Heidelberg’s Old Town with the castle looming above

I’ve wanted to come back to Heidelberg for a very long time. I came here first in the mid-1970s when I was in the Navy stationed in Naples and my brother was in the Army in nearby Wiesbaden. I remember it as this beautiful old college town on the Neckar River.

Fast forward forty-plus years and I finally made it back. I certainly didn’t see anything that I remembered as it’s at least possible that things change over the decades. It is, though, still a beautiful old college town. The University of Heidelberg was founded in 1386 and thus is one of the oldest universities in the world. Its nearly 40,000 students account for a quarter of Heidelberg’s residents and as a result the city has a wonderfully youthful sense about it.

Mat & Mark sitting along the Neckar River

From my perspective there were two main attractions here, the old castle and the Philosophers’ Walk. The old castle looms over the city. Built originally in the early 15th century it was variously expanded and destroyed as peace and war alternated in the 16th and 17th centuries. When the local prince tried to rebuild the castle in 1764 lighting struck – literally – and ended any efforts to restore the castle. Today the ruins are evocative and even romantic. So romantic, in fact, that while we were wandering around the gardens a guy next to us knelt down and proposed to his girlfriend! (She said yes….)

Mat & Mark up in the remains of the castle

The other highlight was the Philosophers’ Walk. Across the Neckar from the old town but on the university side of the river, the pathway offers great views of the city and castle and is supposedly where the ancient university’s scholars would walk and talk. Today the path leads to the top of Heiligenberg, the hill opposite Heidelberg proper, to ruins of an 11th century monastery. It made for a wonderful climb on a summer afternoon.

The view of Heidelberg and the castle from the top of Heiligenberg (Saint’s Mountain)

Not such a highlight was the University. I was expecting to find some campus with beautiful old buildings that had withstood all the turmoil Germany experienced in the 20th century. Maybe it’s there somewhere, and there are pictures on the web I can find of beautiful old buildings, but the part of the campus I found was as ugly as anything one could imagine. Just these horrible 1970s- or 1980s-era buildings with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Sad.

Some of the ugly buildings on the University’s modern campus

One more view just to show I’m not exaggerating

The Old Bridge across the Neckar River

A view of the town and river from the castle

Up in the castle stands the world’s largest wine cask. That’s Mat above it, looking pretty small in comparison.

Mat & Mark in the town square

We can always find good food, including this lovely summer salad

Mat had his first burrata cheese in Heidelberg. It was a hit.

Pretty fancy, huh?

En route up the Philosphers’ Walk

And an old tower at the very top

One more view of the river and Old Bridge

As we were leaving Heidelberg we came across this window display. Perhaps the strangest ever.

The first sighting of the Kölner Dom from inside the train station is gasp worthy

The most rewarding responsibility of being a gruncle (that’s great uncle) is exposing your nephew to his first travel experiences in Europe. And we’re on a roll now.

One surprisingly modern window lets brilliant light into the cathedral

From Mat’s first European destination of Amsterdam, we took him on his first international European train adventure to Cologne, Germany. And that’s where we had the chance to see his first great European cathedral, the Kölner Dom. (I’ll admit, we almost studiously avoided the relatively austere Protestant churches of Amsterdam so the first one would have maximum impact.)

Our guidebook calls the Kölner Dom “the Mt Everest of cathedrals.” With its soaring towers of gothic stone tracery, it is a stunner. Mat actually let out something of a gasp when he first sighted it through the panoramic windows from inside the train station. And he gushed appropriately at the cavernous interior. And struggled for breath as we climbed the hundreds of steps to the viewing platform in one of the towers.

We’ve had a lot of firsts on the food and beverage front, too, and Mat is really a trooper when it comes to trying new things. He is willing to try anything. And he ends up liking most things. And being pretty crazy about a surprising number of the odd things we are sending his way. Aside from lots of Dutch and German specialties, we’ve already been through Argentine, Italian, and Lebanese meals as well. We intend to throw quite a bit of other new cuisines his way. And we haven’t even gotten to France yet!

The imposing facade of the cathedral dwarfs everything else in central Cologne

Made it to the top of the tower climb

Looking up toward the tips of those incredible stone towers

First German beer! And it was a little bigger than we expected, but don’t worry, he didn’t finish it.

In German this is the Rathaus, perhaps an appropriate name for City Hall

Cool public art

Coffee break with dramatic cathedral backdrop

A wonderful bike ride along the Rhine on a beautiful summer day

And a night shot of the Kölner Dom

That glorious facade one more time

Mark & Mat toast his arrival. Mat’s drinking a Karne Jus, orange juice and buttermilk. Thus we learned right from the start that he’s an adventurous eater.

Here’s what’s weird about Amsterdam. I’ve spent a lot of time here. On a number of occasions, particularly 10 or even 20 years ago, I would do long-haul flights with connections through Amsterdam both on work trips alone and on vacation with Mark. It was super easy to get into the city from the airport so I or we would go in, go to a museum, have breakfast and/or lunch, walk around, just your general tourist stuff. But I had never spent a night there. Finally, that oversight has been corrected.

We had four nights in Amsterdam, two on our own and two with my great-nephew Mat who will be traveling with us for two weeks. And again I was reminded what a great city this is for walking around. The canals are beautiful, there are almost no cars, and the weather is usually temperate. Things have changed somewhat, though, since I was last here. The pot was legal then, but it’s even more common now; just walking down the streets you’re regularly smelling it. Global warming has certainly struck more intensely too: it was up in the 90s for two of our days here, way too hot for a city like this. And way, way too hot to take a boat tour of the canals in an open boat as we did.

The canals this time of year are beautiful

Some things don’t change, though, including two of the great art museums you’ll ever go to. The Rijks Museum (National Museum) has an awesome collection that, not surprisingly, focuses on Dutch art. Rembrandts for days but Vermeer and Steen and lots more. It was easy to spend three hours here and wish you could come back the next day.

This was my favorite from the Rijks Museum, a painting Rembrandt did of his son Titus dressed in a monk’s cowl. The audio guide explained that by this point in his life Rembrandt had declared bankruptcy and was actually working for Titus, as in his employee. Strange.

But the next day was the Van Gogh museum and that was every bit as good. Just an amazing collection of his work with excellent descriptions and a great audio guide. At some point you just had to wonder what the value of the collection would be. A Van Gogh that sold in 1990 for $82.5 million would be, just adjusting for inflation, $150 million today. And there must have been a couple hundred of his pieces there. You do the arithmetic.

And a really unusual piece from the Van Gogh museum. He painted this Japanese-influenced piece as a gift for his beloved brother Theo on the birth of Theo’s first son, whom he named Vincent. And that Vincent was the founder of the museum. Shortly after finishing this, though, the elder Vincent committed suicide. Terrible story, and we were reminded that Van Gogh created this incredible body of work in just ten short years. Truly remarkable.

Four days and then it was south to Cologne. We’re spending two weeks with Mat and, for him, making a series of much shorter stops so he can taste a bit more of Europe during his two-week holiday than if we did our normal three- and four-night stops. So from here on out it will be a series of two-nights stops in Germany and France before we get to Paris. Paris, naturally, deserves four nights even if you’re 14 and in a hurry to see Europe.

Mat in front of a multi-media illustration of one of Van Gogh’s most famous self portraits.

A portrait of Gerard Andriesz Bicker reminds us that obesity is not strictly a modern phenomenon

And there was food. We went to lunch twice at a seafood restaurant that offered this wonderful “plateau” of seafood

One of the most remarkable things about Amsterdam is the number of bikes everywhere. This multi-level bike parking area near the train station must hold thousands of bikes. Walking around the city you really don’t have to worry about cars – there just aren’t many – but you have to be very careful about accidentally stepping into a bike lane. That could get you killed.

Lots of flowers in Amsterdam


Another hollyhock

Parkland near the Rijks Museum

Amsterdam: bikes and canals

Canal life is good

We did a lovely hour-long tour on the canals. Unfortunately the temperature was in the 90s and the boats go too slow to generate a breeze so we baked.

An artsy view of a canal

And a bike

And more canal

Lunch at an Italian place led to this!

Mark & Mat getting ready to board Mat’s first international train as we head down to Germany