Old Town Tours in Heidelberg and Strasbourg

In the part of Europe we were in as of August 14, one of the first things tour guides talk about is the percentage of a city that was bombed out in World War II. In much the same way that a guide in Manhattan might mention the average value of homes along a certain road, the Cologne guides describe the destruction of 90% of the city during the war; in the industrial cities of Alsace, around 80% of the cities were destroyed by bombs. The two cities we were about to visit, however, had not been bombed at all during the Second World War, preserving architecture from the Middle Ages and Early Modern period.

Back on the ship, our cruise director was worried about a different type of devastation. Our Viking cruise ended Castle Day in Rudesheim, where Laura and I were able to get some German food and beer. When we returned, we found a foreboding note in our room.

Crap. Literally.

Crap. Literally.

Immediately, we sanitized the room with the Clorox wipes Laura had brought to purify the plane on the way over. The next day, we disembarked from our floating disease factory and took a bus to the heights of Heidelberg, this time conveniently avoiding the challenging walk up the hill. Heidelberg had not been bombed during World War II, mainly because there is no industry there. In Heidelberg, the only damage came from the pre-World War attacks by, predictably, the French.

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This particular castle was destroyed by the French under Louis XIV in the War of the Palatine Succession, back when the French were thinking, “it sure would be great if our western border was the Rhine River.” Even the ruins of the castle were impressive, though, and their position up on a hill overlooking the Old Town in Heidelberg provided a great view.

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In the 19th century, the Romantic movement took off, and because the Romantics really valued national heritage, a castle renovation movement began. In fact, a number of the castles that we saw the day before had been renovated during this era. Some castles were renovated even though no one had any idea what the interior of the castle actually looked like. This sparked a debate over whether castles should be renovated even if the renovation lacked authenticity, which the type of false debate people have when they already know the answer to something, kind of like debating whether Donald Trump should actually be president. Once thinking people came to their senses and stopped building mock castles better suited for the Germany section of Busch Gardens. they decided that leaving the castle destroyed showed the power of nature, which they felt was a bit more authentic than the castles “improved” for tourism.

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Impressively, when the castle at Heidelberg was intact, the inhabitants produced 48,000 gallons of wine a day and consumed much of it. As in Marksburg castle, this was because the water was of questionable quality, and the wine they were drinking was not all that alcoholic. People found a way to get drunk anyway, mainly because they were living in a structure with all of the comforts of solid rock. The wine was flavored with all kinds of supplements like crushed bone for calcium.

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Mmmm… crushed bone wine…

In keeping with our habit of avoiding stairs on cruise excursions, we took the cable car down. This was surprisingly difficult. Everywhere else that we have used mass transit involved the same process: to get through the gate you put your ticket into a slot and the ticket then pops out of a different slot. The mass transit planners of Heidelberg decided to throw us all a curveball by having riders put the ticket into the slot and then remove the ticket quickly. Then a green light would flash and the gate to the car would open. In order to shepherd our group through this confusing process, our guide kept shouting, “In! Out! Green!” Which gave me flashbacks to the dance lessons that Laura and I took before our wedding, which involved an exasperated dance instructor repeatedly calling out a beat that Laura and I were unable to follow.

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We made it into the cable car with the same lack of grace that carried us through our wedding dance.

Once we navigated the cable car, we came to a square at the bottom where, during the Wars of Religion, the Catholics had constructed an anti-Protestant statue.

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I noticed that German tour guides who relay Reformation-era stories or discuss religious demographics today often stop short of clarifying to American audiences just how disconnected Germans are from organized religions practice. In this case, our guide explained the division of Heidelberg’s population between Catholics and Protestants as if the level of organized religious participation was still very high today. In fact, German attendance at churches has fallen to under 20%, and Germans who identify as Catholic generally mean “I pay tithes to the Catholic Church” and not “I actually know when Mass takes place and attend.” It’s sort of like the high school students who pay dues to join something like Key Club in order to claim that they are part of the club for college applications.

There are nearly as many people taking selfies in this church as worshiping.

There are nearly as many people taking selfies in this church as worshiping.

Our guide, who had studied in the United States, pointed out the lack of German flags visible in the streets of Heidelberg (there were more fraternity flags for the fraternities at the University of Heidelberg than state flags), and drew a contrast with the number of flags visible in the United States. She wasn’t being critical of the US, but was instead using this observation to illustrate a larger point about German discomfort with nationalism and the symbols of nationalism following Nazi rule. Interestingly, as a consequence, Germans don’t feel the same way that Americans do about things like flag burning, so burning a German flag will not cause great offense. What will cause great offense is for people from other countries to portray current German leaders as Nazis, as the Greeks have done during the recent debates over Greek debt.

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The guide turned us lose in Heidelberg at about noon, and we went looking for a German lunch. German food is outstanding; on this day, I had the currywurst (awesome), but everything I had from schnitzel to street food was great. I was looking for a place where I could try some different German beers as well. There is actually a microbrewery in Heidelberg’s Old Town that would have been perfect, but a group had reserved it for the time we were there. I had to compensate for this loss somehow…

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One liter of compensation.

The number of Germans who speak fluent English is astounding, and since Heidelberg has an excellent university, we encountered even more fluent speakers than usual. Even fluent speakers of a second language sometimes have to come up with a roundabout way of expressing themselves, and, listening to the non-native English speakers in Germany, I finally was able to figure out Laura’s issue with coming up with the correct word for things like “fan” (“the machine”), her iPhone (her “clock”), and my sunglasses (“eye pieces”). Laura is like a non native speaker of English. I would say that she is part of some kind of foreign sleeper cell, except she can’t think of words in other languages either.

Laura, wearing her eye-pieces in front of the people shelters of Heidelberg.

Laura, wearing her eye-pieces in front of the people shelters of Heidelberg.

The only bad thing about our trip to Heidelberg is that we left soon after lunch and went to the comparatively nondescript port city of Speyer. Walking around Speyer, I did manage to find this…

The miniature golf course that time forgot.

The miniature golf course that time forgot.

The following day the ship docked in Kehl, Germany, which is just across the Rhine from Strasbourg, which is now in France. To give you a taste of the types of things emphasized by the cruise planners, we were given a brief warning by ship employees that most of the second floor was suffering from gastroenteritis, followed by a dire warning that the shops in Strasbourg would be closed since it was Sunday. That warning was followed by an even more dire warning that we would have to walk about twenty minutes to the bus.

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During the brutal 20 minute stroll to the bus, we came across the pedestrian bridge below. The areas connected by the bridge were as hotly contested by the Germans and French as any areas in Europe, and it is amazing that today a person can simply walk from French to German territory.

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Strasbourg was founded as a Roman city, and it seems that virtually since the fall of Rome, the city has been ground zero for the conflict between the French and the Germans. Louis XIV annexed the city as French territory in 1681, it became German in 1871, French again in 1919, German in 1940, and finally French in 1945. Because of this history of conflict, after the Second World War, the Europeans founded several institutions in Strasbourg that were meant to keep the peace between European countries, starting with the Council of Europe.

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The Council’s Court of Human Rights building was constructed as a “ship to the future.” Because when the recent past involves a visit by Hitler, there’s really only one way to go.

In the spirit of optimism that accompanied the founding of the European Union, the EU Parliament building was made mostly out of glass to reflect the “transparency” of the political process.

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At least the transparency of the glass turned out as planned.

As a city that was Germanic, French, German, French, German, French, Strasbourg’s architecture includes a mix of German and French influences. The city was shelled by the Germans during the 1870 Franco-Prussian War, but many historic structures remain intact in the Old Town.

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Historically, Europeans have defined their nations culturally – someone was French because they spoke French and participated in other features of French culture. Because Strasbourg changed hands so many times, particularly in the World War era, there was a lot of confusion over nationality. After the First World War, French was the official language, and that language was pushed aside with the Nazi occupation in 1940. When Strasbourg was liberated, people were so disoriented by the frequent changes in language that they defaulted to Alsatian, a local dialect of German with a strong French influence, rather than French or German. Our guide described how Alsatian was spoken by his grandparents and their generation because citizens of Strasbourg didn’t know which country they really belonged to when World War II ended. In our guide’s parents’ generation,  Alsatian was sometimes spoken because of anti-German feeling. Our guide’s generation has, remarkably, left much of that baggage behind, in large part due to the unifying policies of the European Community and EU.

We skipped the optional Alsatian wine tour offered by Viking in order to stay in Strasbourg. When I booked the Viking cruise, part of the reason was that I wasn’t sure how easy it would be for me and Laura to get around in Europe on our own, and I wasn’t sure if we wanted to keep moving from place to place with all of our luggage. As it turned out, navigating Europe’s train system was very easy, and moving the luggage from hotel to hotel wasn’t so bad. We preferred the freedom of touring on our own to the restrictions of touring with a group, mainly because – news flash – neither of us is very receptive to direction.

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You can’t make me look at that cathedral.

Strasbourg’s Notre Dame Cathedral is in the center of the Old Town (all of which is a UNESCO World Heritage site), and within the Old Town, the cathedral really isn’t visible until you reach the main square. Taking advantage of our freedom from Viking’s authority, Laura and I decided to climb the tower of the Cathedral to be able to see the whole city center.

Before tackling those 330 steps, we would need Second Breakfast.

Before tackling those 330 steps, we would need Second Breakfast.

European Old Towns are astoundingly inaccessible to people with disabilities. Obviously, it would be hard to put an elevator in a centuries-old cathedral, but even newer buildings lack ramps.

Around noon, we started the cathedral ascent.

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Stairs AND a railing. This is luxury.


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Hey, flying buttresses!


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The top of the top.

The very top of the cathedral is the bell tower, which tourists aren’t permitted to climb.

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Still, we were pretty high up.

Strasbourg’s covered bridge also provides great views of the city, and there are far fewer stairs to climb.

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It started raining around that time, so we had a lunch of potato pancakes. One of the great decisions that we made was to buy a European sim card for Laura’s phone, which gave us plenty of data to do things like Google items on European menus and ask Siri where the hell we were.

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‘Siri, is it considered creepy in Europe to ride a carousel if I don’t have any children with me?”

We had plenty of time to tour the city and blend in with the locals.

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Strasbourg has a Historical Museum, which I coerced Laura into seeing with me.

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Strasbourg’s history is European history in microcosm. Virtually every major event that touched Western Europe had an impact on Strasbourg. Gutenberg lived in Strasbourg and may have invented the printing press there, Reformation-era Strasbourg was one of the first cities to embrace the teachings of Martin Luther, and the list goes on. Some highlights from the museum:

  • Strasbourg’s experience under Louis XIV is a great illustration of the limits of absolutism. Louis didn’t enforce the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, which ended toleration for Protestants, in Protestant Strasbourg, and Strasbourg remained a “free city” with many of its own laws and regulations for decades.
  • Some excellent depictions of “everyday” life on objects like stove tiles and in paintings of events like a water joust competition.
  • The section describing the German occupation of Strasbourg during World War II is excellent, providing first-hand accounts of what it was like to live under Nazi rule and the types of things people did to resist the Nazis.

When we left the museum, we took a look in the Cathedral before we had to head back to the boat on the bus.

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After dinner back on the ship, Laura and I had a chance to cross the pedestrian bridge, walking from Germany to France. Amazingly, there are no signs on the bridge to inform people when they have travelled from one country to another. At the middle of the bridge, Laura and I had to estimate where German territory ended and French territory began.

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Next – Colmar and the Black Forest

One thought on “Old Town Tours in Heidelberg and Strasbourg

  1. Pingback: Cathedrals and Kolsch in Cologne and Castles on the Rhine | Endless Odyssey

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