The Heidelberg Tour: History and Heritage

Heidelberg is a charming city in the Rhine Rift Valley and a stop full of history and culture on Vantage’s Grand European River Cruise: Rhine Valley to the Black Sea. During our our included Heidelberg tour travelers can immerse themselves in the lore surrounding Germany’s oldest university, in the Gothic-Renaissance ruins of Heidelberg Castle, and in the many delights of the still exuberant baroque-style old town.

Germany’s Oldest University

Heidelberg University was founded in 1386, making it the oldest university in Germany and the third to be opened during the Holy Roman Empire. Its main university library is also the country’s most frequently used library. The university was founded after the Catholic Church’s Great Schism of 1378, which occurred when two popes were elected after the death of Gregory XI, one based in France and the other in Rome. Since the German leaders gave their support to the pope in Rome, German students and professors were forced to leave their schools in Paris, and a university in Germany was subsequently founded.

After taking in the sights of Heidelberg University, a visit to the Heidelberg Student Prison is a must. As far back as the 16th century, complaints about carousing students led authorities at Heidelberg University to open a student prison — Studentenkarzer — to temporarily confine those who misbehaved. The prison is no bigger than a large apartment and featured a door connecting it to the university so that jailed students could still attend their classes. Today it sits replete with original features and plenty of graffiti. No one suffered horribly in the prison that closed its doors in 1914 — time spent there was somewhat of a “rite of passage” among students.

A Castle in Ruins

A Heidelberg tour would not be complete without a visit to Heidelberg Castle (Schloss Heidelberg), the city’s most famous landmark. The castle’s ruins are among the more important of all Renaissance structures located north of the Alps. The original castle structure was built sometime before 1214, when Emperor Friedrich II gave the castle to the duke of Bavaria, and it was expanded in the late 13th century. The castle became a residence for prince electors around 1400. After lightning destroyed portions of the residence in 1537, the castle underwent another expansion. Over the centuries, however, both natural disasters and wars caused further destruction. When lightning struck a second time in 1764, causing a terrible fire, the castle was left in ruins. Since then, the structure has been partially rebuilt; it now comprises the major view of the city’s old town.

Both Victor Hugo and Mark Twain wrote about the Heidelberg Castle ruins:

“What times it has been through! Five hundred years long it has been victim to everything that has shaken Europe, and now it has collapsed under its weight,” Hugo penned in 1838.

In 1880’s A Tramp Abroad, Twain wrote, “This one could not have been better placed. It stands upon a commanding elevation, it is buried in green woods, there is no level ground about it, but, on the contrary, there are wooded terraces upon terraces, and one looks down through shining leaves into profound chasms and abysses where twilight reigns and the sun cannot intrude. Nature knows how to garnish a ruin to get the best effect.”

Heidelberg’s rich historical sites transport visitors from the Middle Ages through the Renaissance and back into the present, making this timeless city an unforgettable part of a Rhine Valley river cruise.

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