Heidelberg, A German Story

The news that a German foundation offered me, many years ago, a scholarship to Heidelberg gave me an incommensurable joy and an unrestrained curiosity of knowing places that, for a very long time, I could only associate with the plot of Wilhelm Meyer Förster's play. As it is known, his comedy, The Heidelberg of Yore, pictures a world of partying students from rivaling Burschenschafts, one doesn't know exactly why, with pretty and rather fastidious girls, with duels that invariably end with the traditional cut on the cheek, and in the background an ancient legendary castle, at the foot of which a faceless society seems to have no other worries than to scrape up or to dissolve transient plots and love dramas. When I found out that I could go there too, in a world that, as I believed this time, had nothing to do with the clichés and the stereotypes of my first youth readings, I tried to get informed on how it really looked like. And, as I had no other easier way, I resorted to readings, but much more diverse and from different ages. First, I thought I should check what the Romanian travelers who had explored those places wrote. And, as several decades ago I did some research on Kogalniceanu, I first went to the Letters edition, supervised by Petre V. Hanes. I did right, for it helped me realise that on his trip with the mail coach from Lunéville to Berlin, in a letter to his "old man," dated 16.11/1835, aga Kogalniceanu's son wrote to his parents that he stopped for a short time in that "small borough on the Neckar river, famous for its university and for its botanical garden." And detailing on his impressions, he wrote: "On a mountain at the foot of which this borough is built, the most beautiful ruins of the palace of Bavaria's Palatines can be seen. These walls are now destroyed, but they still impress the traveler with the size and the beauty of the palace. In the courtyard cellar there is the largest hogshead in the world; for it can contain more than 160,000 wine carafes. To get on top of it you must climb sixty big stairs."After more than thirty years, another Moldavian got off at Heidelberg, from an express train. There, Iacob Negruzzi, for he is the man in question, found another Moldavian, namely a "Rosset" – another, Lascar Rosetti, attended law courses about the same time Kogalniceanu made a halt there. Anxious, the new-comer started wandering about and tells us how "in spite of the incredible tiredness that seized me, I was dumbly watching the splendid shores of the Neckar and I was telling myself that I had never seen such a thing before. The wonderful Odenwald, that opens up alongside the Neckar is indeed so wonderful to look at that, in my opinion, is the greatest thing on earth."Naturally, Negruzzi didn't go to Heidelberg just to contemplate the landscape; but because, having passed an exam, he had to be declared doctor "utriusque juris." Actually, the registers of Ruperta Carola, as the HeidelbergUniversity is called, contain many names of Romanian youngsters who studied there. For instance, that of Iakob Stanislaus von Czihak who, as you know, founded in Iasi the first scientific society on Moldavian territory, "Iassyer Medizinischer Leseverein." During my first two trips to Heidelberg, I found on the hotel wall two marble boards in Romanian and in German, which mentioned: "In this building, the great politician and patriot Alexandru Ioan Cuza, the first Ruler of the Romanian United Principalities, lived the last days of his life." The last time I was there they were gone or, who knows, perhaps I didn't see them. But, instead, I was able to walk on Cuzaring, a thoroughfare with intense traffic. And continuing my search, I found – in Vremea (Time) from October 10, 1937 – that Mircea Eliade was also charmed by a certain atmosphere of Heidelberg, revealed to him by an alley on the shore of the Neckar which seemed to him to fully deserve its name: Philosophenweg. "There are places on earth – Mircea Eliade wrote – where you are compelled into feeling and considering the aesthetical, which only then reveals itself as a category of reality. The spiritual geography differs from the concrete geography by this transfiguration of the landscape, by its being turned into category, into calling, into instrument, into revelation. At Heidelberg, the landscape suddenly stops being what it is and becomes, in this shaded area, an 'alley' of philosophers. He who doesn't feel the urge to walk around this place, musing solemnly and academically – doesn't have a philosopher's calling."Thus spiritually prepared for the contact with the Heidelberg from old times, I discovered, obviously, the one from our times. A town that is neither "big" nor "rich," in the common acceptation of this term, that is, having many profitable enterprises, thriving banks, prosperous insurance companies, shining sky-scrapers or staggering traffic, not even an administrative centre. But "the most beautiful of towns" deserves its fame completely. It lies not far away from where the Neckar springs from the Odenwald massif and heads, calmly and majestically, towards the much more agitated area of upper Rhine. At a semi-altitude, on a huge mountain terrace, there reigns almightily, built of red rock, the well-known castle, the most famous ruin in Germany. On the opposite side of the river, there are other hills, densely afforested, dark-green, which in the cloudy days seem almost black; the heavy barges and the white, swift boats swarming with tourists tick regularly on the river stream. Every year, there are three to four million tourists, many from overseas, tempted and charmed by the ineffable harmony between the old town and the adjacent area. The narrowness of the valley does not allow the invasion of the concrete buildings which have to wait, in some few cases, at the gates of Heidelberg, and the inhabitants' love for their town does the rest. The oldest part was carefully preserved, and the newer buildings were beautifully incorporated in its surroundings. The one who settles for merely visiting the castle – mentioned from the 15th century, with its admirable interior yard, with the throne hall, with Ottheinrichs-Bau, with the huge hogshead in the cellar, with the German pharmacy museum – or for watching from up there the towers and the houses of the old town and for lingering in the big park, can't say he saw Heidelberg. Heidelberg can offer everything for everybody: romantic lanes with antique shops, cheap boutiques and little pubs, possibilities to climb at Königsstuhl, where you can see the entire Neckar valley, trips to Stiftneuburg or to the mediaeval ruin of Dilsberg borough, the contemplation of the Homo Heidelbergensis remains or of the famous transcriptions of the ballads from the Middle Ages. All these and much more. However, the soul and the spirit of Heidelberg must be searched especially somewhere else: in the lecture halls, in the seminars and the libraries where thousands and thousands of students from all over the world are learning and training, among the hundreds of professors and their numerous collaborators of various academic ranks. In earlier times, they were especially sons of wealthy men – the first girl admitted to the Heidelberg University, Georgine Sexauer, was registered as late as April 28, 1900 – and even they were few. Nevertheless, they were free of many of the daily worries of students today, who know only from readings about corporations, duels and long drinking parties, with beer and songs. Nowadays, the tens of thousands of students from Heidelberg know very well the prosaic aspects of life, the hunt for a shelter that would offer even a relative peace for study, for in town the rooms are expensive, the art of trying to manage with the stipend – when they have it – , of trying to manage with commuting, when they find a host nearby, but especially of making themselves valued at courses, seminars, exams, when, this way, they can hope to be sent to some specialization or research for a doctoral degree that might secure their future career, since the labor market has become, lately, increasingly narrow and the competition more and more fierce. That is why, naturally, in the masses of youngsters that suddenly overflow the streets and lanes of the town, when the courses begin and finish, one cannot see boys or girls with eccentric haircuts or clothes, but carrying books or suitcases, and if you happen to be close to them and, unintentionally, hear bits of their conversations, you will be surprised to discover that, most of the times, it revolves around the pursuit that brought them there. Excerpted from: Traveling in Time, Hasefer, 2003

by Dumitru Hîncu