A Whole Bunch of False Preconceptions

By population Karlsruhe is not among the 20 largest cities of Germany and it was founded less than 300 years ago, thus is imagined to have no "patina". Probably this is the reason for a knee-jerk thought one can observe over and over again: often when people think about something or some phenomenon in Karlsruhe they assume that it must dominate the whole city, since the city is not so big to leave much room for anything more. There's a technical university, so it must be dominated by university students' culture  with clear impact of all those geeks and nerds; there's Germany's Supreme Court, so the whole city must spin around it and the laws; one quarter of the state of Baden-Württemberg is administered from Karlsruhe, so the mentality must be one of public administration; and - of course - as everywhere soccer fans like to identify the city with the largest soccer club KSC; and so on and so on.

But nothing could be further from true. None of these institutions and phenomena really dominates the city's face and life. There's even some important facts that are frequently overlooked entirely. With its quite large Rhine harbor and the refinery Karlsruhe is also a non-negligible heavy industry site, even if one ignores the car manufactures in the proximity. And - if not alone with the KIT, formerly known as Karlsruhe University - then by all means with the Center for Art and Media Technology (ZKM) and its University of Arts and Design (HfG) Karlsruhe is one of the major intellectual centers of Germany. (It might seem odd for citizens of more centralized nations that there can be any other intellectual center than the political capital, but Germany is not only a political federal republic, but in many other aspects as well.)

"Only here..."

Most cities have their nice places and somehow notable episodes (like "Goethe was here", well Goethe traveled a lot and was almost everywhere). So let's leave all the castles, parks, and gardens aside for now and look to what is really special here.

ZKM and HfG

The Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie (Center for Art and Media Technology) and the Staatliche Hochschule für Gestaltung (University of Arts and Design) were founded in parallel by Heinrich Klotz. The ZKM is globally the largest museum for modern media art and is sometimes labelled to be the "new Bauhaus". It gives room to and opens possibilities for art based on new and latest technology like video, audio, computer games, lasers, holography, etc.. The two directors Peter Weibel (ZKM) and Peter Sloterdijk (HfG) are most active and influential in public intellectual debates and the cultural life of Germany and Austria.


The Karlsruhe Institute of Technology was founded as fusion of Karlsruhe University and the Karlsruhe Research Center. As the research center formerly was financed by the German federal government and the university by the state of Baden-Württemberg, the fusion - with some irony - can be seen to come close to a miracle, considering how difficult debates between federal and state organisations usually are. The new - and up to now in Germany unique - institution is now co-financed by federal republic and state. As there is a small number of candidates for similar fusion projects KIT's development is closely observed. Hopes are that it reaches the critical mass for large scale research projects and develop efficient and successful research structures. Personally - although I do not like the new name - I like the idea and think it might succeed and some of the hopes might be realistic.

Das Fest

"Das Fest" ("The Party" or "The Celebration") is an annual festival that has been started more than 25 years ago as a small, regional festival with almost private character. It's different from most other festivals in the detail that it is admission free, and that - although music plays a major role - it is not only about music. There's different NGOs and clubs introducing themselves on the site, sports activities (e.g. Volleyball and -club, or half-pipe skating) spots with activity offers for little children and areas with general chilling or fair atmosphere. While it's these later specifics that make also those parts of the local population come to the site faithfully year by year that would be considered "unusual" customers of a standard festival, it's probably the "it's for free" exclamation mark that has made the visitors number grow ever higher year after year with people nowadays approaching from all over Europe. For its 25th anniversary in 2009 it is said that in the sum of all days there had been 400.000 visitors which comes close to the total of all fans visiting matches of the major soccer club within a year and which is a number that exceeds the city population by one third. As a consequence the organizers now feel forced to raise at least a small fee to gain control over the numbers of fans attending.

The Karlsruhe Model

The Karlsruhe Model is neither a political construct nor something from particle theory nor a human hat stand, it's the idea to let light railways (trams) also run on long distance rail tracks and thus easily allow the trams to reach far into the outskirts and surrounding countryside of a city. In a way the model is the answer on the fact of commuters commuting over distances far beyond traditional tram ranges and thus either being dependent on the car or having to change trains a number of times often in main stations.

While the idea sounds simple, the technical and probably even more political hurdles that had to be overcome to actually implementing such a system for the first time must have been enormous. But now it's running and quite heavily used by commuters and population.

While it's probably safe to say that it's mainly commuters who are thought off when public transport is being planned, one can in this case not underestimate the value of Karsruhe's implementation of the Karlsruhe Model for the supply quality of transport for recreational purpose. All of the surrounding countrysides (Northern Black Forest, Kraichgau, Palatinate Forest) are or will soon be linked with one or more tram lines directly to the central districts of Karlsruhe. There are lines running into the valleys of Alb, Murg, and Enz, allowing to reach interchange-free for completely non-urban spots. Knowing how much most people dislike interchanges, this tram system really helps to shift this proximity closer to the city - in the mind of its citizens. Maybe without the Stadtbahn configured in this way the page under the "Hiking" topic would be much smaller.

The Supreme Court

The Supreme Court itself does not add the slightest thing to quality of life in the city. So, although it makes the city somehow special in Germany and makes crowds of journalists fall over the city from time to time, from a sober perspective it's irrelevant for the citizens. But there's one thing I'd like to point out: the Supreme Court building is placed at the spot where formerly the city's theater stood. The theater was destroyed two times: the second time was in WWII, the first during a big fire in 1847. The fire raged during a show and killed 63 people. An examination of the disaster was done afterward and from that we can see that some of the reasons that that many people died still are named in similar disasters nowadays, e.g. "too few exits" and "easily inflammable materials". And so the Supreme Court to me always also appears to be a memorial to do justice to the victims then by not letting people die anymore for the same reasons why they died. Btw.: there's also a reason why not even more people died: Durlach at that time was one of the first cities to have a brigade of voluntary fire fighters and one of the first ones to be equipped with powerful water pumps. They arrived quickly and when they had arrived were able to rather quickly get control over the fire. In the aftermath of the event it was used in many other German cities to install similarly organized fire fighters as well.

Openstreetmap and City Wiki

After I had moved to Karlsruhe for the second time I was astonished, when I figured out, how densely Karlsruhe was covered in Openstreetmap. I'm sure it is better covered there than in any commercially available map (including google maps) and I can not think of any road or even path in one of the city's forests that is missing. Sometimes it's even too dense, as a route search for pedestrians results in a route that includes paths that are paths but that are barely acceptable, especially during bad, rainy, weather. The second city related project where some people must have worked very persistently to collect all the information is the city wiki (Stadtwiki). It's not only useful, if you're new to the city, but it actually helps to inform people on ongoing projects in the city, at least it could help, if you take a look there. It is said that this city wiki is the largest in the world. These two and some other projects and clubs gave me the impression that there must be quite a number of people in the city, who just can't sit still.

The Countryside

While the city's own territory is mostly flat and anything but spectacular, with the Black Forest, Kraichgau, and Palatinate Forest there are three interesting landscapes in the closest vicinity, and with Odenwald (Forest of Odes), Neckar valley, and Bergstraße (Road of Hills) three more in reach for a day trip. While none of them grants such grand majestic views as the alps do, their appeal is more in their rather softly flowing hill and valley style, sprinkled with castles, ruins, gorges and other accentuated pieces of nature, soaked with history and myths of knights, ghosts, the Nibelungen, and creatures like the Elvetritsche.

With the Stadtbahn (see above) Karlsruhe is an ideal starting point to explore all these and "hiking" suggests itself as a hobby once one lives in the region, as only by foot one can reach the most interesting places. Here on this page under "Hiking" I've collected a number of routes through the region. There along with the routes the landscapes are described a bit closer.


Karlsruhe is currently preparing for its 300th anniversary in 2015. That means that it is one of the youngest German cities that were founded from scratch. And even then,1715, it must have seemed an odd idea to build a city into the largely swampy plains of river Rhine.

Myth says that then count Karl Wilhelm Margrave of Baden was riding from his former residence in Durlach - which nowadays is a part of Karlsruhe - into the forest and fell asleep ("Karl's rest") under an oak, where he dreamed of a crown from which 32 rays of light sprung off (he must've been a genius, as he was able to count up to 32 in a dream). Once he woke up again he decided to build a castle there as his summer residence with 32 streets into all directions. He (and that is not myth anymore but actual history) at the very beginning did maybe not plan to found a city that would eventually grow bigger than the old Durlach, but just a new residence. But a monarch is not alone in such a residence, all the desperately needed noble administrative clerks were assigned houses at the southern quarter of a circle around the castle. The more noble they were, the closer to the castle and to the exact southern direction from the castle they lived (nowadays there's the collection office, sic). And such clerks need craftsmen, to build the castle and the houses and keep them running. These craftsmen - without being assigned officially - took quarter at a spot south east of the official complex, right from the beginning disturbing the symmetry of the original plans for the residence. They called their quarter "Dörfle" (little village) or "Pfannestiel" (panhandle) as from above their quarter looked like a handle to the pan (the circle around the castle), and "Dörfle" still today is the name of that part of the city.

Just three months after the foundation, the Margrave released a letter of privileges. He must have gotten the impression that he needed more people around his residence than would voluntarily come under normal circumstances. Part of the privileges were freedom of religion and 20 tax-free years. And in deed Karlsruhe is one of very few European cities that were never shaken by serious religious tensions and generally "Badenian Liberalism" is proverbial in Germany. Concerning taxes, well, maybe the city would have grown too big over time, if this privilege had continued to exist.

Maybe Karl Wilhelm would not have been able to plan his residence where he did, if landscape and nature still had been in their original state. But it wasn't and the area west of Durlach was not empty, there were villages as for example Rintheim, Rüppurr, and Neureut. Originally these had a hard time to prosper in their founding time due to  the earlier mentioned swampy environment of the Rhine valley in these days. It's said that the existence of the monastery Gottesaue (or Gottesau, formerly maybe Gottesauge or Gotzaugen) was crucial for the success of the attempt to tame the swamps to acres. The monks did so with their own land and they tought the villagers how to do it with their own.

The foundation myth of Gottesaue - which nowadays is the oldest piece of civilized and settled land in the core districts of Karlsruhe - is that around 1100 count Berthold's daughter got lost in the then deep and dense forest, while he was hunting wolves. Berthold - an up to that day grim man, who condemned anything pious - found her safe falling asleep beneath the altar of a small chapel in the forest, which formerly the villagers had build on their own. From that moment on Berthold was a pious man, founded the monastery and later was burried in it. A number of poems exist telling this story, but none of them is old enough to explain why actually there would have been existing that old chapel, as onlyfor Grötzingen (Grezingen), Hagsfeld (Habachesfelt), and - of course - the counts own castle on the Turmberg existence is documented prior to the documented founding date of the monastery. Probably the myth is used to explain, why the monastery originally was called "Gottesaue" ("God's meadow") or "Gottesauge" ("God's eye" ... resting on the sleeping child). It would fit to both naming variants.

Anyway, what remains as truth from the myth is that 1000 years and longer ago, the hills were the favored settlement points, as the castle on the Turmberg, but also many other castles in Black and Palatinate Forest and only slowly the population moved down to the Rhine valley and closer to the river, struggling for land against the conditions the river has brought. There for hundreds of years people were subject to devastating recurring floods and diseases like malaria and typhus. Square meter by square meter arduously they tried to win acre land from the swamps.

It might have been sometime around 1750 when some major floods had stuck the land around Karlsruhe, when for the first time (probably in France) someone for the first time must have had the idea that changing the riverbed of the Rhine fundamentally from its complex, meandering, multi-legged form to a more controllable bed is not an unrealistic dream, but could actually be achieved. (What a mental leap from feeling to be in the grip of the caprices of the river to this idea!) It took 60 more years until with Johann Gottfried Tulla someone entered the scene, who actually did it.

Baden had been increased by Napoleon from an insignificant territory to a notable power in 1806, and Karlsruhe at its 100th anniversary had become an established city, but did not have any education institution even remotely comparable to for example Heidelberg University. Maybe Tulla did not intend to found something similar to Heidelberg University, when he co-founded Karlsruhe's School of Engineering in 1807, but it was an important step for the city in general and specifically for the changes intended to apply on to do with the Rhine river. 10 years later the first sinuosity was short-cut near the village of Knielingen (which now is part of Karlsruhe).

Btw.: 1807 also was the year when Hegel also published his "Phenomenology of Spirit", where he claims that by the work of the slave the master gains freedom from the constraints of nature, but the slave's work brings progress and an idea of freedom that in the end can free the slave from his dependency of the master. Thinking of Tulla and the Rhine rectification this almost appears to be a prophecy, as it's what happened here: the unprecedented way in which Tulla's work manifestly shaped nature eclipsed the "conventional" power of monarchs and nobility. This and similar events and processes were and are the hallmark of a (new) time, where the role of nobility was marginalized or at least reduced to fulfill administrative or representative work. Work as any other work is.

In 1825 the School of Engineering was renamed and newly founded as Polytechnicum with the Parisian Ecole polytechnique as a role model (so there's a tradition in Karlsruhe for leaning toward the dominating educating institutions of the time in naming its major Highschool or University). The Polytechnicum for the next 100 years educated the engineers who were busy with rectifying and (later) regulating the Rhine river and the needs of the rectification and regulation had a major influence on the focus of  education at the Polytechnicum (later "Polytechnische Hochschule", even later "Technische Hochschule").

When sometime in the 20th century large freight ships were able to reach Basel, not only the danger of floods was mostly banned from the Upper Rhine region, Malaria and Typhus were extinct, and Mosquito plagues were contained. But also the situation between hill or mountain areas and lowlands had changed: now the lowlands were of more use, easier accessible, and rather cheap to build traffic infrastructure on. Constructing streets and especially railway tracks through the Black Forest and the Palatinate Forest is and was possible, but to do so, one has to add art to engineering (and lots of money). Only the concentration of castles in the hilly areas is still a sign that once the hilly areas were the center and the lowlands the "Hinterland", not the other way round, as we like to think nowadays.

Even then the project was much debated and much opposed. Surely with a modern perspective also much was lost with the rectification of the Rhine. But what we now probably would see as the main loss, the tremendous loss of diversity of species, people then weren't even aware of. So it's justified to think now about doing certain small steps of reverting some of the changes to help re-establishing a number of the dispelled species.