The ride up the Heidelberg Funicular to the city’s famous castle is smooth, quiet, shiny. It wasn’t always that way. Did my grandfather know it then?
Photo of the Week: The Heidelberg Funicular
The Heidelberger Bergbahn (the Mountain Railway) is famous. Everyone wants to visit the glorious ruin of Heidelberg Castle, perched atop a high hill above the city’s Old Town. And no one much wants to walk up that steep hill. I certainly didn’t. It was summer, and hot. I’d already been on a walking tour of Old Town earlier that day. And even a sweet sit-down at an outdoor café with a magically good piece of apple tart and milky coffee didn’t mean I was ready to climb up so far to see the “Schloss.”
I did take a look at the route. Perhaps I just wanted to know what I was avoiding. I saw that I had a couple of choices for hoofing it. I could walk up a steep, winding path. Or I could climb a staircase—a very long staircase, with 315 steps. And just so you don’t forget how far you still have to go, the steps are numbered for you. That apple tart was sitting heavier in my stomach as I contemplated that staircase.
So no, I had no urge to climb that day. Off I went to examine option two, the famous Heidelberg funicular. Much better!
I love funiculars. Something about the steep ascent and the oddly canted cars speaks to me, I suppose. And besides that, I had purchased a Heidelberg Card, the pass that gets you significant discounts on city attractions plus free rides on the public transportation system. Included with my card was a combination ticket for entrance to the castle grounds and a round-trip funicular ride to get you up there and back.
While waiting the few minutes for the funicular car to descend to us, I checked out the fascinating photo exhibit about the history of the Heidelberg funicular. And that is when it became just a bit magical for me.
The funicular first opened in 1890, when my grandfather was a 10-year-old boy growing up in this beautiful city. Unfortunately, I never knew him; he died when my own father was a very small child. But now, in his city of birth, I felt like I was starting to learn him, just a bit. As I’d wandered the narrow lanes of Old Town, I felt him walking beside me, gently touching my elbow now and then to whisper, “Look over there, girl. I used to know the owner of that shop. He gave me sweets after school. And there, that corner, we must turn there and I will show you something wonderful.”
From the photo exhibit, I learned how the original Heidelberg funicular operated, and I thought it ingenious.
There are two cars—one to go up while the other is coming down. Originally, each car was fitted with a tank that could hold eight cubic meters of water. At the top, the water tank of the car heading down was filled. That much water is heavy, and once the brake was released, the extra weight caused the car to descend. As it dropped, it pulled the cables that caused the bottom car to rise. At the bottom, the water was drained out and pumped back up to the top again through a steam-powered pumping system.
Today, the trains are electrified. There are two distinct stages of the funicular, lower and upper. The first stage delivers you to the entrance to the majestic ruined castle. It’s all shiny and new now, with smooth lines in stainless steel outlining the modern rolling stock. The cars are less than a dozen years old with five comfortable passenger compartments that can carry 100 people at a time. There are large panoramic windows so you can get the whole benefit of the view. They are even heated for winter trips.
The second stage, opened in 1907, did not exist when my grandfather might have been here. It is not so shiny new. In fact, it uses the original wooden cars, though completely refurbished and very charming.
I took those Victorian-era cars as my mental model on the ride up to the castle. And on that ride, I began to wonder….
Remembering the Unknown
Had my grandfather ridden up this steep, 41% gradient in a wooden car as a child, some 125 years ago? Did my great-grandfather perhaps bring the whole family here on a Sunday outing, after church of course, to see this modern marvel?
Or maybe a few years later…. When he was 16, did my grandfather, Michael Meyer, ride up the steep hill in this very place, maybe with his sister Clara beside him? Or perhaps even with a sweetheart? Did that almost-a-man teenage boy feel the need to visit the castle and, more importantly, look down on the beautiful city and the gently curving Neckar River below? Did he count the arches in the ancient stone bridge crossing the river? Did he memorize the line of the trees on the other side?
Did my grandfather need to go up there that day to say good-bye to the city of his birth, knowing he would never see her again, before he got on a boat to America?
I rode up, I looked at the city below, at the river and the bridge and the line of trees. And I wondered….
A combined ticket for a round-trip ride on the Heidelberg funicular and entrance to the castle grounds, the pharmacy museum and the giant wine barrel, cost 7€ in summer of 2016. If you purchase a Heidelberg Card, these tickets are included, as is a pass for unlimited use of the city’s public transit system. The Heidelberg Card is available at the Tourist Information Office directly in front of the central train station. The summer 2016 price was 15€ for a one-day card or 17€ for two days.
To get to the Kornmarkt funicular station, take a #33 bus from the central train station or the Bismarkplatz and get off at the “Rathhaus/Bergbahn” stop. You will be directly in front of the new and modern funicular station on your right. Funicular trains run every 10 minutes.