It may have taken us four days and as many countries, but eventually we made it to Germany. Not without an unexpectedly boozy night in Luxembourg and nearly being stranded on an abandoned logging trail in the Palatinate forest, but we still made it. Our first stop was the quaint university town of Heidelberg which we visited before cutting through the heart of the forest down to the jewel of saxony, Freiburg.
Seemingly powering through the miles, since arriving into Germany it’s been more relaxed with less time on the road, giving my Fanny a much needed break. The high mileage early on was taking its toll on the van, and even led to a small malfunction in multiple places. The problem first hit in a logging trail. Deciding to go an extremely scenic route in search of a grand viewpoint for lunch, we ended up on an old, battered road once used in the timber industry. It was on this isolated dirt track that Fanny decided that without any revs she would refuse to run, instead resting with an abrupt stall. On such a narrow lane where one-hundred point turns were required, and no signal existed, the frustration became too much and suddenly, she refused to start all together. Stranded, a stint of paddle-boarding and pasta gave the engine time to rest and after another infuriating turn, we were on our way to Heidelberg.
In the van’s current state of not being able to idle, the city centre seemed like the best place to take her through. Cutting out at every traffic light and stretch of traffic, of which Heidelberg has an abundance, we were on the receiving end of many an agitated horn blast.
Having finally crawled into a parking spot we were free to roam about the old town. It’s claims to fame include the oldest university in Germany, which boasts the inventor of the bicycle as alumni, as well as being the location of the discovery of the Heidelberg Jaw, the earliest evidence of human life in Europe which dates back over 500,000 years. More importantly to me and Bani, it was the location of a few beers and a chance to stretch our legs.
Other than our briefly intoxicated stumbling around Luxembourg, we hadn’t had the chance to take in a new town so the charms of Heidelberg seemed appetising. Meandering our way through the centre of the old town, weaving past the renaissance buildings and fountains and the inevitably clueless Chinese we found ourselves at the foot of Heidelberg’s grand castle.
Being a castle, naturally, it was hard to get to. Built with the idea of defending itself against enemies rather than welcoming tourists, the castle sits at the top of a steep hill proudly looking out over the town. The ascent of a million stairs began. The board responsible for the castles care had lovingly numbered each step with the hope people will happily track their progress. In reality the stairs mock you as you stagger slowly upwards. The mid summer heat melted us as we climbed, dismally checking how many steps we had taken hoping that magically we had skipped a few. The sheer scale combined with the taxing temperatures weren’t our only worries. In peak season the stairs are also full of obstacles. On every corner, every rest area and every other step will be another tourist who has failed in their mission to reach the summit. Stopping for water, oxygen and in most cases a photo, the sightseers scatter the staircase to add to the challenge. Refusing to be defeated we weaved through the herds and marched on.
Our efforts were well rewarded when we reached the top. After the required time needed to recover, our senses returned to us and we were greeted with a view along the valley from the old town following the river down to the outskirts. The castle itself was also a marvel. Built over several different time periods it’s a wonderful mismatch of various styles. Due to multiple destructions from wars, lighting strikes and gun powder related incidents it’s required multiple reassembles, but the standout feature has to be the wine barrel. As much as this makes the castle sound rather unspectacular, it’s a pretty epic barrel. So epic in fact, it just so happens to be the biggest in the world. Holding a mammoth 220,000 litres, it was used to store the wine taken as tax from the vineyards and the massive 8.5 metre diameter was used as a dance floor. What’s even better is it was once guarded by the jester of the court, a dwarf nicknamed Perkeo who’s wine drinking abilities were so renowned it is fabled that he died after mistakenly drinking water.
Having competed a fascinating walk around the castle grounds and back through the old town we returned to the van contemplating the idea of mixing a bit of Germany’s finest wine with the petrol. If it kept an alcohol dependent dwarf alive, it could help Fanny.