Tuesday, August 14, 2007

12 June: Mainau - A Garden Lover's Paradise

We took yesterday (Monday) off to recover from the weekend and do some housework, plus I had to finish a photo collage for the IWC fundraiser coming up this weekend. I promised Anne, the club president, nearly three months ago that I would make the collage (in my capacity as unofficial club photographer), but of course I procrastinated and only started working on it last week. I finally got some black posterboard from my friend Shannon (who got it on base - her husband is a military contractor) and printed out all the photos over the last few days, so on Monday I just had to glue all the pictures on the board, print out the captions, and finagle a sort of stand out of cardboard (also supplied by Shannon) so the boards would stand up. It took longer than expected (naturally) because I had to trim all the photos with an exacto knife, but I had to get it done today, as Anne is picking it up tomorrow morning and Mom and I are leaving for Rome tomorrow afternoon! I actually think it turned out quite nicely, in a 6th-grade science project sort of way. (What became quite obvious as I printed out the photos is that in 90% of our activities, we are eating! I guess you know where our priorities lie...)

With that task out of the way, we were ready for today's adventure. Mom is an avid gardener and I’ve been looking forward to taking her to the garden island of Mainau in the Bodensee (Lake Constance) ever since we began planning her visit several months ago. John, on the other hand, is not a big garden fan, so it made sense to make this trip on a weekday while he was at work and the crowds would hopefully be thinner. Originally I thought we would make the 90-minute drive to Meersburg on the north shore of the Bodensee and take the ferry from there to Mainau, but upon closer examination of the route I determined that it would take just about the same amount of time to drive straight to Mainau. This meant missing Meersburg, but our time was limited and our main goal was the gardens, so we decided to skip the ferry trip.

We made the pleasant drive in the SLK in just over an hour and a half, aided by a clear stretch of Autobahn where I was able to demonstrate for Mom what it feels like to drive 210 kph (130 mph). We didn’t have the benefit of a navi today, but once we approached the island, well-marked signs directed us to the visitor parking lot on the mainland (the island is connected to the mainland by a long causeway, pictured at right). We parked and walked along a shaded pathway, passed by the occasional cyclist, to the ticket kiosks (the entrance fee is 9,50 Euro per person), eyed the gift shop where plants apparently make popular souvenirs, and passed through the turnstiles. Mom noted that most of the visitors on this lovely Tuesday morning were of an “older generation”; a man watching the turnstiles gave us a big smile, probably recognizing our mother-daughter outing for what it was, and wished us a nice day.

We headed across the causeway under blue skies dotted with fluffy clouds, a vast expanse of aquamarine stretching away to rolling green hills on either side of us. Looking down through the crystal-clear water, we could see silver fish swimming above the sandy bottom. A variety of shorebirds were paddling in the shallow water and foraging in the reeds along the shoreline.

As we approach the island, allow me to share some of Mainau’s fascinating history with you. Evidence of human settlement here dates back to 3000 B.C.; Mainau became a Roman holding, then an Alemannic dukedom and later a Frankish royal property before being given to the powerful monastery of Reichenau in 724 A.D. The Reichenau presented the island to the Teutonic Order of Knights in 1272. The House of the Teutonic Order, originally located in Switzerland, was transferred to Mainau, and at this time the island’s existing castle was enlarged. The Teutonic Knights were defeated by the Swedes in the Thirty Years’ War of the mid-17th century, at which time the island fell under Swedish control for the first time. The Swedes withdrew from the island in 1649; one hundred years later, the Teutonic architect Johann Caspar Bagnato started work on a new church and castle, which were completed in 1746.

The Teutonic Order was dissolved in 1806 and the island went to the newly founded Grand Duchy of Baden. Prince Nikolaus von Esterházy purchased the island in 1827 and was the first to cultivate rare plants there. Grand Duke Friedrich I acquired Mainau in 1853 and improved the arboretum, the Italian rose garden, and the orangery, bringing back many valuable trees and exotic plants from his travels, which form the basis of the gardens as we see them today. In 1856, Friedrich I married Princess Louise, daughter of the Emperor Willhelm I of Prussia, and the island was inherited by their son, Grand Duke Friedrich II, in 1907. Upon his death, he passed the island to his sister Viktoria, Queen of Sweden, who in turn left it to her son Prince Wilhelm of Sweden. Finally, in 1932, Prince Wilhelm handed over the administration of the island to his 23-year-old son, Prince Lennart, who made Mainau his new home, having renounced his title and possible succession to the Swedish throne by marrying a commoner. Prince Lennart was responsible for opening Mainau to the public. The island remains a possession of the Swedish royal family today; it is now operated as a foundation and has become one of the biggest tourist attractions of the Bodensee.

We soon reached the shaded borders of the island, where we were welcomed by a giant topiary-like sculpture of a flower in a flowerpot (2nd picture from top). (There were several of these fanciful creations scattered across the island – one in the form of a peacock, another a reclining gnome.) A meandering path led us first to the herb garden, where dozens of culinary and medicinal plants are cultivated in rings surrounding a whimsical rooster fountain. Our route took us along the south side of the island, past the petting zoo, which includes a special breed of tiny cattle, and on to the magnificent Rose Promenade (pictured above), where we enjoyed the spectacle of more than 800 varieties of rose, primarily wild and bush varieties, along with other gorgeous landscape flowers (see photo of Mom under a rose arbor, above). The hot weather in May had disrupted the normal blooming cycle, as many of the roses were already past their prime. (At the ticket kiosk we picked up forms to vote for the most beautiful rose and I noted that the selection is normally made in July, but they had obviously moved the contest up due to the unusually warm weather.) Along the Promenade, we found a spectacular rosebush in the height of bloom, a veritable symphony of tiny magenta-and white blossoms, fittingly called “Mozart,” which ended up being Mom’s favorite (photo, above). Higher up on the hill above the roses we could see grapevines and apple orchards; the weeds were being kept down between them by grazing goats.

Our next stop was the Italian Water Staircase, which features a stunning waterfall cascading down stone steps, flanked on either side by lush flower beds (photo, above). This year the entire island has been embellished with artwork by the artist Stefan Szczesny, and his colorful globe-shaped pots added a touch of whimsy to the postcard-perfect scene. From here we strolled through the fuschia garden, which has some spectacular ten-foot-high specimens, and stopped to take in the view of the Bodensee looking out towards Meersburg. Complete with a few palm trees, Szcesny’s exotic sculptures, and the intense blue-green waters of the lake scattered with crisp white sails, we felt like we had been transported to the Mediterranean (photo, above). I couldn’t help notice two elderly ladies sitting on a bench together, enjoying the view from the shade of a huge tree – they were both dressed from head to toe in shades of pink, from their airy sunhats to their handbags. We were about ready for a rest ourselves, so we took a short break to lounge in one of the curious wicker “cabana chairs” that I have seen before in pictures of northern German seaside resorts, complete with blue-and-white striped cushions, pull-out footrests, and folding drink trays (photo, right).

We were starting to get hungry as we rounded the east side of the island, so we climbed up a path to the palace – a creamy stuccoed building with red trim and white shutters, laid out in a U-shape alongside the Renaissance-style church (photo, right) – and looked for one of the restaurants labeled on our map. The café in the palace only serves sweets, so we went back outside and found the Schwedenschenke (Swedish Tavern), where we snagged one of the last tables on the shaded terrace. We both ordered mixed salads and the house drink, a tropical concoction mixed with sparkling wine (the waiter actually grinned when I ordered it).

After our energy boost, we were ready to take on the Italian rose garden on the south side of the palace (photo, right). (At this point my camera battery died and I discovered that the spare battery I had brought was not charged, so I had to commandeer Mom’s camera and used it for the rest of the day!) Planned in the 19th century on a strict geometric design, this vast rectangular garden is surrounded by a pergola of climbing roses and other creeping plants (photo, below) and features three circular fountains down its center. A curving grand staircase leads into the garden proper, which is laid out in long rectangles of lawn bordered by every variety of floribunda and polyantha rose under the sun. It was a feast for the eyes – rich swaths of red, pink, peach, yellow, cream, and white – and the nose, as the fragrance of thousands of blossoms wafted through the warm summer air. We spent a considerable amount of time strolling the gravel walkways, trying to decide which rose variety was the most beautiful. Past years’ winners took pride of place in the beds bordering the fountains (photo, right).

After dragging ourselves away from the roses, we found ourselves on the Mediterranean Terraces at the top of the Italian Water Staircase. There were very few people in this area and we lingered for a while, taking in the spectacular lake views and the display of fascinating tropical plants – birds of paradise, trumpet vines, passion flowers, agaves, palm trees, and bougainvilleas. In a secluded corner we came across a gorgeous fountain featuring a metal sculpture of two graceful swans standing in a shallow circular pool (photo, below). Mom just couldn’t resist the opportunity to take off her sandals and cool off her feet!

We headed back along the spine of the island, strolling along a pleasant tree-lined esplanade through the arboretum (photo, below), where some of Friedrich I’s specimens still thrive.Our last stop was the famous Schmetterlinghaus, Germany’s largest butterfly conservatory, where a winding path leads you through a tropical landscape full of hundreds of fluttering butterflies. A rushing stream, cascading waterfall, and misting water add to the tropical effect. Many of the butterflies stop to sample the nectar of the exotic blooms (photo below), but plates of fruit are also set out so you can see some of the insects up close. It was, not surprisingly, incredibly steamy in there, so we didn’t linger as long as we might have liked.

By this point we were way past our intended departure time so we had to skedaddle. We didn’t get to see everything – there is a frangrance garden near the butterfly house, a greenhouse off the palace, and various exhibitions in the visitor center – so I wouldn’t mind going back someday. (Apparently the gardens are spectacular in springtime when all the bulbs are in bloom.) We did stop at the gift shop to buy magnets and, on a whim, I bought an ornamental pomegranate plant for our balcony. Suffice it to say that Mainau more than exceeded our expectations – Mom said it was the most spectacular botanic garden she had seen in Europe. We couldn’t have asked for a more perfect day (except perhaps to turn down the heat a few notches!).

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