Heppenheim was one of those beautiful places that caught our eyes as we passed on Autobahn 5 so many times, that one weekend we decided to pay it a visit. It was perched temptingly along the German Bergstrasse (ridge road) midway between Frankfurt (Main) and Mannheim. Both its castle and cathedral were clearly visible from the highway, but set enough into the hillside that it looked peaceful and undisturbed. But Heppenheim was in a perfect crossroad, at the western entrance to the mountainous forest region known as the Odenwald, home to such beautiful Hessian towns as Erbach and Michelstadt.
We drove there on a cool, hazy Saturday afternoon. We began the tour by seeking out the castle, called the Starkenburg, shown in the first photograph. The Starkenburg was like many castles along the Rhein valley, rebuilt and renovated to play the role of tourist attraction. What was unusual about this one was that it served as a youth hostel instead of a museum or restaurant. It was doing good business as there were a number of young people with backpacks wandering around the paths. The castle structure was pretty simple, five or six watchtowers and a wall surrounding the hostel complex and a small parking lot.
The view from the top was terrific. The second photograph shows the best view we had of the Cathedral and the town behind it. The access road to the castle followed across the face of the hill and around the backside, where we marveled at more vineyards and a couple of the surrounding villages. We also noted an observatory on the access road, and a second parking lot sat at the entrance to a Odenwald walking trail network.
We drove back down to the town and parked in the main city garage, located on the main commercial street. The Saturday market was well underway, and the street was crowded with tents. We followed the street toward the ridge, and came upon a nice little boulevard with the town fountain -- marked with a sculpture of a joker (a la found in a deck of cards) sitting on top of a bell -- sitting in front of the city's nicest hotel.
Heppenheim's Altstadt was one of the best among the small towns in the Rhein-Neckar region. Perched on a rolling hilltop yet hidden from the rest of the town, the Altstadt was both quiet and beautiful. The reason why it was 'hidden' was because the former city wall was converted to white buildings with storefronts, not indicating what lay behind. The Wormser Tor, probably formerly a magnificent structure, was now just a simple white archway.
Crossing the Wormser Tor was like entering a whole different world. Instantly, the road inclined sharply and became really tight. The structures changed from modern aluminum and glass to old-style stucco and wood. Parts of the city wall were still original. And we had the perfect view of the Starkenburg from below. We had the pleasure of following several tour groups up that hillside, so the old city was well crowded with people, making the walk a bit more energizing.
The main market square has a full arrangement of half-timber buildings, like those in the third photograph. The building in the center was the Heppenheim Rathaus, while most of the surrounding buildings were souvenir shops, cafés, or restaurants. It was early spring, so the establishments were able to put out the tables and take advantage of the mild (albeit chilly) weather.
We continued through the square to the Cathedral, one of the towers of which could be seen in the left background of the third photo. We had thought the Cathedral was an old, restored building, but in fact it was getting ready to celebrate its 100th year anniversary. As a series of historical photos inside the church showed, it was built on the foundation of an old town chapel, and subsequently was rebuilt and restored through the World Wars. The interior was beautiful, with its gilded pulpit and classic wooden tabernacle.
It was lunchtime, but admittedly we weren't interested in the places on the marketsquare. They looked too touristy. So, we headed back toward the main street (fourth photograph), and found a cute little Greek guesthouse just inside the Wormser Tor that had a very nice and reasonably-priced restaurant. By the end of lunch, the Saturday market had cleared and Heppenheim went mostly quiet.
We really enjoyed Heppenheim. It's a nice place to spend a quiet couple of hours. For those living in the area, it's the sort of clean, charming little town to bring houseguests or visitors.
Trip taken 10 April 2004 -- Page last updated 25 October 2006 -- (C) 2004 Tom Galvin