Heidelberg’s culture is result of centuries of history

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by Joan Tupponce

The tantalizing aroma of roasting chestnuts, cinnamon and cloves greets Paul Garner each year when he visits Heidelberg, Germany, during its Christmas market. “It’s a real festive environment. The celebration lasts for three weeks,” he says. “You can only walk the streets; no vehicles are allowed.”

Garner, president of Spec Ops Inc., an Ashland-based defense contractor, likes to stroll along the illuminated streets in the city’s Old Town. There he can browse through more than 140 gift stalls brimming with handcrafted items, tasty treats and gifts from around the world. “I love to buy wiener schnitzel from the vendors.” 

Garner visits the German city twice a year on business. “I go to military bases,” he explains. Heidelberg is home to several U.S. commands, including Headquarters, U.S. Army Europe, and Headquarters V Corps. “All of their purchasing comes out of [those commands]. We have had several large contracts, and we are working on proposals now for commands in Heidelberg.”

The Heidelberg area has been inhabited for 500,000 to 700,000 years. The fossilized jaw of “Heidelberg Man,” unearthed in 1907 in nearby Mauer, Germany, provides the earliest evidence of human life in Europe. The city, on the other hand, dates back to the fifth century. One indication of its Old World charm is the fortress-style, stone bridge built in the
1700s that crosses the Neckar River.

The ruins of Heidelberg Castle, originally constructed in 1214 and now partially restored, looms over the city and is one of its most popular attractions. On a recent visit, Garner enjoyed seeing the Heidelberg Tun, a huge barrel in one of the castle’s cellars that can hold more than 58,100 gallons of wine. The barrel top even has an area for

Heidelberg is also known for the University of Heidelberg, which was established in 1386 and is the oldest university in Germany.  Several Nobel-prize-winning scientists have taught at the institution. When he visits during the summer, Garner enjoys wandering through the Old Town markets, including one across the river in Neuenheim, an upscale residential area. The markets are known for their fresh produce, cheeses and flowers.

Even though Heidelberg is an easy city to tour on foot, many visitors enjoy taking a sightseeing boat tour on the Neckar. Many towns along the river date back a thousand years. The boat tours run from spring to early fall. “If you peel all the special stuff, Heidelberg is not that different from Ashland,” says Garner. “It’s a college town, a typical small town trying to grow up. It’s a fun out-of-the-way place.” 

Where to stay

While Paul Garner stays in international hotels such as the Crowne Plaza when he visits Heidelberg, he enjoys the ambience of the city’s guest houses and local hotels such as the Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten, a quaint establishment near the river in Old Town. His favorite hotel, the luxurious Hotel Hirschgasse, dates back to the 1400s. It is in
a residential area on the northern bank of the river near the old Castle and reflects the city’s romantic, medieval charm. Antiques decorate each of the hotel’s 20 suites.

The town’s economy

Ashland has a diverse economy thanks to its central location near the I-95/Route 1 corridor. The economic base consists of small mom-and-pop businesses, motels, restaurants, shops and light-industrial companies.The service industry is a key player in the town’s growth — 8 percent of all the hotel rooms in the Richmond region are in the Ashland area. The town’s Route 1 area includes businesses that sell boats, heavy equipment and automobiles. Luck Chevrolet, for example, is one of the oldest continuously operating Chevrolet dealerships in the South.

Because the Hanover School Board is located in Ashland, the county system is the town’s largest employer with 2,300 employees (most of whom work outside of the town). Randolph-Macon College follows with 289 employees. In the last 18 months 50 new businesses have opened in Ashland or moved there. The town now has 600 businesses, up
from 400 in 2006. Several businesses have been in operation for more than 25 years, including Meade & Co., Susannah Wagner Jewelers, Tompkins Jewelry and Cox Transportation Services Inc.

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