Back in 2011 at the conclusion of our voyage round Berlin I observed that post-World War Two borders had carved through two creations of the great 19th century landscape gardener Prince Hermann von Pückler-Muskau: Park Babelsberg, our final stop back then, and today’s destination – Muskauer Park, a 560 hectare landscaped garden adjoining the Saxon spa town of Bad Muskau at Germany’s eastern edge.
Self, the Partner and Aged P arrive at Muskauer Park on a long day short on sunshine to discover the life and works of Pückler-Muskau. Ducking out of the rain we have ice cream in the café (Pückler-style, natürlich) before exploring the imposing ochre and cream palace, Schloss Muskau, and its rambling binational grounds. For while the Berlin Wall no longer slices through Babelsberg, or anywhere else, the Oder-Neisse Line which defines Germany’s eastern extent remains. However as it passes through Muskauer Park, the Neisse River slows to a trickle and there are no formalities to slow your progress across a picturesque footbridge. In fact there is little more than a candy-striped Polish border post to indicate that you’ve left Germany behind (cross the border from the town, on the other hand, and you find yourself in a teeny Tijuana of roadside stalls offering cut-price cigarettes, phone accessories and unregulated fashion).
Even during Pückler-Muskau’s time the borders were shifting, with his estate reassigned from the Saxons to the Prussians, who gave him the title of “prince” as a signing bonus. The current demarcation seems almost arbitrary, as if the region’s successive waves of Lusatians, Silesians, Sorbs, Wends and Bohemians were just a dream, marching alongside the Masurians, Kashubians, Moravians, Livonians and Masovians into the great sunset of eastern European identities.
Hermann von Pückler-Muskau was born in Schloss Muskau in 1785, and in 1815 he began refashioning its grounds. In the three intervening decades he studied law, travelled on foot through Switzerland, France and Italy, came into his considerable inheritance on the death of his father, met Goethe in Weimar, served as an officer in the Battle of Leipzig and undertook his first tour of Britain. There he encountered the dandies, adopting their sartorial severity and modish nonchalance as his own. Even more significantly, he discovered the deceptively casual mode of English gardening pioneered by Capability Brown which, like the dandy’s toilette, belied the great effort expended in achieving its effects. It was a style which Pückler-Muskau would dedicate the rest of his life to perfecting. So two hundred years ago, while the rest of the continent was consumed by the turmoil of Napoleon’s Hundred Days, Pückler-Muskau began turning his ancestral seat into an idealised landscape.
The Baroque mode which had previously dominated aristocratic landscaping often took the form of vast, orderly frames which amplified the form and magnificence of the main structure and – by inference – its owner. Liberated from such formality, Muskauer Park instead offers flower beds in eccentric tear drop formations, stately oak trees arrayed in conversational copses, fields of waist-high grasses and wide bosky vistas anchored by distant bridges. From the Polish side of the river the palace seems almost incidental, just another enchantment for the eye. Paths curve sinuously throughout the ensemble, the “silent guides” which Pückler-Muskau valued for the fresh perspectives they revealed with every turn. The palace’s moat, which recalled the original structure’s defensive function, was reduced to the status of water feature.
It was an expensive undertaking, and after his divorce from Lucie von Pappenheim in 1826, Pückler-Muskau returned to Britain in search of a rich wife to underwrite his plans, but came away brideless. On reaching Calais he paid a visit to the exiled Beau Brummell, a man who knew all about living beyond one’s means. But out of that trip came the work which established Pückler-Muskau as a writer: first published anonymously in four volumes in 1830-31, Briefe eines Verstorbenen (“Letters from a Dead Man”) attracted praise from Goethe himself. As it happens “Die Queen” (as QE2 is known here) is currently in Germany on a state visit and brought a first edition of Briefe eines Verstorbenen in her carry-on as an official gift. It’s a shrewd choice, well suited to the trip’s underlying message of European togetherness (and it went down better than the Germans’ reciprocal offering, a gift horse HM looked squarely in the mouth).
In 1834 Pückler-Muskau revealed the theory behind his outdoor works in his most acclaimed publication, Andeutungen über Landschaftsgärtnerei (“Hints on Landscape Gardening”). It was followed by an intense decade of activity even by Pückler-Muskau’s vigorous standards: vignettes find him variously duelling in Paris, riding horseback through the Maghreb, visiting King Otto in Greece, climbing the pyramids, touring biblical sites, dropping in on Lady Hester Stanhope in Lebanon, sailing up the Danube, converting to Catholicism in Budapest and taking an early locomotive trip around Saxony. He kept an avid book-buying public regularly informed of his adventures.
All of this is related in a permanent exhibition which now occupies a fair portion of the palace. The prince appears in manifold effigy; somehow he always looks different, appropriate to a man who seemed to embody so many contrasting existences. There are enough novelties to hold the attention of the Pückler agnostic, including a machine which on introduction of a token issues a love letter in the style of the seigneur, the type of effusive entreaty which he dashed off by the dozen.
The prince’s many loves reflect his travels, his enlightenment, his casual cruelty. Prominent among them was the brilliant Romantic writer and composer Bettina von Arnim, who had married into one of Germany’s most illustrious families. Another was married Englishwoman Sarah Austin, who first translated Briefe eines Verstorbenen into English; when the prince’s passions cooled but her letters kept coming, he threatened to publish them. Late in life Pückler-Muskau enjoyed a May-December romance (February-December, really) with Ada von Treskow, 55 years his junior.
The most disturbing episode in the prince’s extensive romantic annals was that which began in 1837 when a young Abyssinian girl caught his eye in the Cairo slave market. Pückler-Muskau purchased her, named her Machbuba and took her home as a souvenir much as his compatriots might have returned with an exotic bird, or a vase. He claimed that he treated her as a mistress rather than a slave, but the distinction was presumably lost on the bemused girl as he “trained” her for society. She contracted pneumonia in unaccustomed climes and died, alone, in Schloss Muskau in 1840.
By 1845 Pückler-Muskau was woefully overextended and decided to sell up. His purchaser was a Dutch prince who supplied the building’s present Neo-Renaissance frippery; Pückler himself had been minded to make the whole thing over in fashion-forward Neo-Classicist style, but his finances extended only as far as having the style’s greatest German exponent, Karl Friedrich Schinkel, design a dual ramp to better link the forecourt to the garden.
Fortunately Pückler-Muskau had a spare estate at Branitz to play with, and he set about putting his gardening principles into action once again. His travels tended to encompass more modest distances than before and his literary output all but stopped. But the prince’s lust for adventure was not entirely stilled: he was well into his 80s when he volunteered for service in the Franco-Prussian War, to be politely declined. Shortly after Germany was united under Bismarck and the Prussian king in 1871, Hermann von Pückler-Muskau died. Naturally he came to rest in one of his beloved gardens, specifically under a grass-covered pyramid at Branitz.
In 1883 the prince’s estate at Bad Muskau passed to another member of the Arnim family, which held it until the end of World War Two. Muskauer Park now enjoys UNESCO World Heritage status for its innovative design, which influenced landscapes as far afield as the US, and as an example of cross-border cooperation.
As the clouds roll over again we leave the park behind. Before pressing on to Görlitz we pay one last stop, visiting Machbuba’s ivy-veiled resting place in a nearby church yard, her pitifully small grave a mournful spectacle in the rain.