Heidelberg Castle (Heidelberger Schloss) is a ruin in Germany and landmark of Heidelberg. The castle ruins rise majestically over the roofs of the old town, but for five hundred years it was home to the Prince Electors of the Palatinate. Nowadays, the enigmatic castle attracts several million tourists each year.
The breathtaking Heidelberg castle stands nestled in the hill 90 m above the city of Heidelberg. The castle is a combination of several buildings surrounding an inner courtyard, put together with a haphazard look. Each building highlights a different period of German architecture.
History of Heidelberg Castle is a cycle of construction and destruction. It’s thought that the first foundations were laid in the 1200s, divided into two separate complexes – an ‘upper’ and a ‘lower’ castle. The first parts of the castle were constructed around 1300, but it wasn’t before Prince Elector Ruprecht III (1398 – 1410) that the castle was used as a regal residence. The buildings of the ‘higher’ castle were struck by lightning in 1537, and were destroyed by fire. The ‘lower’ castle became the site of the ruins we can see today. After Rupert III became King of Germany, castle Heidelberg started being renovated and expanded, but that expansion varied from king to king that came after him. Country of Germany was mostly divided between several royal lines, and Heidelberg castle became not only royal house but also important military stronghold that was involved in many skirmishes.
Until it was destroyed by lightning in 1764 leaving it permanently uninhabitable, the castle was the residence for most of the Prince Electors. In 1800, Count Charles de Graimberg began the difficult task of conserving the castle ruins. Up until this time, the citizens of Heidelberg had used the castle stones to build new houses.
The first time the castle was attacked was during the destructive Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648) in which European Protestant States fought against Roman Catholic States and caused death of over 8 million people. During this war, Frederick V left castle undefended, which enabled General Tilly (commanded the Catholic League’s forces) to capture the castle defenses in 1622. After that siege, castle was involved in several more skirmishes before the end of the war.
The attraction of Heidelberg Castle isn’t so much due to its history, but more due to the romantic appearance of the magnificent ruins which loom over the town.
Heidelberg is very much a place for artists, writers and poets, who want to muse upon the ivy-wrapped decay of once grand buildings, from hundreds of years ago. During the 1800s, the ruins of the castle were idealized by the Romantic movement. It was Mark Twain’s descriptions of Heidelberg which have made the castle internationally famous.
In his seminal piece of travel-writing, A Tramp Abroad, Twain described the castle was “deserted, discrowned, beaten by the storms, but royal still, and beautiful”.
The castle gardens, constructed between 1616 and 1619 by garden architect Salomon de Caus, were commissioned by Prince Elector Friedrich V for his wife Elizabeth. Before being destroyed during the War of the Palatine Succession in 1693, the gardens were regarded as a masterpiece of their time. The gardens, built upon several terraces, were made up of many flowers beds, mazes and arbors, numerous sculptures, a heated greenhouse with orange trees, large fish ponds, waterfalls, and a man-made grotto for musical water arts.
Bringing new meaning to the term “drinking a ton,” Heidelberg Castle’s almost comically huge wine cask, known as the Heidelberg Tun, is a massive, one-of-a-kind wine barrel that has been inspiring dreams of world-shattering drunkenness for hundreds of years despite being empty for most of its life.
The Heidelberg Tun, or the “World’s Largest Wine Barrel”, was built in 1751 by Prince Elector Karl Theodor to house the wine paid as taxes by the wine growers of the Palatine. It stands 7 meters high, is 8.5 meters wide, holds 220,000 liters (58,124 gallons) of wine, and has a dance floor built on top of it. The court jester who guarded the cask during the reign of Prince Elector Carl Philip, a Tyrolean dwarf nick-named Perkeo, was supposedly known for his ability to drink large quantities of wine. Legend has it that he died when he mistakenly drank a glass of water.
Today the barrel continues to draw crowds, who come to see the monumental drunk tank. Things have changed over the years and the tun caters to its tourist visitors more than to its bureaucratic past, with a dance floor built on top and constant wine tastings. Even with the modern changes, the filigreed grandeur still looks like something out of a pirate’s fantasy.