Nature by design Print E-mail
May 2008 Life

Spacious parks characterize the garden kingdom of Dessau-Wörlitz - By Edith Kresta

English landscape gardens were all the rage at German courts during the 18th century. In 1768, Johann Gott­lieb Schoch and Johann Christian Neumark planted a new "garden kingdom" near Wörlitz commissioned by Prince Leopold III Friedrich Franz of Anhalt-Dessau. Since 2000, the garden in what now is Saxony-Anhalt has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

After returning from his grand tour through England, Italy and the Netherlands, Prince Franz chose the town of Wörlitz as the starting point of his beautification plan. Since then, nature has been molded to fit around Wörlitz Lake, a four-fingered abandoned channel of the Elbe River. Meadows, woods, grottos, temples and monuments are separated by lakes, canals, dikes, and rivers - yet also connected by bridges.

Ferries, bridges, and paths connect the five areas of Wörlitz Park to form a synthesis of the arts. Visual axes are the main design element of English landscape gardens. They create a series of new views and expand the spaces visually. There are 300 of those here - and so every turn in the path brings a new view of the garden kingdom.

To contemporary Friedrich Schiller, the dramatist who also strolled around Wörlitz, English gardens lacked a consistent principle. "The world that realists build around themselves is a well-planned garden in which everything is useful, everything has earned its place and from which the things that don't bear fruit are banished," he wrote. "Nature in the world of the idealist is less useful but set in a greater frame of mind."

Today's visitors don't seem to mind that. The garden landscape is the structurally weak region's only tourist draw. With its restored timber framed buildings, the town of Wörlitz seems to be wearing its Sunday best. The hotels and guesthouses of the town are the starting point for trips through the designed landscape.

The gardens unfold in all their beauty in the spring. But visitors shouldn't only expect to enjoy themselves here - they will also learn something. "The Wörlitz garden landscapes have always been accessible to everyone," said Erdmute Alex, the spokesperson for the Dessau-Wörlitz Arts Council. "Prince Franz was the first to set general education as a goal."

In reality, the garden kingdom does imitate an idealized world of the 18th century in miniature. And in doing so, it resurrects the spirit of that time for modern visitors while the borders between kitsch and art are in a constant state of flux.

A model of the first iron bridge built on the European continent is exhibited there. As is another garden landscape feature widespread in the 18th century, inspired by the longing for Italy: an artificial volcano that fireworks could cause to erupt with great effect. The Gothic House, home to a collection of Swiss glass paintings, is reminiscent of a Venetian church facing a canal.

The castle was built to follow the prototype of English manor houses. The rich interior decoration, which is completely preserved, reflects the prince's travels and interests. Antique statues, Italian and Dutch paintings - by Rubens among others - and English ceramics are on display. The great intellectuals are assembled on the library wall in paint: the classical Greeks pose with Jean-Jacques Rousseau and François-Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire.

Neo-Gothic and Classicism are combined in the Luisium, which Prince Franz dedicated to his wife Luise. The small manor house there is the focal point of the "Women in the 18th Century" exhibition, organized by the Saxony-Anhalt Ministry of Culture and running from June 21 until Sept. 28.

The garden kingdom is set in the floodplain of the Elbe River and covers a total area of more than 54 square miles. Today's garden kingdom includes Wörlitz and six other park landscapes: Georgium Park, created in 1780, the "wilderness park" on Sieglitz Mountain, the vineyard terraces of Großkühnau and the older Oranienbaum and Mosigkau landscape parks. Together they form a green corridor that is ideal for hiking and cycling.

"The Garden Kingdom of Dessau-Wörlitz is an outstanding example of the application of the philosophical principles of the Age of the Enlightenment to the design of a landscape that integrates art, education and economy in a harmonious whole," said the UNESCO World Heritage Committee to justify including the gardens on the World Heritage List in November 2000.



Touring the Garden

"Palaces, Parks, and Gardens" is the German National Tourist Board (DZT) theme for 2008. From Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania in the north to Lake Constance in the south, it presents the palaces and gardens of Germany.

Labhard Travel Magazine's "Garden Tours - On the Road to Germany's Palaces, Parks and Gardens" issue contains a good guide with lots of tips and addresses. Available online at

The Dessau-Wörlitz Arts Council is located in Großkühnau Palace, 06846 Dessau-Roßlau, Germany. Tel. + 49 (0) 340 646 150, ksdw@ksdw, or online at

North of Görlitz, the Neiße River flows through another one of the most beautiful historical landscape parks on the European continent. Inspired by the valley landscape, Prince Hermann von Pückler-Muskau (1785-1871) created a rather large garden kingdom here in 1811. Added to the World Heritage List in 2004, Muskauer Park encompasses an area of about 830 hectares. The palace, bathing areas and mountain parks are on the German side and the lower park, the arboretum, and the Braunsdorf Fields are across the Polish border.

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