The Great Wine Barrel of Heidelberg

I hiked up the steep road winding its way up to the castle. The morning cold was taking my breath away.

Heidelberg Castle view
The castle is on the hill above the old town.

As the hotel clerk told me, visiting Heidelberg Castle (Heidelberger Schloss) at the end of winter meant I wouldn’t have to share it with hordes of Asian tourists in their tour group hats. It also meant the funicular train from the Altstadt up to the top of the hill was closed for maintenance.

I huffed and puffed my way across the cobblestones as the path wound its way around and up the hill. The physical effort was worth it once I saw the view of the town and the Neckar River.

Altstadt of Heidelberg
The Altstadt of Heidelberg, Germany.

The castle was originally built in 1214, expanded greatly in the 1400s and 1500s, and partially destroyed by two lightning strikes and multiple battles.

Mark Twain described it in his 1880 travel book called A Tramp Abroad:

“A ruin must be rightly situated, to be effective. This one could not have been better placed. It stands upon a commanding elevation, it is buried in green woods, there is no level ground about it, but, on the contrary, there are wooded terraces upon terraces, and one looks down through shining leaves into profound chasms and abysses where twilight reigns and the sun cannot intrude. Nature knows how to garnish a ruin to get the best effect. One of these old towers is split down the middle, and one half has tumbled aside. It tumbled in such a way as to establish itself in a picturesque attitude.

Heidelberg castle
A dry moat protects the inner structures.

Then all it lacked was a fitting drapery, and Nature has furnished that; she has robed the rugged mass in flowers and verdure, and made it a charm to the eye. The standing half exposes its arched and cavernous rooms to you, like open, toothless mouths; there, too, the vines and flowers have done their work of grace. The rear portion of the tower has not been neglected, either, but is clothed with a clinging garment of polished ivy which hides the wounds and stains of time. Even the top is not left bare, but is crowned with a flourishing group of trees & shrubs. Misfortune has done for this old tower what it has done for the human character sometimes – improved it.”

That was a better literary description that I could ever write.  Thanks Mr. Clemens.

After going through the main gate, I entered the deserted courtyard. Since the castle was built and destroyed at times over the centuries, the architecture is varied.

Heidelberg Castle wall.
Inside view of a Heidelberg Castle wall.

Seeking some warmth, I headed for the wine cellar. A large café welcomes tourist groups with apfel strudel and bratwurst, wine and coffee. At one end of the cellar is the Great Heidelberg Tun – a gigantic wine barrel.

The great Heidelberg wine barrel. That's a lot of wine!
The great Heidelberg wine barrel. That’s a lot of wine!
drinking man
Guten abend Herr! What are you drinking?

The barrel is so big (a grosse fass in German) I felt like Mickey Mouse in that animated classic Mickey and the Beanstalk. The wine barrel must be owned by a giant. I was afraid the giant might be coming to eat me.

The barrel was built in 1751 to hold up to 58,000 gallons of wine that was contributed by local landowners as a tax on agricultural production. It is reputed that 130 oak trees were used in its construction. A few years after it was built the barrel started leaking and it has been used only as a tourist attraction ever since.  When Napoleon’s army captured the castle, the French soldiers believed the empty wine barrel to be full of wine; their hatchet marks are still visible on the barrel.

If this was a barrel of monkeys, how many would fit inside?


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