For many of us, Mark Twain is the literary Holy Grail. We follow in his footsteps in the vain hope that his wit and way with words will miraculously rub off on us. We visit his childhood home in Hannibal, Missouri; we traipse up to his beloved house in Hartford, Connecticut; we cruise down the Mississippi on a riverboat. And, now we go to Heidelberg, Germany, where Twain once spent several months back in 1878.
Twain's extensive travels were partly for his own amusement, but mostly to earn a living -- either doing research for books or lecturing on tours. In Heidelberg, his exploits -- real and imagined -- are recounted with glee in A Tramp Abroad. Yet, no one is entirely sure why he chose Heidelberg; perhaps because its university is the oldest in Germany (founded in 1386); perhaps because the name comes from the German word "huckleberry mountain" and Twain was struggling to finish The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Or, maybe he just picked it because it's a darn pretty spot.
On the banks of the Neckar River about an hour from Frankfurt, Heidelberg is picture-perfect with its Baroque architecture, red gabled roofs, cobblestone streets, and castle ruins. Once the royal seat of power for German prince electors, the town dates back to 1196. While steeped in history, Heidelberg is not stuck in the past. As a university town, it's bustling with activity. Hauptstrasse, the main shopping drag, is a pedestrian-only stroll, lined with historic pubs and trendy boutiques. This seamless blend of ancient and modern forms the core of its charm.
Since much remains the same, it's easy to retrace Twain's sojourn in Heidelberg on your own or with a tour, "In the Footsteps of Mark Twain."
Twain first stayed at the Hotel Schrieder, now a Crowne Plaza (Kurfürstenanlage 1, tel. +49-6221-9170; www.crowneplaza-heidelberg.de). He looked out on a fancier hotel that is, today, the police headquarters. During the heat of summer, Twain moved to the Schloss Hotel (now a luxury condo under construction) on the hill near the castle.
The castle (www.visit-heidelberg.com) at the top of the hill has Gothic and Renaissance architectural elements. It was started in 1400 and burned by the French in 1689. Twain enjoyed hiking up to the ruins and waited in a downpour to watch the Castle Illuminations. Now, you can ride the funicular up to the castle for a visit and stroll in the gardens. The Illuminations take place three times a year (June, July, September) with a concert beforehand in the Heiliggeistkirche, or Church of the Holy Spirit (www.heidelberg-marketing.de).
Mark Twain liked to sit in on lectures at the university, and he got a kick out of visiting the Studentenkarzer (student jail), in operation from 1778 to 1914 (Augustinergasse 2, tel. +49-6221-543554). The students weren't jailed for getting poor grades but for pulling pranks on the locals. With the Heidelberg Card, you can check out the jail and the university in the Alstadt (old town), along with countless other attractions.
The Zum Güldenen Schaf (Hauptstrasse 115, tel. +49-6221-20879; www.schaf-heidelberg.de) has been a restaurant since 1749, so it's possible Twain had a meal there. If visiting Heidelberg today, he'd find that the Kischka family, who owns the place, has opened the Hip-Hotel (www.hip-hotel.de) right next door, each room done up as a different country. He could still get traditional German fare at the Zum Roten Ochsen (Red Ox), a student pub since 1703 (Hauptstrasse 217, tel. +49-6221-20977; www.roterochsen.de), but there are now lots of international dining options such as Moroccan at Soltana (www.soltana-restaurant.de) in the Hip-Hotel or Cuban at Caravana's Malecón (Mittelbadgasse 3, tel. +49-6221-4339383; www.cubamarket-caravana.de).
In A Tramp Abroad, Twain recounts a fictional raft trip down the Neckar (the inspiration for Huck Finn's later ride). Today, he'd get to cruise the lovely river on a real solar-powered boat (www.hdsolarschiff.com).
Of course, Twain isn't the only writer to have enjoyed a stay in Heidelberg. Luminaries such as Goethe, Victor Hugo, and Ernest Hemingway also passed through. Imagine a conversation between them as you sip a cold one at Hemingway's (Fahrtgasse 1, tel. +49-6221-165033; www.hemingways-hd.de). They'd certainly agree that, while the world has changed, Heidelberg's charm prevails.