World Heritage Germany - Nature, gardens and landscapes
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Germany is blessed with an abundance of glorious green space, from pristine woodland to windswept tidal mudflats and formal gardens. With so much culture, architecture and urban flair to discover, it can be easy to forget the joys of getting back to nature. But that would be to miss the manicured lawns of Dessau-Wörlitz, the country’s ancient beech forests and the dramatic landscapes of the Wadden Sea. So blow those cobwebs away and get exploring.
Dessau’s heyday was in the 18th century in the time of Leopold III, Duke of Anhalt-Dessau (1740–1817), a fervent advocate of the Enlightenment, who surrounded himself with artists, poets and architects. He established the Garden Kingdom of Dessau-Wörlitz, the first formal English-style garden in continental Europe, in and around Dessau. This belt of landscaped gardens covers 140 square kilometres on and around the banks of the rivers Elbe and Mulde, with their attendant Baroque and Neoclassical mansions an additional draw.
The most extensive and impressive of all the complexes is Wörlitzer Park, an attractive stately home, the Neoclassical Wörlitz House (1769–73), and country garden, where Gothic follies and mock Classical statues dot manicured lawns, and swans and rowing boats bob on tranquil lakes. A boat tour is the best way to fully appreciate the interesting array of bridges over the park waterways, each built in a different style. On summer weekends (May–September) this is a perfect bucolic setting for classical concerts.
Georgium Park extends north to the banks of the Elbe, and includes over a hundred types of tree. Its ornate Georgium Palace now houses the exquisite Anhalt art gallery, with a collection of old masters that includes Rubens, Hals and Cranach.
Also part of the Garden Kingdom are the intimate Luisium Palace and the wooded park on Sieglitzer Berg hill. Kühnau Park was the last to be added in 1805, in a scenic location on the southern shore of Lake Kühnau. The Italian Weinberg Villa here is the highlight, while the Oranienbaum is an English-Chinese garden complete with a Chinese Tea House. Mosigkau is a Rococo beauty with an art gallery of Flemish masters.
The whole complex is a perfect weekend retreat, offering days of unhurried exploration either on foot or bike, as well as plenty of picnicking opportunities.
Endless swathes of beech trees once covered the continental lands of Europe, long before humans arrived on the scene and slowly decimated them in order to create their homes. Today, Germany is the only place in the world where you can still find unspoilt lowland beech forests. Visiting the Ancient Beech Forests of Germany World Natural Heritage site therefore provides a fascinating insight to what continental Europe originally looked like. They are an extension to the Primeval Beech Forests of the Carpathians, an existing cross-border World Heritage property.
The Jasmund National Park on the island of Rügen is famous for its wooded chalk cliffs that extend for several kilometres. This mesmerizing landscape of beautiful ancient beech forest, untouched thanks to its inaccessible cliff-top location, and palette of jade sea, green leaves and white chalk was popularized in works by Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich.
The Mecklenburg Lakes region in Mecklenburg-West Pomerania centres around Lake Müritz and the Müritz National Park. This “Land of a Thousand Lakes” is also home to ancient beech woods in the Serrahn area of the park, where red deer roam freely. The grand dukes of Mecklenburg-Strelitz used to hunt here and access was restricted, which effectively protected these remote woodlands.
Grumsin Forest in Brandenburg’s Schorfheide-Chorin biosphere reserve is a mix of sprawling forests, open meadows and meandering waters. The forest was left untouched due to its status as a state hunting ground in the days of the GDR. The deep valleys in the mountain ranges are the legacy of the glaciers that covered these lands in the last ice age.
In the Thuringian forest, the Hainich National Park is a 75-square-kilometre area of ancient beech forest. In the days of the GDR, this was a restricted military zone and as such the flora and fauna have been shielded from human interference. The variety of tree species is astounding and in spring the carpet of blooms give an even more ethereal atmosphere to the forest.
The Kellerwald-Edersee National Park in Hessen is another beautiful spot, with the meandering lakeshore hugged by low, wooded hills of beech trees.
A few kilometres east of Darmstadt is the Messel Pit Fossil Site (Grube Messel), a redundant oil-shale pit on the site of an ancient volcanic crater-lake, which has yielded such rich fossil finds that it became Germany’s first World Natural Heritage site in 1995.
The fossils date from the Eocene period around 49 million years ago, when the climate in what is now Hesse was subtropical. This is hard to believe nowadays, when the present-day descendants of many of the species found here – including opossum, anteaters, flightless birds and crocodiles – now only exist far from Germany.
The fossils are extraordinary in their diversity: more than one hundred plant species, eight fish, 31 reptiles, five amphibians, more than fifty birds and more than thirty invertebrate species. They are also in exceptionally good condition, often preserving food residue in their stomachs: the macrocranion – a relative of the modern hedgehog – has been found with fish bones in his stomach, while the stomachs of the world’s oldest-known bats preserve the scales of moths and butterflies. Messel is particularly famous for its fossils of ancient horses (Eurohippus), which were tiny compared with their modern-day descendants.
The impressive visitor centre has displays relating to the origins and history of the site, from vulcanicity and the evolution of the landscape to its later industrial heritage. It also organizes regular daily guided tours of the pit itself, or you can see into the pit from a viewing platform.
As well as seeing the pit itself, it’s worth stopping by the small local history museum in the old centre of Messel, which has lots of fossils on display. The Senckenberg Natural History Museum in Frankfurt am Main and the Hessian State Museum in Darmstadt are also worth a visit to put the fossils into context.
Sitting astride the German–Polish border is Bad Muskau, where Bohemian, travel writer and renowned landscape gardener Prince Hermann von Pückler-Muskau was born in 1785. Here, too, in the aristocratic-rural idyll of the 16th-century Old Castle, he created a stunning 830-hectare park, which crosses the Polish border and is a masterpiece of garden design. It’s also the largest English-style landscaped park in central Europe, and was awarded World Heritage status in 2004.
The vast park comprises a number of smaller parks on either side of the Neisse river that divides Germany from Poland, connected by a bridge symbolizing the reconciliation between the two countries – the English Bridge. This historical footbridge has been destroyed several times over, but was revived to its former glory in 2011. Around a third of the park lies in the town of Bad Muskau in Saxony, while the majority of the park is actually to the east – on the Polish side. At the centre of the German park is the old medieval castle, remodelled into the formidable New Castle from which paths radiate outwards.
The Prince studied garden design in England in his formative years, and his vision permeates throughout, with separate areas – each with their own character – all linked by winding paths and sweeping views. Another success is how he seamlessly integrated the meandering river into the design itself, and built an extraordinary canal, “Hermann’s river Neisse”. Other highlights include a palm house and an orangery.
You can cross the English Bridge into Poland without border control. Whichever side you are in, make sure to try an original Prince Pückler ice cream – a three-tiered ice-cream cake that is served as a slice.
The vast grounds are perfect for a weekend of quiet contemplation and the good news is that you can overnight here in one of the converted holiday apartments, another great way to fully appreciate Prince Pückler’s masterpiece.
With its islands and harbours, sandy beaches and mudflats, and a hinterland of meadows and windmills, Germany’s North Sea coast offers a refreshing – if sometimes bracing – experience. The Wadden Sea landscape here is characterized by Wattenmeer or mudflats – an area frequently flooded by the tides. The Wattenmeer, which extends between the mainland and the East Frisian Islands for more than 2180 square miles, is protected as the Wattenmeer National Park, where over 250 life forms make up the specialized food chain created by the North Sea’s shallow tidal waters. The park is a relatively recent addition to the World Heritage List, being inscribed in 2019, along with the three Wadden Sea national parks of Schleswig-Holstein, Lower Saxony and Hamburg – plus areas in both Denmark and the Netherlands.
The Wattenmeer National Park is home to large colonies of seabirds and seals. In summer, you can go on a cruise to see the seals lazing about on mudbanks, or even join a guided walk over the mudflats between the islands of Amrum and Föhr. For two four-day periods each month, exceptionally low tides allow for mud-hiking – you’ll squelch barefoot between the two islands for around 2.5 hours.
The mudflats give way to sandy beaches and dune seas of marram grass, which have become Germany's coastal playground. Brace yourself for the weather though: the prevailing westerly winds can blow gale-force even in the summer, but the northerly latitude also means gorgeously drawn-out evenings and piercingly early sunrises.
Upstream of Rüdesheim, the banks of the Rhine gradually rear up into a deep and winding 65km-long gorge. The stretch is dubbed the Romantic Rhine for its quaint towns, steep sun-drenched vineyards, stupendous panoramic views and bewildering number of castles, all of which have helped make it a World Heritage Site. Its moniker is a nod to the German Romantics, who rebuilt most of the castles here; many are worth a look, as are the wine taverns famed for their excellent local vintages.
This sweep of the Rhine offers the full range of transport options: you can drive or trace cycle paths on two wheels, while car ferries cross the river in several places. But the most relaxing way to travel and appreciate the scenery is by boat. At St Goarshausen is a giant outcrop above town called the Loreley, made famous by Romantic poet Heinrich Heine in 1824. It tells the story of a beautiful siren, the Loreley, who would sit on the clifftop high above the river, combing her long blond hair and singing seductively to passing boatmen. Thus distracted from the lurking dangers of the river, the boatmen would be lured to their watery grave. The currents here are indeed treacherous and various sections of the river have been dredged to create safe channels for barges and other boats. The maiden is portrayed in bronze at river level.
The Romantic Rhine continues all the way to Koblenz, at the confluence of the Rhine and Moselle rivers. The best time to be in town is during the annual Rhine in Flames festival in August, a crackling firework bonanza best appreciated from a boat on the river or from the fortress of Ehrenbreitstein above town, accessible by chairlift. Back on terra firma, if you want to learn more about this wonderful stretch of river, visit the regional history museum inside the Forum Confluentes building. On display are 19th-century paintings that helped romanticize this enchanting part of the Rhine Valley.
The exuberance of the palace and parks of Wilhelmshöhe Park is evident even from the city centre: the flamboyant, Baroque Bergpark climbs the hill in front of you along arrow-straight Wilhelmshöher Allee, which is aligned with the park. Once inside the park itself, you realize Wilhelmshöhe is as vast as it is spectacular. Designed in the English style, it is Europe’s largest hillside park, instilled with the perfect combination of landscape architecture, nature and culture.
Commissioned by Landgrave Karl of Hesse-Kassel in the first decade of the 18th century to the Italian Francesco Guerniero, Wilhelmshöhe is dominated by the Hercules-Oktagon, an enormous fantasy castle topped by a pyramid on which stands an 8.25m-tall figure of Hercules, the work of the Augsburg coppersmith Jacob Anthoni.
From the foot of the Oktagon, the stepped cascades descend for 400m. From May to October, this is the scene of the best free show in Hesse, the Wasserspiele, when water is released at the top and slowly flows downhill. It takes around 10 minutes to descend the cascades, then disappears, reappearing over the Steinhöfer waterfall and under the picturesque Teufelsbrücke before finally re-merging in front of Wilhelmshöhe palace to power a spectacular 52m-high water jet. The entire performance takes an hour, so that you can comfortably follow its progress downhill. In summer there’s an illuminated evening performance on the first Saturday of the month.
The lower reaches of the park are dominated by Wilhelmshöhe Palace, a massive Neoclassical pile built between 1786 and 1801. It now houses a heavyweight collection of old masters ranking with the best in Germany. It is particularly strong on 17th-century Flemish and Dutch works, with paintings by Rubens, Van Dyck, Jacob Jordaens and Rembrandt. Germans Cranach and Dürer and Italians Titian and Tintoretto also have works here. Don’t miss the collection Classical antiquities, too.
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This content was created in partnership with the German National Tourist Board.
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