei, alias Mark Twain, and set off on the ‘Four Castles Tour’ along the Neckar River. It takes us to Neckarsteinach and back, through a particularly idyllic part of the Neckar Valley. Over coffee and cake, we look out for the sights that Mark Twain once visited, such as Neckargemünd and Dilsberg, all while flicking through ‘A Tramp Abroad’ and enjoying the woodland scenery.

Facts About the Neckar River

The Neckar River is a tributary of the Rhine and a federal waterway that flows from the Black Forest through the Stuttgart region and then, between Heilbronn and Heidelberg, turns into the romantic river landscape described by Mark Twain. After 362 kilometres, the Neckar finally flows into the Rhine in Mannheim. 

German Huckleberries

How Huckleberry Finn Got his Name

German Huckleberries

Back then, Mark Twain once started hiking along the river, but not for long, as he was happy to reveal. He walked from Heidelberg to Heilbronn with a good friend, but then decided to take the train instead. On the way back, they take the fateful raft ride that came to such a dramatic end. And even if it is all fiction, Heilbronn, the Neckar River, and the rafts are said to have given Mark Twain the inspiration he needed for the sequel to the Tom Sawyer story. At least that is what Klaus Mombrei tells us. After all, huckleberry in German is ‘Heidelbeere’. Heidelbeere, Heidelberg, rafting down the river, something clicks, doesn’t it? And is at least this story true? It doesn’t matter, ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ went on to become Twain’s most famous work and a key novel in American literature. And, of course, the Germans can enjoy taking a tiny bit of credit for this massive success. Even though the Mississippi River and the Neckar River are still worlds apart.

More on Heidelberg and the Neckar Valley


More on Heidelberg and the Neckar Valley

Mark Twain at the Neckar River: In the footsteps of the American author in Heidelberg
Schloss_Alte Brücke


View on the Old Town an Old Bridge 
Alte Brücke Schlosshintergrund

Castle Heidelberg

Heidelberg Castle

Old town Heidelberg

Old Town Heidelberg

River Heidelberg


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