There is something magical about standing somewhere and being able to see the past all around you. Imagining someone else standing there, in that same spot, hundreds of years ago.
I had a taste of this as a child, visiting the Living History Farms in Iowa. At these farms, I was immersed in a visual, interactive explanation of how the Midwest farmlands developed over the past 300 years or so. I got a real sense of how things used to be, how they worked. It’s the same feeling I got, as a slightly older child, when my family took a trip to Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. I could see more or less how things used to be, make up stories for the people who may have lived there. (It helped that, at the time, I was in love with my Felicity American Girl doll — seriously one of the most effective ways for teaching me American history.)
My sense of history (or at least its scale) was blown away when, as a college student in Barcelona, my Spanish history professor took us on a walking tour of the city. After walking through part of the Gothic Quarter, we took a break in a little café. Casually, almost as an aside, he pointed out that one wall of the café was part of the original Roman wall around the city. (I think the café was La Granja, on Carrer dels Banys Nous, but I’m not completely sure.) Walking just a few minutes away to the monastery Sant Pau del Camp, I could hardly believe that this central location was once considered far outside the city walls. It’s no wonder that the History of the City Museum is my favorite museum in Barcelona — you get to literally walk through the excavation of a Roman settlement in the heart of the city.
So fast-forward to last weekend’s trip to Heidelberg. I don’t usually travel to a city with a checklist of the most touristy sights, the statues and buildings that make a trip “complete.” Instead, I look for the places that let me step back in time and get the feel of a place. Although sometimes that does mean hitting some of the tourist sights, like the Heidelberg castle.
There is something magical about a castle in ruins. Something about its history being exposed, being able to see how its inhabitants morphed it into something different. We walked just outside the former outer wall, only to look across to the newer outer wall and see how the whole structure had been expanded.
And you can imagine the relationship between Friedrich V and Elisabeth Stuart, the lives they lived here, with Friedrich building her the Elisabethentor overnight as a birthday gift or transforming the outer walls into spaces for gardens and a theater … not the smartest move, as it meant removing the outer defenses and ultimately sacrificing the castle to attackers.
I know that some (or all) of what you see when you visit places like this are just reconstructions, someone’s imagined view of what things were like “way back when.” But isn’t it wonderful, for just a moment, to recreate (from the reality around you, from the stories, from the history books and archaeological finds) how it would have been to inhabit this space hundreds of years ago?