The town of Heidelberg is well known for its quaint streets, incredible castle ruins, and relaxed vibe. Yet part of it is frequently overlooked by the visitors. And it might just be the most extraordinary one! With supernatural encounters, inexplicable structures, and even a Nazi amphitheater, it is a place of history and legends. So today, let me take you on a tour through the fascinating myths and mysteries of Heiligenberg hill.
The Heiligenberg Hill
Heiligenberg is a hill just north of Heidelberg’s old town, right across the river Neckar. If you have ever been to Heidelberg, you have probably noticed it. In fact, one of the famous attractions in Heidelberg ― the Philosopher’s Way ― is situated on its lower slopes.
That said, most visitors never continue past the Philosopher’s Way. Understandably so ― for a casual observer, Heiligenberg is not much to look at. Just another ordinary wooden hill, one of many that surround the city.
And yet, the history of this seemingly unremarkable mound spans many centuries and traces back to the prehistoric ages. Translated from German as “the Holy Mountain”, Heiligenberg has witnessed the rise and fall of entire settlements and had long been considered sacred ground.
A lot of that legacy remains visible to this day as you walk its calm silent paths. But to understand the deeper meaning behind it, as well as the mysteries that surround it, we must first dive into the history of this baffling site.
The Short History of Heiligenberg
Now, this section might be a little dry but bear with me. I want to give you a bit of a context that will come in handy later in the article.
The important thing to know about Heiligenberg is that people have inhabited it for a very long time. The archeologists discovered traces of civilization here that date back to as early as 5000 BC.
It is widely assumed that the Celts were the first to live here. In the last centuries BC they had a huge fortified settlement on Heiligenberg.
Then came the Romans. They set up forts and stone bridges across Neckar as part of the military campaign. On Heiligenberg, they built shrines and temples atop the earlier Celtic village.
As the middle ages rolled in, the Christians took control. By the early 12th century, the Benedictine monks had not one, but two monasteries on Heiligenberg (the area was called Aberinsberg then).
A hundred or so years later, the Premonstratensian Canons from the All Saints Abbey in the Black Forest succeeded the Benedictines.
However, by the 15th century, both monasteries have fallen into disarray. In 1503, the bell tower collapsed, killing the last remaining three monks.
A period of abandonment followed, during which the University of Heidelberg used the ruins as a quarry. It was not until 1934 that the new construction began there.
This time it was the Nazis, bringing to life a vision of a giant amphitheater. Placed just below where the monastery used to stand, it became a final piece to a puzzling collection of various historic landmarks that currently coexist on Heiligenberg.
Monastery of St. Michael
Now that you are somewhat familiar with the rich and intricate history of the mountain, let us finally head there. And we start our tour at the ruins of St. Michael monastery, right at the heart of the Heiligenberg’s past.
You see, St. Michael monastery (Michaelskloster) was built exactly where the Roman shrines and temples used to be, and the Celtic fort before them.
In other words, this is easily one of the oldest and most intriguing parts of Heiligenberg. Here, entire layers of culture, religion, and beliefs stack on top of each other creating something very unique.
These days, not much remains of the former church, unfortunately. Only the basement walls and the stubs of two former towers are still there. You will have to let your imagination complete the rest.
One thing is clear, though ― it used to be massive. Interestingly, Michaelskloster does not resemble a typical catholic monastery. More akin to a medieval fortress, this strange outlook is a result of many cultures adopting, absorbing, and incorporating what others have created before them.
Those well-versed in history will perhaps make out both Roman and Celtic elements. I will just say that it was really interesting to walk around and explore the tight passages and ancient walls.
Imagining the generations of people living and working here or how the place was is a thrilling experience. And those curious can always compare what they envisioned with the existing models or drawings.
Note that the monastery grounds close on Mondays. Otherwise, they are accessible from 8:00 to 19:00 April to September and 8:00 to 16:00 the rest of the year.
The Watchtower of St. Stephan
A little down the road from St. Michal, a lonely watchtower is a sole reminder of another monastery ― St. Stephan (Stephankloster) ― that once stood here.
In 1090 a Benedictine monk named Arnold, who recently joined the order, built a cell and a chapel not far from St. Michael monastery. The provost of Michaelskloster took a liking to it and four years later added it to the church.
What started as a small outpost eventually grew into a monastery of its own. Sadly, almost none of it survived. The watchtower that currently guards the grounds (Heiligenbergturm) was erected in 1885 out of the rubble of the former monastery.
Despite its relatively modern design, the tower is worth a quick stop. Not the least because it offers a fantastic view of the Heidelberg castle framed by the forest. There is a bench nearby, so have a seat and soak in the beauty.
And when ready, cross the road to find what is arguably the most mysterious and queer of all Heiligenberg landmarks ― the Heidenloch.
Strictly speaking, Heidenloch is nothing more than a hole in the ground with a small garden house on top of it. Unless you know about it, it is easy to rush past without paying much attention.
The rock-cut chute measures 3-5 meters wide and 56 meters deep. These days, it is covered with a latticed lid. You can still get a peek inside, but will not see much ― just a black hole disappearing into nothingness.
If that does not sound too exciting, read on. This little well is a subject of numerous myths, stories, and legends. And I have to say, some of those are pretty fascinating.
For starters, it is unclear who dug it, when, and why. It is obviously ancient, and whoever created it had to put a lot of effort into it. With the tools available back then, digging through the rock was a remarkable feat.
We know that monks of St. Stephan tried using Heidenloch as a well, but that quickly proved impractical. The shaft did not produce nearly enough water and would frequently get clogged and require cleaning.
But whether they created it, is a different matter. Some argue that Heidenloch came into existence much earlier. The name itself reflects that after all ― Heidenloch means Heathen Hole in German.
One theory is that Celts used Heidenloch as a sacrificial pit. In Celtic culture, these symbolized the transition from life to another (under) world. This would, perhaps, explain all the bizarre encounters and beliefs that seem to be associated with Heidenloch.
Let us take a look at some of those.
The Devil Pit (Heidenloch Lore)
“And at that moment I hear a deep, weak voice behind me utter the word ‘Heidenloch’. I turn around. Nobody on the heather; the wind blows, and the moon shines. Nothing else”.
This is how Victor Hugo described his nightly encounter with Heidenloch in 1840. And this was hardly the first time Heidenloch was linked to some paranormal activity either.
The early monks of the Heiligenberg monasteries believed that the Devil himself lived at the bottom of Heidenloch. They reported visions and strange illusions when going down the pit to clean it.
In 1600, geographer Matthis Quad described the story of brother Jakob who descended the well. Below he discovered a room with two doors. The hounds with fiery eyes guarded the entrance.
Another spectacular tale speaks about a white goose that was once thrown into Heidenloch. That same goose was later found on the shores of Neckar, completely black.
Countless other wild theories speculate that Heidenloch is a tomb of a giant, an old Roman storage room, or a cellar of the destroyed Byzantine monastery. My favorite one is that it is a bone room of a destroyed gallows. Chilling, huh?
As recently as 2017, German author Martin Schemm published a book called “Das Heidenloch”. The plot revolves around the mystical beings coming out of the hole to spread fear and terror over Heidelberg in 1907.
I have not personally read it, but if you are welcome to check it out on Amazon.
No matter how superstitious you are, it is clear that for years Heiligenberg was associated with something otherworldly. And so, is it any surprise that the Third Reich became interested in it?
And so we finally arrive at arguably the most controversial of Heiligenberg objects ― the Heidelberg Thingstätte.
The Heidelberg Thingstätte is a huge open-air amphitheater that was constructed on Heiligenberg during the Third Reich in 1934. The intention was to use it for outdoor events, performances, and propaganda.
Interestingly, the idea is deeply rooted in history and folklore. A Thing was an ancient judicial or social gathering of Germanic peoples. It normally happened in an outdoor setting, near rocks, trees, ruins, and hills of historical or mythic significance. So clearly, Heiligenberg was a suitable candidate.
Overall, however, the plan did not really work out. Out of 400 Thing sites, only 40 were completed. Heidelberg Thingstätte was one of the first and more prominent ones.
Joseph Goebbels himself gave a speech here on an opening day. Next to 20000 people gathered that evening to hear what Reich Minister of Propaganda had to say.
But, by 1936 the initiative fell out of favor. The authorities rebranded the theater as a public park and celebration area. Up until recently, it served as an unofficial location for Walpurgis Night parties.
The theater is open around the clock, and you can easily enter and explore it to your heart’s content. Sit down, breathe in the fresh air, and enjoy the surrounding silence and tranquility.
These days, Heidelberg Thingstätte is a popular picnic destination for the locals, and it is easy to see why. It emanates such a laid-back calm vibe that it is honestly difficult to envision the Nazi propaganda ever raging here.
I spent a couple of hours inside, just doing nothing, letting my mind wander. And honestly, I loved the experience.
The Legacy of Heiligenberg History
As I did my research for this article, I couldn’t help but feel amazed by the story of Heiligenberg Hill. Layer upon layers of facts, beliefs, myths, and coincidences all blend to form something truly unique here.
One thing is for certain, however ― Heiligenberg is no ordinary place. The more you learn about it, the more questions arise.
Why did Christians build St. Michael monastery on top of the former Mercury temple which in turn superseded the Celtic burial ground? Is it a coincidence that just like St. Michael, Mercury is a feathered messenger of the gods and a soul companion after death?
Was it simply a case of each religion trying to prove its supremacy or the area itself attracts all things divine? Who created Heidenloch and why? And why did Nazis pick this exact location for their brainwashing?
We don’t have the answers to all these questions and might never find out. But history is full of riddles like that ― fun to ponder, but not always solvable.
What we do know is that the trees and rocks of Heiligenberg bore witness to generations of human emotions, beliefs, suffers, and achievements. And all of it became an integral part of what it is today.
I noticed that walking its forest paths, and contemplating its quiet nature I felt at peace. Perhaps it is no accident that already for two millennia there is an ongoing theme of the sanctuary on Heiligenberg.
Whether true or not, it is definitely a location well-worth visiting and exploring for yourself. I had a blast there and I think you will too.
How to get to Heiligenberg
As I mentioned earlier, Heiligenberg is located just across the river Neckar from Heidelberg’s old town. Therefore, the easiest way to get there is to simply walk.
It will take you approximately 45 minutes to reach it on foot. You will be dealing with some 300 meters of vertical elevation gain, so a bit of stamina is surely necessary.
That said, the ascent is not particularly steep or difficult. Besides, you will be going past the old bridge and the Philosopher’s Way. Both are very popular attractions in Heidelberg, so you can tick those off in the process.
Alternatively, if you have a car, you can always drive there. There is a nice and spacious parking lot a short stroll away from all the points of interest. And it’s free!
Finally, bus 38 will also take you up there. However, you will likely require a connecting transport from Heidelberg center, so it is not quite straightforward. Even so, the travel duration will be between 45 and 55 minutes, in line with walking time.
Google Maps does a decent job displaying the available options, so I suggest using it to plan the trip. Perhaps the best choice is to take public transport up, then enjoy a relaxed hike down to Heidelberg.
Other Useful Information
Not much left to say at this point, but there are a couple of things that did not fit elsewhere in the article but I think are important to cover.
First, plan sufficient time when visiting. You might be thinking: “Oh, it is just some ruins, I will be done with it in under an hour”. Well, you will not be the only one to make that assumption. I am guilty of the same misconception.
The problem is, Heiligenberg is an enigmatic and captivating destination. Thus, it is very easy to underestimate how long you will want to spend there. Personally, I would recommend putting aside three hours to half a day to explore everything up there without a rush.
Secondly, I’d be amiss if I did not mention a great beer garden near the Heidelberg Thingstätte. There is beer, other drinks, and some basic food. Sit inside or buy some takeout to enjoy the picnic in the Thingstätte ― it is all good!
And last but not least ― you can totally visit everything I described above with a dog. So if you happen to have a four-legged companion, take him with you. He will love it!
Heidelberg is truly a town full of surprises. But even among those, Heiligenberg is something special. I never expected much from it, but was mightily impressed.
Generations of people from various periods of human history left their mark on this tiny mound. And as you wander its lovely paths, you cannot help but wonder. Who were they? What were their lives like? What did they leave behind?
I hope that you enjoyed reading this article just as much as I enjoyed writing it. And if you found it helpful or entertaining in any way, please be sure to share it with your friends and others who could benefit from it.
I do have a bunch of other articles on the blog that you might find interesting. Feel free to have a look at some of those as well:
- The Best of Heidelberg – 13 Top Things to Do and See
- Black Forest in Winter: All Saints’ Abbey and Waterfalls
- Photographing Castle Neuschwanstein
- Abandoned Tanks Near Sögel, Germany
- A Day of Landscape Photography in Southern Bavaria
- Three Days in Saxon Switzerland
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And as always, happy shooting and let us meet again soon!
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