City contours Mannheim
It’s hip to be square
For many, Mannheim is just an annoying ICE stopover that makes the trip from Frankfurt to Stuttgart that much longer. And it could be argued that passengers on a train do not get to see this city on the Rhine and Neckar rivers from its best side. But author Jan Zipperer is confident that Mannheim has a lot to offer.
By Jan Zipperer
Is that an address or a secret code?
For over 400 years, Mannheim’s historic city centre has been divided into squares. Exactly 144 squares span the area between the castle, the water tower, the Neckar River and Kurt Schumacher Bridge. This unique urban planning goes back to Elector Friedrich IV of Palatinate who commissioned the design for the city at the start of the 17th century. It was meant to be practical for military operations and adhere to the ideals of the Renaissance. So Mannheim was built like a giant chessboard and, in another practical step, the squares were later simply numbered consecutively. This address system is unique in Germany and frequently confuses visitors to the city. The largest cinema is located at N7, 17. Police headquarters is at L6, 1, and the tax office at L3, 10. City Hall occupies an entire block so it is simply E5. The squares are arranged according to their very own logic based on the location of Mannheim Castle, and it takes a few days to work it all out. But even newcomers will soon find it makes perfect sense to have the A square across from the L square while the K square is miles away. Fun fact: the Deutsche Telekom store is set right in the square that happens to bear the name of its largest competitor: O2 – Mannheim can do.
With a good dollop of whipped cream
Right around the corner from the Telekom store in square P5, a novelty ice cream creation was invented in 1969: the spaghetti ice cream sundae. Legend has it that Italian ice cream maker Dario Fontanella was pureeing chestnuts one day when he decided to run a serving of vanilla ice cream through the spätzle press he was using for the job. And rather than making a huge mess, the end result resembled mama’s homemade spaghetti. Instead of tomato sauce, he added some strawberry topping, mixed in some whipped cream, crowned it with white chocolate shavings for the cheese and viola, a new sweet treat was born. Since then it has been a winner on the menu of every ice cream parlour in Germany. It would be hard to imagine a 1980s childhood without the spaghetti ice cream sundae. The automobile, the bicycle and the tractor were also invented in Mannheim, though they seem to pale in comparison.
Mayor for the night
In 2019, Mannheim became the first German city to hire a night mayor whose job is primarily to act as a mediator between bars, clubs, the public and residents. This is no easy task with over 120 pubs and night clubs in this city of squares. In addition to a campaign against sexual harassment and setting up boxes to collect deposit bottles and cans, the night mayor also kicked off the “Nette Toilette” (nice toilet) campaign. Anyone in Mannheim who finds themselves caught up short can walk into a bar, restaurant or café and use the WC without having to purchase anything. Pretty nice, as the name says. Visitors looking for a taste of Mannheim’s nightlife should head to Jungbusch, the hip quarter filled with vegan restaurants, cool gin bars and trendy craft-beer stores. Locals claim that a greasy cheese pretzel from the iconic Aral petrol station keeps the next day’s hangover away. The blend of cheeses is supposed to be better than ibuprofen. The petrol station was an important hub back when Jungbusch was still a down-on-its-luck harbour district. Today a cheese pretzel festival is held right next to everyone’s favourite petrol station with live music on an open-air stage.
Two rivers run through it
Not one but two rivers – the Rhine and the Neckar – flow by Mannheim, giving it not only the largest inland port in Germany, but also plenty of meadows and open space where residents can relax and recharge. Students chill after class on the Rhine Terraces, friends get together on Neckar Meadow, people barbeque at the lido and run along the Neckar: the two rivers make Mannheim so loveable and liveable. But with all the beautiful nature and life along the water, there is one important rule that everyone must follow: do not cross the bridge to Ludwigshafen. Why, you might wonder. You simply cannot drive into Ludwigshafen, and not just because the crazy maze of winding streets makes it almost impossible to find your way back to Mannheim. It is more because, as any resident of Mannheim will tell you even if you haven’t asked, the neighbouring city just doesn’t have that much to offer. At least according to those who know little more of Ludwigshafen than the bridge.
Mannheim’s famous daughters and sons
First things first: Xavier Naidoo has not lived in Mannheim for many years. The city’s most famous and meanwhile most notorious son – the singer and co-founder of the band Söhne Mannheims, has repeatedly been criticized for his conspiracy-myth, homophobic and racist lyrics – moved to Heidelberg a long time ago. And honestly they can have him. Mannheim is enjoying its role as “UNESCO City of Music” – which is of no particular practical use, but certainly sounds nice. With the establishment of the Pop Academy 18 years ago, where ambitious musicians can major in things like pop music and music management, and a sophisticated support concept for start-ups from the music industry, the city has succeeded in attracting many talented young musicians. Max Giesinger, Alice Merton, Joris and Apache 207 – those who didn’t study there themselves picked up their bandmates, producers, other musicians or managers at the Pop Academy. If it weren’t for Berlin, Cologne and Hamburg, the current German pop music scene would head straight to Mannheim.
Festival feeling with the stars of tomorrow
For almost ten years Mannheim has also had its own music festival: the Maifeld Derby. On the Maimarkt grounds, the riding stadium is transformed into a music discovery hub for three days. But do not expect the big bands of today to take the stage. The festival features the musical giants of tomorrow and many newcomers who played their first German festival here have gone on to enjoy a great career. Hozier, for example, whose hit Take Me to Church was on the radio several times a day for a couple years after his first festival appearance in Germany, or Parcels, who have been on tour continuously since their Maifeld gig. But the open-minded audience is even better than all the bands on all the stages. Scuffles, brawls, and thefts are a rare event at Maifeld. Paramedics are legally required to be on hand, but frequently their only job is to help people who wore themselves out dancing.
Getting the delicious dirt on Mannheim
Sure, the huge piles of rubbish that gather on the streets of the Jungbusch district on the evening before the bin men come for the bulky waste are legendary. But in Mannheim, “dreck”, dirt or rubbish, has another, much yummier meaning, namely a gingerbread-like, rather crumbly baked treat created at the beginning of the 19th century. Back then local bakeries came up with a clever response to the new city ordinance that forbid the dumping of faecal matter onto the street and created quite the furore. They baked up batches of “edible dirt”. Today the dough redolent of honey, nuts and spices is baked on wafers and then covered in chocolate. Every one of Mannheim’s confectioners boasts that their edible dirt is made from an original, traditional recipe passed down through generations. According to what might be the oldest recipe ever handed down in writing from 1862, “Mannemer Dreck” has been on the menu of Café Herrdegen in square E2 for over 150 years.
Rock ‘n’ Roll Derby
Mannheim deserves much more attention from a sports perspective, especially for its legendary roller derby team. Since they were founded in 2013, the Rhine Neckar Delta Quads have had a ground-breaking career and even advanced to the 2nd Bundesliga. Originally from the United States, roller derby is a full-contact sport on roller skates popular with mostly women – at least according to Wikipedia. Participants race around an oval track as both teams try to slow down and block their opponents. And roller derby is also a lot of fun; it’s pretty punk rock with styles nostalgic of the 1980s. Where else do players have cool nicknames like Princess Bulldozer, Rhonda Housekick and Carrie Headshot? The Mannheim Eagles are the German record champions in ice hockey, by the way, and the Rhine Neckar Lions regularly play in the first division handball championship and have battled their way up to the 3rd division in football again. Still, none have quite the coolness factor of a Princess Bulldozer.
Jazzing it up
The Enjoy Jazz Festival has been held in Mannheim, Heidelberg and Ludwigshafen for over 21 years now. Numerous concerts and many legendary artists take to the stage in changing venues in the three cities over a period of six weeks. Artists have included such well-known names as Herbie Hancock, Nils Landgren, Til Brönner and McCoy Tyner. Ornette Coleman’s concert, recorded at the Enjoy Jazz in 2005, even received a Grammy and the Pulitzer Prize for Music. And it is not only conventional jazz music that comes to the region – hip-hop and electronic music artists are also welcome guests on the many festival stages.
The smell of chocolate
If you still need another reason to visit the checkerboard city, this little detail might help: There is a chocolate factory right before the Neckar flows into the Rhine. It “only” produces industrial chocolate for further processing elsewhere. Still the, production process produces an intense smell with a sweetish note that gives the entire inner city area a chocolate aroma that is hard to escape. Be there, or be square.