Saturday, 15 February 2014
The sky is a dull grey this morning (not ideal for photography) and the wind is chilly. Nevertheless, I am determined to explore the area and set out early, driving on straight roads lined with young Linden trees through seemingly deserted villages and across Sachsen-Anhalt’s countryside that is flat as a pancake. To my relief, I do not once lose my way and find Schloss Oranienbaum without problem. Of course it is closed at this season, but one is free to wander the grounds. Being the only visitor makes me feel like an intruder, a trespasser in a park taken over by quietly burrowing moles. The palace has fallen into disrepair and is in a sorry state: beams are rotting, masonry is crumbling and paint peeling away. But one side has already been restored to perfection and the rest is sure to follow; I notice building machines and scaffolding waiting in the wings.
This palace was built as a summer residence for the Dutch princess Henriette Catherine of Oranje-Nassau after she married Prince Johann Georg II of Anhalt-Dessau in September 1659 and moved to Germany. On an information panel, I read that the bride received this formerly desolate area including the largely abandoned village of Nischwitz as a gift, the year after her wedding. (Did her husband say, “Look here, my darling – do you fancy a chunk of wasteland?”) What did she make of that, one wonders?
But I assume that this totally level countryside must have reminded Henriette Catherine of her homeland and inspired her to recreate its familiar environment. Finding herself married in a foreign country, she commissioned an architect from the Netherlands to transform the run-down hamlet she had been presented with into an attractive little town in the Dutch baroque style, extending the design of park and palace. And so Oranienbaum was built to the rigorously rectangular plan of Dutch settlements and named after the dynasty of its patroness. She also founded a glass factory, and this, together with the ongoing building projects, helped to revive the local economy. To this day, an orange tree fashioned from metal and bearing gilt fruit marks the centre of the market square as a tribute to Henriette Catherine and her family name. (It seems to me that, in keeping with the fruitful theme, the stone nymphs flanking it look decidedly pregnant.)
Her marriage lasted thirty-four years and seems to have been a happy one, viewed across the centuries, though it had more than its fair share of sorrow: She bore her husband ten children, eight of which were daughters. The first two died soon after birth, and her first boy died before he reached two years of age. It was an age of high infant mortality, as she knew full well: four of Henriette’s eight siblings had not survived childhood. Praying for the children’s good health must have been an even more important part of parenting then … Five more daughters arrived, and lived; but only child number nine turned out to be the required heir: Leopold the first was born in 1676 – to be followed six years later by another girl.
Oranienbaum Palace was completed in 1683. It featured fine leather wall coverings and splendid Delft tiles, and Henriette Catherine, presumably feeling almost at home by now, retired there after the death of her husband, ten years later. Because her son Leopold was still a minor at the time, she assumed regency until he came of age. After her own death in 1708, the place was used only occasionally by her descendants, mainly as a hunting lodge. But after nearly a hundred years had passed, her great-grandson Prince Leopold III Friedrich Franz of Anhalt-Dessau had the park remodelled and added some Chinese touches that were all the rage at the time. I wander around a towering pagoda on a hill, past a tea house accessible by boat and over wooden arch bridges spanning the waterways. How lovely all this must look in the summer sunshine, framed by June’s undarkened green …
Fortunately, the palace has remained unaltered since the seventeenth century, but it deteriorated considerably and emerged from the era of the not-so-Democratic German Republic in a state of sad neglect. Since then much has been repaired, but a lot more needs to be done until the building can once again give visitors a true impression of its splendid baroque style.
In 2004 and 2012 Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, herself a descendant of the house of Oranje-Nassau, paid a visit and inspected the ongoing restoration project. The estate is now a Unesco World Heritage Site and part of the Dessau-Wörlitz Garden Realm, which I plan to visit next.
After a tour of the hibernating gardens, I wander the streets of the little town for a while. They are cobbled in many different patterns: stones of various sizes, colours and shapes are used for different sections of the road. The effect is attractive to look at but unpleasant to drive on with cars, wheel- and pushchairs. And as for high-heeled shoes …! I recall the rant of an elegant friend who cursed what she called the “protestant-peasant-cobblestones” of our Swiss hometown and compared them unfavourably with the smooth marble pavements of catholic Italy. – Be that as it may, these cobbled streets give the local towns and villages a look steeped in tradition. Thus, owing to the local German ruler’s match with a foreign lady, the principality of Anhalt-Dessau bore a decidedly Dutch stamp for over a century.