Fantastic 17th-century site gains additional international recognition
Germany’s Bergpark Wilhelmshöhe has been added to the prestigious UNESCO list of global cultural sites considered internationally significant. I’ve never been to the hillside park near Kassel, but I hope to see it one day. It is known for its arresting, intricate water features and the Hercules statue atop the hill as an expression of the ideals and power in the era of European Absolutism, along with the park’s successful blend of landscape design from both the Baroque and Romantic periods.
Landgrave Karl of Hesse-Kassel started the construction of the park in 1689. Unlike the flat Baroque gardens of the day, he decided to have it coming down a hill, overlooking the city of Kassel. This is another feather in Kassel’s cultural cap. The city is best known today for dOCUMENTA, its international exhibition of contemporary art that takes place every five years. But its traditional renown was as a place of work at the Prince Elector’s court for the Brothers Grimm, where they collected many fairytales.
Water displays were all the rage at Europe’s 17th-century courts, the more spectacular and intricate the better. Landgrave Karl bested them all, starting his with a spectacular waterfall cascading over the edge of the 1,640-foot-high park ridge with no apparent source, captured in a succession of intricately designed basins that descend toward the castle at the bottom, to be caught in front of it in a lake featuring a geyser spewing to heights never seen before.
The Landgrave also adorned the edge of the hill with an 26.9-foot tall Hercules statue mounted on a 97.1-foot pyramid-style obelisk, in turn standing on a 107.1-foot octagonal base pavilion. This monumental ensemble itself measures more than 236 feet. Adding the waterfall cascade below with its basins brings the total height of the Baroque spectacle to just under 590 feet. Some three hundred years later, the water displays still work as they did in the old days — manually operated to create choreographed optical effects to light and music on a schedule, or per occasion, on certain days of the week, depending on the season. Later rulers added to the hillside park, resulting in Romantic-period gardens and English-style landscape architecture descending a steep hill with more follies and more waterways now total 7.45 miles today.
Other attractions in Germany’s 38th UNESCO WHS Bergpark Wilhelmshöhe include the Prince Elector’s residential castle, with its mixture of grand building styles a stately site unto itself. It served as home to Napoleon’s youngest brother, Jérôme I, from 1807 to 1813, when Kassel was capital of Bonaparte’s Kingdom of Westphalia. Exploring the Löwenburg (Lion’s Castle) was built in the same period as the Elector’s residence, it is a replica of a medieval castle ruin. Click here for more information on Kassel and Bergpark Wilhelmshöhe, and here for information on other German UNESCO World Heritage sites.