When the sun has gone down behind the Blue Alsatian Mountains and the last stain of color has faded from the skies of the Rhenish plain, when clock tower has answered clock tower and evening bell responded to evening bell from the mountain streams and mill wheels of the Odenwald to the busy squares of Mannheim, then the quiet and gentle valley of the Neckar takes on a peculiar peace and glory that is exquisite and marvelous, and Heidelberg and its lordly ruins seem set in a veritable fairy-ring of delicate charm and beauty. So tranquil and lovely is this region in the early evening that even the latest comer soon feels a comforting sense of having turned aside from out of the rush and fever of life into a singularly placid and protected corner of earth, a hushed and happy Vale of Tempe. This sense of rest and seclusion is one of Heidelberg’s strongest appeals – and her appeals, though few, are all emphatic. For there are no “sights” here, the castle excepted. The quaint old town is friendly and genial, though not more so than many others of this comfortable German fatherland; nor is the serene Neckar so exceptional as to occasion pilgrimage.
Heidelberg’s appeals are to the mind, the heart, and the senses: the mind is inspired by her impressive achievements in learning; the heart is touched by her tragic history; and the senses are spellbound by the exceptional charm of her natural beauty. She is never so fair as in the early evening. With the soft fall of night each blemish fades away, and what remains to see and feel is altogether rare and lovely.
When the valley clocks are booming nine with muffled strokes it is delightful to be up in the castle’s ruins, lounging on the Great Balcony of the crumbling Friedrich Palace, with a broad coping for a seat and the rustling ivy of the hollow walls for a pillow. Behind and about one is the vast, ruddy wreckage of the knightly halls and towers of this far-famed “Alhambra of Germany,” and fluttering plains of tree-tops are billowing upward on every hand to the dark heights of the Konigsstuhl. On the opposite side of the valley, across the river, dense forests of oak and chestnut glitter in the moonlight, sweeping aloft to the summit of the storied Saints’ Mountain. Just below our balcony the clustered spires and steep roofs of the huddled old town house their fifty thousand happy people between the wooded hillsides and the shimmering Neckar that bands the middle distance, on its placid Rhine journey, like a silver ribbon on a velvet cloak. In its bright waters hills and trees are luminously mirrored, along with the inky, motionless shadows of its bridges and the sober reflections of shuttered house-fronts along its verge.
In the dewy coolness and still of evening the guardian oaks breathe a recurrent lullaby now softly agitated, now as hushed and ghostly and motionless as the hills in which they are rooted; and one understands how such a soothing environment could have softened even the impetuous, fiery, war-loving young Korner to indite so gentle a benediction as his beautiful” Good Night”.
Up in the castle ruins one is seldom alone before midnight, and not even then if the melancholy spectre of Rupert’s Tower is disposed to walk abroad. In the early evening the good people of Heidelberg, kindliest and most contented of Germans, stroll with vast delight under the lindens of the castle gardens, and groups of careless students loiter merrily along the terraces, adding bright touches of color with their peaked caps and broad corps ribbons. Bits of song and bursts of laughter give a homely suggestion of habitation to these staring walls; one could fancy the dead-and-gone old nobles at wassail again, with minstrels in the banquet hall, and Perkeo, the jester, whispering jokes in the ear of the Count Palatine.
“Under the tree-tops,” sang Goethe, “is quiet now.” There is a low sad sound of night breeze in the ivy; a swallow darts through a paneless window; a bat zigzags among the echoing arches of a tower. Like phantom sentinels the stone statues of the old electors stand white and impressive in niches on the palace fronts. Fragrance of flowers drifts in from the castle gardens and the delicate plash of falling water comes from a terrace fountain. The lamps of the city rim the river below, and villas beyond the farther bank are marked by tiny dots of lights in the purple of the groves behind Neuenheim. Across the Neckar-cut gulf of shadow the chestnut-crowned summit of the Heiligenberg stares down solemnly at us, and not all the songs of its blithest nightingales can banish thoughts of its ancient Roman sacrifices nor divert the credulous from vigils over the blue grave lights around the Benedictine cloister where they buried the sainted Abbot of Hirschau. Up through the dark billows of this tree-top ocean rises a strain of Wagner’s music from some cheery, hidden woodland inn – and under the magic spell of the night one could fancy the golden-haired Siegfried approaching on a new Rhine Journey, following the winding Neckar up the broad Rhenish plain; the Tarnhelm is at his belt, the World-Warder Ring on his finger, and the moonlight flashes dreadfully from the glittering blade of ” Nothung” as the hero’s horn winds note of arrival under the walls of our stout castle!
It is especially at such an hour as this that one realizes how easy it is for the man who thoroughly knows Heidelberg to acknowledge a delightful and lifelong bondage. A large number of the most eminent literati of the world have agreed in this. Goethe ascribed to her “ideal beauty.” Macaulay pronounced her environment “one of the fairest regions of Europe.” The father of German poetry, Martin Opitz, loved her dearly in his student days here, three centuries ago, and wrote affectionately of her all the rest of his life. The prolific Tieck found time between novels to lament the destruction of a few of her oaks. Alois Schreiber turned from his poetry and history to grieve over the loss of a lime-tree. Von Scheffel praised her in prose and verse and hailed her in seven songs of his “Gaudeamus.” La Fontaine could not conceive of more ideal surroundings in which to reunite his “Clara du Plessis”and her devoted “Clairant.” G. P. R. James, in his favorite romance “Heidelberg,” wrought prodigies of sentimentality here with the heroic “Algernon Grey” and the emotional “Agnes.” Matthisson immortalized himself by his “Elegie” in these ruins. All who have read Alexandre Dumas’s dramatic “Crimes Celebres” will recall the young fanatic, Karl Ludwig Sand, and his assassination of the poet, Kotzebue, in our neighboring city of Mannheim, but they may not have heard of how Botzebue once said: “If an unhappy individual were to ask me what spot to live in to get rid of the cares and sorrows which pursue him, I should say Heidelberg; and a happy one asks me what spot he would choose to adorn with fresh wreaths the joys of his life, I should still say Heidelberg.”
Goethe loved the Neckar, and scarcely less its famous old bridge. In an interpretative mood he once observed, “The bridge shows itself in such beauty as is perhaps not to be equaled by any other in the world.” And, indeed, it is an easy thing to divide enthusiasm between bridge and river. Nothing is jollier than loafing against the broad balustrades of this solid old veteran, as the students love to do, and lazily take note of the river’s tinted reflections, the ripple and eddy about the piers, the mirroring of the arches in perfect reverse, and watch the deep green shadows of the hills creep out and steal across. Great rafts come downstream laden with the output of the Odenwald and Black Forest, and swift steamers hurry under the massive arches bound upstream for the mountain towns or downward to Mannheim. Ferries ply beside it, fishermen drift beneath it, and throngs of townspeople and countrymen stroll along it, with now and then a be-petticoated peasant girl from the Odenwald whose fair hair is hidden under a huge black coif. How redolent it is of Rhenish life! One lingers beside the great statue of its builder, the old Elector, and gazes with unwearying satisfaction on the strange mediaeval gateway, loopholed and portcullised, and wonders where two other such queer round towers can be found with such odd bell-shaped capitals and such slender little spires. Terrible and tragic experiences have befallen this sturdy old hero, and its antique towers are pitted from the riddling of French and Swedish and German bullets. Fire has swept it, cannon shaken it, floods grappled with it, and blood drenched it from shore to shore. Wan processions of faminestricken people have dragged themselves across its paving-stones, and its gateways have reechoed with groans and prayers and curses. To-night we see it as defiant as ever, battle-scarred and unshaken, with “head bloody but unbowed,” striding its river with broad and shapely arches – as real a part of Heidelberg as the very hills above it.