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Visitors To Germany Hear The Astor Story From The Other Side

WALLDORF, Germany — The Astoria City Council and guests in the Oregon delegation participated in a tour of the Heidelberg Castle on Konigstuhl Hill Monday on the third day of the sister city 50th anniversary celebration with the city of Walldorf.

The morning trip began with a bus ride to the city of Neckargemund, followed by a boat trip on the Neckar River to Heidelberg, where tour guides waited to greet the group of more than 30 people from both Astoria and Walldorf, including Walldorf Mayor Christiane Staab, Astoria Mayor Willis Van Dusen, and council and sister city committee members from both cities.

On the trip with Van Dusen are all four Astoria City Council members, Karen Mellin, Arline LaMear, Russ Warr and Drew Herzig, Astoria City Manager Paul Benoit, and sister city co-chairman Bruce Conner, plus some spouses and others.

Guests were treated to a tour of the town, with historical points of interest highlighted – from the castle, to the historic university and the town square. Lunch was held at the Kulturbrauerei, a cultural brewery.

“The burgermeisterin gave us one of the most memorable tours,” Van Dusen said. “The castle and fortress in Heidelberg is one of the most impressive in the world. The Astoria contingency is honored to be the guests of the sister city on such a historic site from our friends of Walldorf.”

“It’s a wonderful experience to have the Astorians here in Walldorf,” Staab said. “For me, this is the first time to be hosting for them in Walldorf and I am happy to give back a little bit of the hospitality that I received when I was there with the Walldorf delegation.”

The Heidelberg University

The university was founded in 1386. It is the oldest university in Germany and was the third to be established in the Holy Roman Empire. A former stable for the castle is now the students’ cafeteria.

 In Germany, college is free for German citizens, tour guides said. More than 30,000 students attend the school today.

The tour was led by two guides, who carried parasols so they would stand out in the crowd.

The historic university and the scenery – which included a forest, historic homes and the river – were among Van Dusen’s favorite things at the castle.

But meeting one special person was Van Dusen’s overall favorite.

“My No. 1 memory was  making the close friendship with the fire chief’s 12-year-old son Stefan. That was my best memory,” Van Dusen said of Stefan Kempf, the youngest sister city participant this week. 

Kempf and Van Dusen bought replica historic guns at the Heidelberg Castle gift shop and posed with them outside the castle.

The Castle

The Astoria and Walldorf city tour participants traveled by cable car up a steep hillside to the site of the castle.

The castle attracts more than one million visitors every year from around the world, since the 19th century for its beautiful architecture and surroundings, but also for its romantic history.

Now in ruins, it was first mentioned in 1225 and served as a fortress. But a young prince, Fredrick V, in the 17th century fell in love and the structure was repurposed as a castle for the couple.

Fredrick V and Elizabeth Stuart, of England, had only corresponded by letter when the political marriage was agreed upon. But on first glance, they were said to have been awestruck with each other and were married on Valentine’s Day 1613, before settling in Heidelberg.

Because of this union, the castle has many English nods, such as influences from the Globe Theatre in London, and an addition added in between the two towers for Fredrick V’s young bride.

“The Elizabeth Entrance” was added in 1615.

But in the late 17th century, what had been one of the grandest palaces and celebrated as the “Eighth Wonder of the World,” was ravaged by war with the French in the War of the Grand Alliance. While undergoing repairs, it was damaged in a fire caused by a lightning strike and the castle was destroyed again.

Today it is in ruins, but according to the tour guides, a $25 million renovation process underway should be completed in two years.

The wine barrel

In the cellar of the castle is the world’s largest wine barrel, filled only three times after it was built to store the “taxes” paid by local wine makers. It can hold 58,000 gallons of wine. 

But because the barrel was a combination of different wines and because it was pumped using lead pipes, the wine tasted awful, the tour guide explained. It also began to leak so it has spent most of its life empty.

Children tethered with ropes, however, were sent inside the barrel to clean it when it was in operation.

Those children, with a scrub brush and bucket, would soon have to be pulled out after they had passed out from the fumes of the alcohol.

The war and city history

Heidelberg has many old structures still standing, mostly because the bombings in World War II missed the city. Rumors said Gen. George Patton – who coincidentally died at the age of 60 in Heidelberg following an automobile accident – specifically asked for the town to be left alone, as it was planned to one day become a military headquarters. But the tour guide said that had in fact been a rumor, because the order had been given to bomb Heidelberg but the weather was too cloudy. Instead, the bombs went south.

Heidelberg as a city was not attacked but the Jewish synagogue was. The structure was destroyed in 1938. A memorial is in place on the former grounds, listing the names of those “deported” – as the tour guide put it – to concentration camps in other cities.

The evening event

After the generous Walldorf-provided tour and river ride, the group was bused back to the city of Walldorf for an evening event at the Walldorf Library.

A speech by Dr. Alexander Emmerich on John Jacob Astor and his connection with the West was delivered, and a meal was provided. The sister city 50th anniversary also coincides with John Jacob Astor’s 250th birthday.

Emmerich educated the guests about his research into Astor’s life. Several Astoria City Council members said the lecture was fascinating – although it differed from what Astoria’s have been told or tells to others.

Emmerich said Astoria, Oregon, was considered Astor’s largest loss. Astor lost millions on his fur trading post when it was sold to the British. When it was again reclaimed, Astor had been left out of the deal.

But while the city may have been considered one of Astor’s biggest failures, it also may be his biggest legacy, the biographer said.

Former Bicentennial Director Paulette McCoy spoked with Emmerich after the event and said he will be holding a book signing of his English translation of his Astor biography in Astoria later this year. Details are being worked out and will be announced, McCoy said.

On Tuesday, the city delegation will visit the Walldorf school system and the business area of the city. The Astoria-Circle traffic circle will be inaugurated in the evening, prior to dinner in Winery Wiesloch.

Also Tuesday, Mayor Willis Van Dusen will be taking a ride on a BMW motorcycle. An avid bike fan, Van Dusen was gifted the motorcycle ride personally from Staab at Sunday’s gift exchange.

This story originally appeared in Daily Astorian.

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