We awoke each morning to azure blue skies, a nascent sun casting reflections on the glassy water and the sound of parakeets calling from lofty branches.
A tropical paradise? Hardly. This is Mannheim, a gritty industrial city in south-west Germany. In February.
Mannheim is probably not high on the typical tourist’s “must-see” list for Germany. Whatever elegance and beauty it once had was largely lost to WWII bombs, leaving even Lonely Planet to concede that:
“Surrounded by factories and heavy industry plants, Mannheim (…) isn’t Germany at its prettiest”.
Worse still, any tourists who do venture into this corner of the world will almost invariably be drawn to nearby Heidelberg, Mannheim’s prettier, bookish elder sister. But looks aren’t everything and, anyhow, we’d visited Heidelberg before. So we decided – quite spontaneously – to check out Mannheim instead.
And we absolutely loved it.
Being the second-largest city in Baden-Württemberg, the centre of the Rhine-Neckar metropolitan area (population 2.4 million), a thriving university city and the location of many multinational corporations, Mannheim has an unexpectedly cosmopolitan air. An aura of creativity and innovation is tangible throughout the city’s streets and parks: the city lays claim to being the birthplace of many famous inventions including the car, the tractor and – much more importantly – spaghetti ice cream.
The city is also home to Mannheim Palace (the city’s innovative nature does not appear to stretch to the naming of its monuments), the second largest baroque palace in Europe, after Versailles.
If you are wondering why you have never seen a photo of Mannheim Palace before, it is simply because it doesn’t fit into any photograph, not all of it anyway. Its facade stretches for almost 450 metres, and it contains six hectares of floor space. Six hectares…that’s 60,000 m2, almost twice as big as Vienna’s famed Schönbrunn (to which it bears a passing resemblance) and larger even than Windsor Castle. In a rather brilliant statement of one-upmanship, the architects of Mannheim Palace even ensured that their creation had one (yes, one) more window than Versailles, a fact that will surely be useful when playing the palaces and castles edition of “Top Trumps”.
Nearby, the glorious baroque interior of the Asamkirche wowed even our usually church-weary kids. We spent a good half hour inside simply admiring the ornamental detail and glorious light.
But the truth is that the best part of Mannheim for us wasn’t the sights, but how it felt. Growing up in a small rural village in Luxembourg, the cosmopolitan atmosphere of Mannheim was a rather novel experience for our kids. They could probably have happily whiled away the entire day simply idling by the Rhine, watching the boats chug their way up and down in the name of economic progress.
I read somewhere that Mannheim is two-thirds green space, and whilst I can’t find any authoritative proof of this, it certainly feels that way. Several hours were spent simply climbing trees and goofing around in the parkland buffering the palace from the Rhine.
It was in this park – just adjacent to our brilliant youth hostel – that we encountered the colony of ring-necked parakeets. First spotted by bemused locals in the 1970s, quite how these little green invaders from India ended up on the banks of the Rhine remains a mystery, but it is assumed that they escaped from a private collection. They may have added a splash of colour and an exotic soundtrack to our Mannheim experience, but I didn’t forget to point out to the kids that these are an invasive species that really shouldn’t be here at all. That said, they are kinda cute…
But best of all was another colourful “invasive” addition to the landscape – the graffiti (or should I say “street art”?). In our little hilltop village in Luxembourg, local delinquents occasionally spray-paint rude words on bus shelters, but we have nothing quite like this:
Even more interesting (for us) was the juxtaposition of graffiti with urban infrastructure such as flyovers and subways (again, we simply don’t have this at home). At the risk of sounding näive, this really was a new and bewildering world for my kids, an unexpected source of wonder and amazement.
But we know, we know… we hardly scratched the surface. Mannheim is a buzzing, thriving metropolis with many more treasures to discover, secrets to unearth and experiences to give. We’re already looking forward to visiting again to discover more of this surprisingly fascinating city.
Daisy the bus visited Mannheim in February 2017
(c) Jonathan Orr 2017