Heidelberg, Germany is one of those lucky places that was not bombed during WWII, and celebrates its good fortune with regular festivals. Luckily for visitors, the city has retained much of its Old World charm and is fun to visit. It is a city but a rather small one; easy to drive around but much easier to use a bike. There is a pedestrian center where one can find anything from large department stores to, yes, the Hard Rock Cafe.
The city also has a large castle that was the center of the Palatinate region of Germany. In 1155, Conrad von Hohenstaufen became the Count Palatine. He received the Heidelberg Castle as fief of the Bishops of Worms. It is the photographic center of the city. There are tours of the castle daily in seven different languages.
The Heidelberg University was founded in 1386 which makes it the oldest university in Germany. In 1400, the building of the Church of the Holy Ghost (Heiliggestkirche) began. This is a reformed Lutheran church and is located at the bottom of the hill on which the castle stands, and in the center of one of the town markets. You can walk across the “Old Bridge” to the other side of the Neckar River and hike up the Philosopher’s Way to get some breathtaking views of the castle and city with its grand cathedrals.
Heidelberg is also home to many divisions of the US Army. General Patton was stationed here right after the World War II and died in the Army hospital in Heidelberg. The bases are spread out all over Heidelberg and neighboring towns, making it the first stop in Europe for many Americans.
Airfare to Europe is particularly low during the “off” season, which is from after New Year’s to about the end of June so there are bargains to be had for the “fest” season which begins the first of March. This year, the weather was particularly splendid for all the activities that go along with fests. Most Americans think only of the Munich Beer fest, or “Oktoberfest,” when they envision Germany. However, we have found that the “fests” are a way of life here that makes the culture truly “festive!”
Local Events & Regional Festivals
Four miles north of Heidelberg is a typical German town that is not overrun with Americans and this is where the annual “fest” season begins. Schriesheim is like most of the towns along the Bergstrasse that run along the Odenwald mountain range that forms the eastern edge of the Rhine-Necker Kreis. The slopes of this range are covered with vineyards.
Families who rent a car will find the views beautiful when driving along the Bergstrasse or the A5, which connects Frankfurt to Heidelberg and places south to Basel, Switzerland. By the way, Germany is not a country that uses N,S, E or W on its road signs so you have to know where you are going or what cities are in the direction you want to go.
We thought the “fest” season would take a little break during Lent until Easter. However, Fasching had just ended in mid-February and the festivities picked up again right here in the town of Schriesheim! It seems that for more than 400 years, Schriesheim has been the host of the annual Mathaise Markt Fest the first two weekends in March.
What to Eat & Buy at the Schriesheim Festival
This fest was and is a time for the economy in this region to get a boost — kind of like the United States’ “Black Friday” after Thanksgiving. Originally it celebrated the wish for a big tobacco harvest (tobacco originated in our colonies and was brought to Europe by Columbus) and has changed to being a kick-off for a good wine season. St. Mathaise is the saint who wards off the “ice.” The wine region here includes not only Schriesheim, but many of the neighboring smaller towns along the Bergstrasse.
Besides the wish for a good wine harvest, the town is crowded with booths for those wanting to sell their small items such as candy, food, herbs, bulbs, pots and pans, slippers, and the usual German trinkets. There is a big tent (this is a German style tent that would withstand a small hurricane) for businesses to display and sell their supplies, such as roofing, rolladens (those window darkening things from WWII), windows, doors, tractors, saunas, Bernina Sewing Machines and, of course, beer, food, and lots of other big ticket items. In a second tent is the stage and tables for eating, drinking, and entertaining. This is where the festivities begin.
Glockele is the food of choice (a rooster, I think… tastes like chicken to me) with a roll and, of course, wine. We do a lot better with vegetables in the States. The outgoing Wine Queen and her court arrive to great fanfare with the mayor and other big wigs in the town council. There are speechs (most of which I did not understand) and lots of gifts given. The new queen and her court arrive with even greater fanfare and a room full of sparklers; it seems everyone here knows to bring sparklers for this occasion.
Entertainment at the Schriesheim Festival
They were preceded by the Strahlenburg Trumpeters. The Strahlenburg is the small castle built on the hill in Schriesheim around 1250 by one of the ruling families so they could protect the lands below. The ruins of this castle are visible for miles, especially at night when it is lit up by spotlights. The trumpeters herald not only the opening of this fest but many important events in the town. New Year’s Day is but one example when they stand in the town center and welcome the New Year. The center of town still has half-timbered buildings dating as far back as 1684, cobbled roads and a fountain that is the focus for gatherings.
The first Saturday night of the fest, Germany’s #1 Party Band, Die Lollies, usually plays in the tent. They play all the typical German soccer and party songs. We swayed with the crowds as they consumed more and more wine and got up and danced to the rock ‘n roll portion of each set. After a few of these fests, the songs are very familiar. The Germans also like U.S. Country Western sounds, too. Outside of the tents is where the fun continues with rides and all kinds of food and games. If you can envision the rides and Midway at Seaside Heights or Wildwood, New Jersey you will have a good picture of what a German Fest is like — just add the beer or wine tents!
The fest continues the first weekend with a large parade through the center of this small town. We had a spot with very few bystanders so we were close to all the action. Almost every float, band or group had wine to pass out. These Germans know to bring a cup to the parade; we did not. One wine bearer had cups however. This giving of wine went on for hours. It was fun; we got lots of little candies, cookies, toys and way too much wine. Ah, what a day.
The fest takes Wednesday and Thursday off and picks up again for the last weekend. On the last day of the two-week festival, there is a parade of bands. These are not like our marching bands. Each town, including Heidelberg, has a large group of trumpeters that participate and represent the heralders of centuries gone by. The fest concludes with fireworks in front of the Strahlenburg that rival the Macy’s 4th of July display in New York City. Red spot lights also flash on and off and make the castle appear to be ablaze. And so ends the annual Matthaise Markt fest in Schriesheim, Germany.
Heidelberg’s Annual Festival Calendar
During summer’s first week of June, July and September, Castle illumination and fireworks can be seen from one of the many Neckar River tour boats or from an outside cafe table on the Hauptstrasse (main pedestrian walking zone) that itself has a beautiful view of the castle.
For a special celebration, the end of September marks the Heidelberg Herbst and Medieval Market. The Herbst fest is probably the biggest event of the year in Heidelberg. The Hauptstrasse is so packed with people that you only move with the crowd. I suggest that the parallel streets are a better way to walk; then you can dip into the main street if there is a band you want to hear or a specialty booth you want to visit. Some years, the Herbst (autumn or fall) fest is the same time as the middle weekend of Munich’s Oktoberfest, creating even more reason to celebrate.
Be sure to check the tourism department’s online event calendar prior to planning your visit.
Trip Planning Details for a Heidelberg Escape
One of the popular places to stay in Heidelberg is the Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten, located at Thomas Weil, Haspelgasse 2, 69117 Heidelberg (06221/24164). It is very clean and its location is unbeatable, right at the foot of the “old bridge” and in the center of the Altstadt (Old City).
We stayed there with our son several years ago and found it very nice. The management was very friendly and spoke English. Families will find it very comfortable, even though there are no adjoining rooms. The hotel has many double rooms; additionally, they have one room for a family of five, and four other rooms for four people, plus their single and double rooms. All rooms are priced for bed and breakfast. I’ve heard that they added another guesthouse with six rooms and two vacation apartments, located near the Heiliggestkirche church, another option.
From Heidelberg you can reach Schriesheim by car, bike or the Strassenbahn (streetcar). For more information about the region’s attractions, visit the local Heidelberg Convention & Visitors Bureau site.
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