Treasures of Heidelberg

Photo by Roman Kraft
Photo by Roman Kraft

Treasures of Heidelberg

by Lauren Bernasconi
Stripes Europe

Beautiful, historic Heidelberg is the perfect destination for a romantic getaway, shopping day trip or fun weekend for the entire family. Learn a little about the city’s traditions, and make a stop at this popular city along the Neckar.

Unique traditions of the Heidelberg Castle

The old capital of the Electoral Palatinate territory under the Holy Roman Empire, Heidelberg is known throughout the world for its romantic castle ruins. While the first indication of castles on the site dates back to 1225, the first reference to Heidelberg Castle dates back to the 1600s. With its largely turbulent history, the castle was severely damaged three times by invading armies and ravaged by fire after being struck by lightning twice in a single night. This last event marked the point of its abandonment and subsequent ruin. Culturally, the castle embodies many traditions and stories, including the annual Castle Illuminations, the great Heidelberg wine
barrel and the legend of Perkeo the Court Jester.

A celebration of ruin and renewal

Every summer, traditionally on the first Saturdays of June, July and September, Heidelberg prepares a spectacular fireworks show centered on Heidelberg’s Castle and Old Bridge (Alte Brücke). A tradition since 1860, the Castle lluminations event begins with the castle slowly glowing red with flares, symbolizing the flames of the multiple misfortunes and specifically its largest periods of destruction by the French in 1689 and 1693. After the flares die down, attention turns to the Old Bridge crossing the Neckar River. An elaborate fireworks display is shot off from the bridge, meant to re-create a similar fireworks event arranged by Elector Palatine Friedrich V. The original event celebrated
the arrival of his newlywed wife, Elizabeth Stuart of England, for the first time to Heidelberg in 1613. Today, the Heidelberg Castle Illuminations attract thousands of guests to the city.

The king of kegs

Within the cellars of Heidelberg Castle sits an impressive and relatively unknown claim to fame for the city. The Heidelberg Tun (Groβes Fass) is considered one of the largest wine barrels in the world. It is specifically known as the Karl-Theodor-Fass, the fourth rendition of the enormous barrel, and was installed in 1751 (the first, known as the Johann-Casimir-Fass, in 1591). When the present barrel was constructed, it was said to have held 221,726 liters (more than 58,573 gallons), but drying has shrunk its capacity to about 219,000 liters (more than 57,853 gallons). Throughout history, the Heidelberg Tun has been famously referenced by multiple authors, including Mark Twain, Jules Verne, Victor Hugo, Herman Melville and Washington Irving. The barrel no longer holds wine, but the public may view the barrel and even climb a stairway to a dance floor installed on top.

Life of wine

From the pages of history, the legendary Perkeo remains the most famous of the Heidelberg Tun’s custodians. Born Clemens Pankert in South Tyrol, Perkeo was an Italian dwarf who caught the interest of Elector Palatine Charles III Philip and was taken to Heidelberg to act as his cupbearer and court jester. His ability to drink large amounts of wine despite his small size, and his classic response to those offering him wine, “Perché no?” (Italian: “Why not?”), earned him the nickname of Perkeo. Due to his knowledge of wine, Perkeo was also given the duty of caring for the wine stocks, and the comical absurdity of a dwarf with a massive thirst for wine looking after the large Heidelberg Tun has not been overlooked by the residents of Heidelberg. There are many amusing stories and songs of Perkeo’s exploits, but by far the most famous describes how after living 80 good years of drinking only wine, he suddenly grew ill. Doctors advised the jester to drink water for the first time, yet ironically after doing so, he died the next day.

In modern day Heidelberg, Perkeo has become an unofficial mascot, traditionally mentioned in songs and festivals, and playfully referenced by institutions, hotels, restaurants and businesses in the region.

If you’re visiting Heidelberg during the winter holiday season, stop by the Christmas market at Marktplatz.

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