Bad Muskau

This past weekend, Silke and I took the train two hours east of Berlin to Bad Muskau, a crazy little town with a wildman coat of arms. Our destination: Pückler Park, the castle grounds designed by Fürst (Count) Hermann Ludwig Heinrich von Pückler, Germany’s favorite dandy.

Most Germans know the name Fürst Pückler because that’s what they call Neapolitan ice cream here -strawberry, vanilla and chocolate ice cream frozen together in a 1950s rainbow. The dessert was named for Pückler after his death in 1871 and while he was indeed interested in food (his royal cook published a book of banquet recipes), he is most well known for his landscaping work.

Pückler was born in 1785 in the Muskau castle that had been in his mother’s family for generations. He began studying law but soon abandoned it to travel the world. He fell in love with the English gardens he observed at many of the royal residences he visited. Back home, he bought up large parcels of land surrounding his castle and transformed them into an extensive park of fields, forests valleys and streams. He eventually became one of the most important garden artists of the 19th century.

Bad Muskau is his most famous work, a sprawling landscape with sixteen bridges, many crossing into neighboring Poland which holds the larger, wilder part of the park. I stupidly forgot my passport and was forced to stay on the German side. This was a really, really dumb mistake because English gardens are known to be carefully arranged to present the visitor with constantly changing views. Many of these curated vantage points are on the Polish side.

While Silke explored this part alone, I visited the museum in the castle and learned all about Pückler. In addition to his garden work, Pückler was a successful writer in his time. His travel writings were published and he became popular for providing a window into the world of royalty. His wife Lucie, who was also responsible for much of the work on the garden, also helped him publish the numerous love letters that he wrote to her while he was away. At the museum, there was a really cool love-letter machine where with a twist of a couple knobs you could produce your own Pückler missive.

Pückler’s travels included North Africa, where he signed his name on a pyramid and bought a 12-year old Ethiopian slave girl in Cairo. He named her Machbuba or “beloved” and brought her back to Muskau where she soon contracted tuberculosis and died. Apparently at this point in his life, Pückler had divorced Lucie because he needed money and was trying to find a rich woman to marry, though he and Lucie remained very close.

Pückler never did marry again and was eventually so deep in debt that he had to sell his castle. He bought a new one just outside of Cottbus and also designed the gardens there, including a giant pyramid of earth under which he is buried today.

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