Nestled in a wooded gorge on the River Neckar, the university town of Heidelberg boasts a roster of sights that has inspired many great men: Goethe waxed lyrical about its beauty; Turner was so bewitched he captured it for posterity; and Benjamin Disraeli fell for its “exceeding loveliness” for here “the romantic ruggedness of the German landscape unites in perfect harmony with the delicate beauty of Italy”. So effective was this PR, that today three million tourists a year arrive, and for many Heidelberg remains the must-see of a Grand European Tour, just as it was for the nineteenth-century Romantics.
Ironically, they had stumbled upon a town down on its luck. French troops ravaged Heidelberg during the War of the Palatinate Succession in 1688 and Louis XIV returned five years later to deliver a blow of such force that writer Nicolas Boileau suggested Jean-Baptiste Racine inform the Académie Française “Heidelberger deleta”. To cap its tale of woe, Palatinate elector Charles Philip left in favour of Mannheim after the Protestant stronghold refused to embrace Catholicism, so demoting ravaged Heidelberg to just another provincial town.
The Wittelsbach ruler, Frederick V, commissioned his ornamental gardens to charm his uppity English bride, 19-year-old Elizabeth Stuart, daughter of James I, and to surprise her, says local lore, he erected overnight the Elisabethentor (1615) to the west of the Schloss terrace. Poor Frederick. Few of his attempts to impress succeeded. Four years later, against better advice, the impetuous 24-year-old was crowned King of Bohemia and so declared a threat by the mighty Habsburg dynasty. The clash proved a disaster, both for him – his forces were routed by Emperor Ferdinand II, and the “Winter King” was stripped of all his titles – and for Europe, igniting the tinderbox of resentments that became the Thirty Years’ War.