romance and ruins and a panoramic view of Heidelberg and the Neckar River visit the Schloss

Heidelberg, Germany: The Romantic Schloss, Pharmaceutical Museum

Sprawling across acres and centuries, Heidelberg's castle, or Schloss, was the residence of the Palatinate electors, the rulers of Heidelberg, from the 13th to the 18th century. The history of the city is mirrored in the history of the Schloss from magnificence, to ruin, and rebirth. The restored building are glorious and gilded. The ruins are impossibly romantic.

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Heidelberg Schloss Castle

The Schloss rises up on a terrace of the Konigsstuhl (Kings Chair) the highest point in Heidelberg. Over the centuries the Schloss has become an ornate pastiche of buildings and gardens. Each of the elector/kings added their own separate palaces according to his whim and fancy, or fixed up a previous one to his taste.

The first and thus oldest recognizable part of the Schloss was built by Elector Ruprecht III (who ruled 1398-1410). Elector Ludwig V (who ruled 1508-1544) built most of the fortifications transforming the castle into a fortress. He also built a library for his collection of beautiful hand written (as all books were at the time) volumes. It was the Library of the Palatine and at its zenith had over 1,000 medieval manuscripts.

When Friedrich II (ruled 1544-56) became Elector, his Glass Hall (Saalbau) set a different tone with less austere architecture less Gothic and more Renaissance. Elector Ottheinrich (ruled 1556-1559) built Renaissance palace, then Friedrich IV (1592-1610) came along with a gorgeous and (recently restored) building adorned with 16 elaborate statues of princes.

But history, romance, and tragedy all came together under Elector Friedrich V (ruled 1610-1632). Frederick married Elizabeth Stuart (of the Stuart line of English kings) and remade the fortress into an English castle so his bride would be more comfortable. He removed the canons and filled in the moats, and even built a theater where the plays of Shakespeare could be performed.

romance and ruins and a panoramic view of Heidelberg and the Neckar River visit the Schloss
Frederick had started construction the Garden of the Palatine, which would have been the 8th wonder of the world when finished, and completed an English gate to please Elizabeth. By all accounts this was a true love match regardless of the political importance of the union.

He also apparently believed the tenuous peace between religious groups would last. This miscalculation proved to be the undoing of the Schloss.

The outbreak of Catholic-Protestant hostilities known as the 30 Year War saw both Heidelberg and the Schloss conquered, buildings destroyed, the famous Palatinate Library transported over the Alps to the Vatican as spoils of war.

But more destruction was to follow. In 1671 Karl Ludwig married his daughter Elisabeth Charlotte to Philip of Orleans, the brother of the French Sun King Ludwig XIV. This was a decidedly not a love match, nor did it protect the fragile position of Heidelberg. Instead, Louis XIV decided that the land was his, and in1693 town and castle were once again captured. Mercenary troops burned Heidelberg down to the ground and destroyed even more of the Schloss.

That marked the end of the glory of the Schloss. Although Elector Karl Theodor (1742-1799) did build the Great Barrel (1750) to hold the wine collected as part of the tax on the citizens of Heidelberg, little else of note was built. Instead Heidelberg Castle became one of the most picturesque and visited ruins in Europe.

Today, the Schloss is restored to elegance, creating a breathtaking combination of Renaissance beauty and mossy ruin. The first building to be restored was the Renaissance facade of Frederich V castle -- one of the most gorgeous and most sumptuous parts. He decorated the building with figures of his ancestors, as wells as other figures whom he believed would depict his power, telling people he was a ruler of consequence.

The other building of importance that has been renovated is the castle built by Heinrich. The theme of the outside statuary and design is that of heroes and their attributes, and virtues. Figures of Samson, Hercules, King David, and the virtues of strength, love, hope, justice are presented.

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Besides strolling the grounds, appreciating the ruins, and touring the interiors, visitors can also gawk at the huge wine cask holding about 221,000 litres (almost 60,000 gallons) of wine and made of 90 oak trees. Billed as the World's Largest Wine barrel, it was built in 1751 This huge barrel has been filled only 3 times.

The size of the cask has little to do with a party atmosphere. Wine was currency and farmers paid their taxes in wine, soldiers were paid in wine. Water was often contaminated. Sterilization and clean water was not known, but people did realize that drinking water could make you ill so people drank wine. They dumped in wine, red, good bad, all mixed together.

romance and ruins and a panoramic view of Heidelberg and the Neckar River visit the Schloss

Apothecary Museum (Deutsches Apotheken-Museum)

There is also a fascinating museum on the development of pharmaceutical medicine located on the lower floors of the Heinrich castle. It's one of the few exhibits in the city with signs in English as well as German. While many visit the Schloss, not everyone realizes the fascinating trove of information contained in this museum. The highlight is the complete recreation of a pharmacist's office, a laboratory, and other places people would and did actually visit and work. Today, drugs come from pharmaceutical manufacturers, but many of our medications and "home remedies" date back to the 17th to 19th centuries.

The top of the Konigstuhl is the last stop on the Funicular Railway. Visitors can enjoy an amazing view of the region and some of the area attractions Near the cask is a wall-mounted likeness of a court jester, nicknamed Perkeo. He was said to have guarded the cask during the reign of Prince Elector Carl Philip. He was known for his ability to drink large quantities of wine. Legend has it that he died when he took up the challenge to drink a glass of water.

Visiting the Schloss

The easiest way to visit is to catch the funicular near Kornmarkt. Funicular lovers can take the ride further to Konigstuhl (Kings Chair or Throne). Serious walkers can take the footpath, Burgweg, (and either the short route with steps or the longer path considered to be more scenic) but remember we are talking about climbing up a mountain.

There is free admission to the grounds of the Schloss after 6 PM although the Schloss itself is closed. This is one of the most romantic places in Heidelberg, with the gardens and flowers, the dark silhouette of the ruins and the glowing lights of the town. However, timing is crucial since the funicular stops running shortly after the Schloss closes.

A guided tour (available in English) is an excellent introduction to the history of the castle and the interesting stories of the residents.

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Neala McCarten

Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author

Updated: October 16, 2016

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