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Dessau-Woerlitz Gardens

Saturday, 15 February 2014

A short drive of only six kilometres takes me from Oranienbaum to the Dessau-Wörlitz Garden Realm, Germany’s oldest landscaped park. Because it is a cloudy and cold day in February there are hardly any visitors about, though several extensive parking lots offer a clue to the numbers of people visiting in the warmer seasons. But at this time of year it is possible to wander lonely as a cloud along paths that meander through the grounds, follow waterways, cross bridges, loop around little hills and traverse woodlands. Following these unknown, silent and solitary trails, I find myself once again in my true element.

13_Woerlitzer Park

Created in the late eighteenth century by a great if little known ruler, this garden realm is now a Unesco World Heritage site and one of the loveliest man-made sceneries. Prince Leopold III Friedrich Franz von Anhalt-Dessau, head of a tiny principality and the youngest of Germany’s rulers under King Frederick the Great, had been much impressed on his travels by England’s naturalistic, informal gardens. Inspired by their departure from the symmetry of the baroque garden of the times, the prince introduced this novel concept to his homeland. From the start he also intended his grounds to be accessible to the public as a place of recreation, as well as an educational site where his subjects could inform themselves, refine their cultural taste and learn about new methods of gardening, agriculture and architecture – all in the rational spirit of the Age of Enlightenment.

Between 1765 and 1773 his gardens were laid out – in flat and formerly unattractive land – with the help of the garden architect Eyserbeck, whereas the buildings were designed by his friend von Erdmannsdorff. And while Europe was shaken by the turmoil of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, Prince Leopold was busy creating his own version of Eden on roughly one hundred and fifty square kilometres in the floodplain of the River Elbe.

03_Woerlitzer Park

Earlier, at the tender and impressionable age of seventeen, the prince – descendant of a line of highly-regarded military leaders – was serving in the Prussian army while the Seven Years’ War pitched Prussia against the Austrian empire. Leopold experienced his first battle and was horrified by the reality of warfare. He became seriously ill, resigned forthwith from the military and declared the neutrality of his little realm. King Frederick, outraged, laid a heavy financial penalty upon him for such unheard-of action; but the young prince, instead of raising taxes, sold the family silver and other valuables from his private assets to meet this crushing demand. Then he set about improving the living conditions in his land, making use of all he had learnt on his Grand Tour. Dams were built to keep the recurring floods at bay, marshy grounds were drained, fields reclaimed and agriculture revived. The prince set up a flourishing tree nursery, encouraged the breeding of cattle and sheep, and – himself an excellent horseman – initiated the breeding of fine horses for export. Thus the economy recovered and supported Leopold’s wide-ranging improvements in the social realm. In the considered opinion of a historian, “Leopold III can be regarded as a pioneer of sustainability. Here, the magic triangle of sustainable economy, ecology and social affairs had been achieved in an exemplary manner.” 

Wikipedia features the following heartwarming summary of Prince Leopold’s interests and mission: “An Anglophile and strong supporter of the Enlightenment, Leopold took special interest in the education of the population of his principality in science and nature. His numerous reforms in the areas of education, health care, social services, roads, agriculture, forestry, and industry made Anhalt-Dessau one of the most modern and prosperous of the small German states. The most conspicuous of his improvements included planting fruit trees along dykes and the construction of beautiful buildings. However his reforms included public works programs repairing dykes destroyed by flooding, providing social housing, education, sanitation, the first public parks, burial grounds irrespective of social rank, as well as liberal policies towards the Jewish community, including allowing for the founding of a Jewish school and the first Jewish newspaper in Germany.”

By those familiar with his achievements, Leopold III of Anhalt-Dessau is regarded as one of the three most exemplary rulers of German lands at the time (and, it seems fair to say, probably of all lands at all times). His subjects referred to him as their father, as ‘Vater Franz’; and Napoleon himself, impressed by Leopold’s reputation (if not his pacifist stance), invited him to Paris.

“Ich glaubte, den äußeren Menschen und seine Verhältnisse müsse man erst verändern, dann werde der innere Mensch wohl von selbst sich bessern,” was his opinion. (“I believed that one had to begin by improving people’s external circumstances, then their inner nature would follow suit of itself.”) His last words are reported as “Man muss für Arbeit sorgen. Darauf kommt alles an.” (“One has to provide work. That is all-important.”) It makes me wonder why this admirable man is so little known and talked about. Surely, governments and heads of state ought to look to him and learn from his example.

15_Woerlitzer Park

As one wanders among the trees, attractive, historic buildings come into view every once in a while. First and foremost among these is the prince’s Wörlitz Palace, modelled on an English mansion and finished in 1773, with the high steeple of St Peter’s Church beside it reflected in the water amongst floating swans and flocks of ducks.

26_Woerlitzer Schloss

At this time of year, the park is reduced to the bare bones of its layout. Trees without foliage allow for vistas that will be veiled by green later on. The water surface, still unbroken by leaves of water lilies and gondolas, reflects the light like burnished pewter. Swans are grazing in adjacent fields. One feels one has strayed into a painting; the living portrait of a nobler age. 


Set in a small, Grecian temple are two marble tablets. Their chiselled inscriptions quote the poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, describing a walk in these gardens in a letter to Charlotte von Stein on May 14th 1778, at a season when they looked their best:

“Hier ist’s jetzt unendlich schön. Mich hat’s gestern Abend, wie wir durch die Seen, Kanäle und Wäldchen schlichen, sehr gerührt, wie die Götter dem Fürsten erlaubt haben, einen Traum um sich herum zu schaffen. Es ist, wenn man so durchzieht, wie ein Märchen, das einem vorgetragen wird, und hat ganz den Charakter der Elysischen Felder. In der sachtesten Mannigfaltigkeit fliesst eins in das andere, keine Höhe zieht das Aug’ und das Verlangen auf einen einzigen Punkt, man streicht herum ohne zu fragen wo man ausgegangen ist und hinkommt. Das Buschwerk ist in seiner schönsten Jugend, und das ganze hat die reinste Lieblichkeit.”

(“Here it’s infinitely beautiful at this time. Yesterday evening, as we wandered about the lakes, canals and woodlands, I was much moved that the Gods granted the Prince to create such a dream all about him. Ambling through it all, it is as if one were presented a fairy-tale, and it has fully the nature of the Elysian fields. In the gentlest variety one view flows into the next, no height attracts one’s eye and desire to a single point, one roams without asking where one started or means to arrive. The bushes are in their most splendid youth, and the whole is of the purest loveliness.”)

He too walked these same paths, took in these same views … and his description helps me to picture the scenery in summertime.

11_Woerlitzer Park


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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.