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Old Heidelberg: the essence of Romantic Germany

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 8, 1984

Heidelberg, West Germany

Organ music wafting outside the Gothic Church of the Holy Ghost here is invaded by the daily chimes of Town Hall Tower and a cacophony of clocks striking the hour.

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The sounds of Bach sift gently under the scents of flowers and fish on sale at the open-air Marktplatz. A glockenspiel plays folk melodies. Street musicians compete with antique store window displays for crowd attention.

As we stand smack dab in the heart of this baroque Old City, the ruins of Heidelberg Castle - for five centuries the glittering residence of the Palatinate prince electors - peer eerily over our shoulders. In front of us is the ever-somnolent Neckar River, churned slightly by a small dam upriver and carrying everything from swans and kayaks to slow-moving barges. In every direction are mountains, forests, vineyards.

This is indeed romantic Germany.

The vendors' cries and fountain splashes that echo out of this market on the Hauptstrasse (main street) became my favorite memories of Heidelberg. But they were not on the list of three main reasons that 550,000 tourists flock here each season, as I found on my next day's guided tour of the city.

Those reasons are the castle (until 1803 the home of German emperors); the University of Heidelberg, the oldest university in Germany (1380); and the area's heritage as home of Germany's Romantic movement.

Poets, writers, artists, and musicians flocked here in the early 1800s to overthrow the French culture that had dominated Germany since the Thirty Years' War (which ended in 1648). The castle, long out of favor because it was not in keeping with the rococo age, became German Romanticism's new symbol. ''With its old moats, jagged turrets, and memories of court troubadours,'' writes Harry B. Davis in ''What Happened in Heidelberg,'' ''it epitomized the medieval spirit which the Romantics sought to recall to life.''

It was here, then, that old country sagas and folk tales were revived. Old German paintings were rediscovered and German songs and music studied afresh. Artists painted the plush, wooded landscapes, and poets penned anew.

Since Romanticism led to the emergence of a German national consciousness, a host of songs and poems were dedicated to the movement's birthplace, Heidelberg. Those included Matthisson's ''Elegy'' (1796) and Holderlin's ''Ode to Heidelberg'' (1799). Goethe visited the city eight times and lost his heart to Marianne von Willemer, who composed a poem in 1824 in memory of their meeting. Carl Maria von Weber was inspired to write his opera, ''Der Freischutz,'' Robert Schumann turned from painting to composing, and Sigmund Romberg composed the music for ''The Student Prince.''

The list goes on and on. But it was the Romberg operetta that made Heidelberg perhaps the best-known German city among Americans. ''The Student Prince,'' first produced in 1924, became more successful on Broadway than anywhere in Germany.

The best way to see the modern remains of what stirred the German Romanticists is the guided bus tours that leave daily from the Bismarckplatz at the Old City's edge at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. When you're through, you'll want to take a walking tour of the Old City, taking in as many sights as you can; and don't miss Philosophers' Walk, a hillside promenade on the opposite bank of the Neckar.

The castle is a must, of course, as is the funicular cable car that goes well beyond the castle up to the Konigstuhl observatory, where you can see for miles.

Don't worry when you see the Woolworth's while waiting for your tour bus at Bismarckplatz. This part of the city is ''new'' Heidelberg. Until 1880, our guide says, it was a large meadow. The Old City and Old University stretch about a mile in the other direction and are protected by architectural laws banning any new buildings.

Over the past 20 years, over 250 million deutsche marks (about $125 million) has been spent on renovation of town and university buildings. Other major changes in the past decade include making main street a pedestrian mall, building underground parking garages, and diverting the tram cars around the Old City.

The director of tourism here told me the proliferation of schnell imbiss (fast food) restaurants is one of the most noticeable changes in Heidelberg over the last 10 years - traceable to the large student population and frequent visits by school-age groups from all over Germany.