Heidelberg Castle is one of Europe’s most romantic ruins in. Its rollercoaster history reflects the turbulent links between Germany and France over the centuries. Three times a year, the castle illuminations recall that stormy relationship.
“I saw Heidelberg on an absolutely clear morning, when the air was cool and refreshing. The location and surroundings of the town, one has to say, are ideal.” So wrote Johann Wolfgang von Goethe about the old university town on the River Neckar. That was 220 years ago and by then, the once-handsome palace, built by the Palatine Electors, was already a ruin. On the orders of Louis XIV, it was destroyed in two attacks: 1689 and 1693. In order to secure his power, the French king demolished many towns along the German-French border.
Ruins with many admirers
For centuries, the Germans and French were hostile to one other. But, since the end of World War Two, things have improved dramatically. Not only has there been peace, but the countries have also moved closer, both unofficially and, with the 1963 Franco-German friendship treaty, officially as well. Europe, too, has changed. Today, you can hear many languages spoken in Heidelberg; the ancient student city is truly international.
The theme for 2019: "Pretty good friends. With sword, charm, and wit: the relationship between France and SouthWest Germany"
On a July afternoon, the steps linking the Old Town and the ruined castle are busy. But everyone follows the ‘keep to the right’ custom, with one single file going up and another down. Most people are going up to enjoy the great views over the river from the castle and to find a good spot to watch the illuminations.
The 2019 theme for SouthWest Germany’s Castles and Gardens heritage organisation is “France: Pretty good friends”. And Heidelberg has important connections. On the one hand, the French set fire to the castle and then blew it up; on the other, it was a Frenchman, who pointed out to Heidelbergers what a wonderful town they lived in. This was the artist Charles de Graimberg, who arrived in Heidelberg in the early 19th century. He came to draw the ruins, but the young man fell in love with the castle and devoted the rest of his life to preserving it. His passion opened the eyes of the Heidelbergers to the romanticism of the ruins.
“To see Heidelberg again must be just wonderful”
poet Heinrich Heine
Locals began to value their heritage. Others, who also appreciated it, included authors and poets, such as Goethe, Heinrich Heine and Mark Twain, whose writings made Heidelberg Castle Germany’s most famous ruin.
Visit the castle
Today, Heidelberg Castle, with its grand terraces overlooking the River Neckar, welcomes about 1.2 million visitors each year. As early as the 13th century, the Counts Palatine of the Rhine (future Electors) built their first residence here. Over the centuries, the castle was altered with a mix of architectural styles. Respective owners expanded their residence, inspired partly by fashion and partly out of necessity. Today, Heidelberg Castle, with its Renaissance palace, is one of Germany’s most important cultural monuments.
The castle dispute
At the beginning of the 20th century, the so-called “castle dispute” over restoration broke out. Many argued that the magnificent ruins should be brought back to life. Eventually, however, it was decided to preserve just the most important buildings, leaving the rest of the castle in ruins. Only the Friedrichsbau building, built 400 years ago by Friedrich IV, was refurbished.
Admission to the courtyard and tours of the interior are restricted to guided visits. Inside, one of the highlights is the royal hall, where the Electors once held grand receptions.
Façades of Neckar valley sandstone
Heidelberg is particularly pretty when the late afternoon sun shines on the soft red sandstone. As the sun sets, thousands of visitors are in position along the banks of the Neckar, ready with their phones and cameras on tripods. Some bring picnics. More spectators are on the Philosopher‘s Walk. And on the river itself, cruise ships, boats and yachts are at anchor. Heidelberg is ready to celebrate.
The castle burns
At precisely 10.15 pm, all the lights around the castle are switched off. Suddenly, fireworks illuminate the castle façade with an eerie orange-red light. Three times a year, this display is a reminder of the low points in German-French relations, when troops under Field Marshal Ezéchiel de Mélac destroyed the town and its castle. But that was long ago; nowadays everyone just enjoys the show. More fireworks over the Neckar evoke happier memories, such as the magnificent wedding in 1613 of Frederick V of the Palatinate to English princess, Elisabeth Stuart.
One more window
“Here in SouthWest Germany, that German-French relationship is an important part of our history,” says Michael Hörrmann, head of the Castles and Gardens organisation. “The French were responsible for many of the ruins. But there is also French influence in the design of our palaces, too.” Back in 1720, for example, when the Palatine Electors lost interest in Heidelberg, they built themselves a new palace in Mannheim. The role model? Versailles, of course, the showpiece of Louis XIV. When built, Mannheim boasted the second largest Baroque palace in Europe. Even more important to the Electors was that Mannheim had exactly one more window than Versailles!