In an abandoned, Nazi amphitheatre at the summit of Heidelberg‘s Holy Mountain, bonfires burn bright on Witches’ Night. On April 30th, young students from the university town of Heidelberg make the long hike up woodland paths for a glorious night of fire-eating, twirling and juggling. Drunken revelry, drum circles and candle-lit picnic spreads makes for one hullabaloo of a party, though nobody’s really sure of what they’re celebrating. Lucky for us, our well-timed visit Heidelberg allowed us to witness this witch-repelling tradition first-hand.
We arrived late one evening via cheap Flixbus into the lovely, riverside town of Heidelberg. Our gracious couchsurfer host, Roman, met us at the station and took us straight home, telling us about the quirks of Heidelberg along the way. Crammed into his flat were blow up mattresses, blankets, and backpacks from the countless couchsurfers Roman would not say no to. As crowded as it was, we were extremely grateful for Roman’s willingness to give up his personal space to host broke travellers. Heidelberg is a hot tourist spot in southern Germany, attracting 3.5 million visitors a year, and I can’t imagine the amount of couchsurfing requests Roman receives every day. I’m still amazed by the benevolence of our hosts!
Our first day in Heidelberg was bright and beautiful. We leisurely wandered the old town’s cobblestone streets, sprawled along the Neckar river, stopping in at historical monuments and a Lindt chocolate shop.
As we were leaving the Church of the Holy Spirit, we were accosted by the old caretaker, with whom we entered into heavy negotiations on whether or not to climb the bell tower. Finally she dropped the price of admission and we had reached an agreement, even though we weren’t going to climb the tower in the first place. What a saleswoman! After answering questions three to get past the two gargoyles flanking the entrance, we climbed to the top of the bell tower and got a 360 degree view of Heidelberg’s romantic cityscape.
Since it was such a pleasant day, we decided to take a hike up the Holy Mountain to find the Thingstätte, an abandoned stadium rumoured to lie at the summit. Countless trails crisscrossed through the forest’s greensward alleys, and after losing our direction several times we finally found what we were looking for.
The Thingstätte is a massive arena left over from the Third Reich. In the 1930s, the Nazi government built 40 of these open-air theatres across the country for rallies and propaganda presentations. The Heidelberg Thingstätte, designed to hold up to 15,000 people, was meant to act as a “Thing“, a Nordic/Germanic meeting place from ancient times. With weeds creeping through the cracks in its deteriorating stones, I felt like the Nazi ampitheatre gave off a “lost city” sort of vibe.
Very close to the amphitheatre are the ruins of a much older structure: the Monastery of St. Michael. The monastery was built in 1023 upon the ruins of a Roman temple, dedicated to Mercury. In 1503 the church was completely abandoned after the last three monks were crushed by a collapsing steeple. We enthusiastically clambered through its leftover towers and broken hallways, imagining how glorious the monastery used to be.
In the morning of the next day our host Roman told us that we would have to climb the Holy Mountain again for the celebration of Walpurgisnacht, or “Witches Night”. Today Walpurgisnacht honours the English Saint Walpurgis (c. 710–777/9), but the tradition harks back to long forgotten pagan festivals which celebrated the coming of spring. In German folklore it is said that on the eve of May 1st witches gather on broomsticks to plot and scheme nefariously. In response, villagers would also meet and light bonfires to chase the witches away, burning straw effigies of witches to weaken their powers.
Before the night of revelries with fire, we decided to pay a visit to the Heidelberg Castle on the other side of the river, a red-sandstone fortress dominating the old town. Once a beautifully ornate, Renaissance palace, Heidelberg castle has been battered into ruin through the throes of time. After being repeatedly attacked by the French in the late 1600s, and then devastated by a series of lightning strikes in 1764, the palace is looking a bit rough around the edges. Large chunks of the outer defences are missing, but most of the interior facade has been completely restored, displaying classical Greek elements and Gothic architecture. The castle’s numerous rooms are fully furnished with items from another age, including a medieval scullery and apothecary. The Apothecary Museum has a fascinating collection of herbs, tonics, laboratory equipment and possibly a unicorn horn. The greatest of all wonders, however, is to be found within its cellars: the worlds largest wine barrel. Standing seven metres tall and built from one hundred and thirty oak trees, this epitome of human ingenuity can hold up to 220,000 litres of wine. The Heidelberg Tun even has a dance floor built on top for when the wine and cheese party reaches a whole new level.
As the sun slid lower in the sky, we bid adieu to the red sandstone beauty on Königstuhl Hill and prepared for a party across the river on Holy Mountain. Back at Roman’s apartment, the place was filled to the brim with couchsurfers from Italy, England, and of course Canada; old and new friends gathered together for a night of combustible celebration. As we made the hike back to the summit of Heiligenberg, hundreds of people made the pilgrimage with us, bearing torches to repel the darkness. We were swept along with that river of fire which snaked through the forest and ended at the old amphitheatre– long abandoned but now renewed with life.
The Thingstätte was already packed with drum circles and campfires, while the stands were covered with tea candles and partiers setting up for the long night. In the centre of the theatre was a massive bonfire where a clump of people gathered, singing and laughing and trying to forget that witches were abroad this night. Though I was dazzled by the display of fire twirlers and fire breathers, my eyes kept drifting back to the main fire, where I swear I saw witches flying away in the black smoke.