Cultural Heritage Heritage Education Volunteering

Of Trees and their Keepers – Discovering the complex heritage of Belvedere Park and Gardens

This article was co-authored by Alma

Belvedere Castle, the Baroque French-style summer residence of Duke Ernst August of Saxe-Weimar and his successors, was built over a period of twenty years in the early to mid- 18th Century. Today the Castle-complex, its parks and gardens, form part of the UNESCO World Heritage site “Classical Weimar” and is managed, along with main parts[i] of the World Heritage ensemble site, by the Klassik Stiftung Weimar (Weimar Classical Foundation).

Interested in learning more about the history and heritage of the castle-complex’s park and gardens, we took the fifteen-minute bus-ride from the centre of Weimar to the Castle complex to spend a few hours picking Andreas Pahl’s brain. He has served as the Head Gardener at Belvedere for the past nine years, and has graciously agreed to show us around the park and discuss with us some of the more unknown or hidden elements of the heritage that can be found here.

We meet at his office on the first floor of the former Head Gardener’s house, located next to the Orangery. Today, the ground floor of this building is used as an exhibition space for European Heritage Volunteer projects. This is no coincidence, as Belvedere forms part of the “Parks and Gardens of Classical Weimar” project hosted each year by European Heritage Volunteers. During this project, volunteers work to uncover and restore the grounds’ historical path system to the way it was during the days when the last Duke lived here.

Volunteers work for two weeks uncovering the path system using historical maps of the site. The old paths are hidden about 20 cm deep under the ground and volunteers do everything, starting with cleaning out the vegetation on top of the paths. “Volunteers have come to work here for the past five years, and it is my favourite part of the year because every time they leave a new part of the park (and therefore the heritage of Belvedere) is accessible to the public,” Pahl tells us.

A recently uncovered path edge

A recently uncovered path edge

Are there any other traditional practices being used to maintain the heritage of the castle-complex that is not common knowledge, or maybe falls outside of the public eye? “In the Orangery (where about 600 plants from the gardens are moved for protection against cold during the winter) we still use the original heating-system installed in 1820. Over the years, the system has had to be partly-restored as the clay that it was built with cracks and breaks over time, but everything on the inside is original.”

The Orangery (viewed from the inside) showing seedling trays on top of the heating system

The Orangery (viewed from the inside) showing seedling trays on top of the heating system

Orangery (as seen from the New Holland Garden)

Orangery (as seen from the side of New Holland Garden)

The heating system makes use of wood that comes from the roughly 150 ha of parks managed by the Klassik Stiftung Weimar, and only trees that need to be removed are used, making it a sustainable practice. The amount of wood necessary to heat the Orangery for the entire winter can be as much as 100-120m3, but last year only 50m3 were needed. “It also depends on the types of plants. Here in the main room where the trees are stored the temperature is kept between three and five degrees Celsius. The double northern wall also helps to keep the heat inside.” Other rooms, where seedlings or flowers are grown, are kept warmer and have the most windows in order for the sun to heat it during the day. As it is no longer norm for gardeners and assistants to live on the premises, we are curious as to how they ensure that the heating’s fire does not burn out during the night. “We have systems in place for that,” Pahl laughs. “The person in charge of the heating lives close enough to see the chimneys from their window. If there is no smoke, there is no fire – and then you need to run before the cold infiltrates the building.”

Preparing for the coming winter – wood that will be used to heat the Orangery during the cold season

Once again in the bright sunlight outside, we pass through the New Holland Garden where we notice some vegetables growing between the array of colourful flowers. “When the Duke lived here, he had a Kitchen Garden. Come, I will show it to you.” We walk down into a more wooded area of the park until we reach a cottage. As it turns out, there were not one, but two head gardeners during the Duke’s time: one of them were solely in charge of the Kitchen Garden, and the other of the rest of the park and gardens in its entirety. It is in front of the Kitchen Garden Keeper’s house that we are standing now, inhabited today by one of Pahl’s colleagues. “I told you someone lives close enough to see the chimneys!” Pahl exclaims with a laugh as we descend down the few mossed-over 19th century stone steps into what used to be the Kitchen Garden.


Vegetables growing between the flowers in the New Holland Garden

A faint difference in the height of grass separates where the paths and the garden beds used to be in this four-quarter symmetrical garden. “All of the vegetables used in the Duke’s kitchen were grown here until he left after the First World War in 1918. The territory was then divided between families and the vegetables needed for consumption were grown in greenhouses. During subsequent wars vegetables grown there were also used for public consumption.” A line of apple trees marks the end of the garden, and beyond them lies the river Possenbach. On the other side of the river, the Belvedere forest starts. “Once there was no longer a Duke who needed vegetables for his table, nature just took its course.”

Differences in the grass's height clearly shows the outlines of the paths and the fountain in the middle

Differences in the grass’s height clearly show the outlines of the paths and the fountain in the middle

A semi-ruined wall on the other end of the garden shows the remains of a grape trellis. Pahl explains that the wall used to be an arch-way entrance to the trellis, but that heavy rain over the course of many years, combined with a lack of maintenance, has brought the arch down. “My goal is to restore this garden, not necessarily as it was during the 1850s, but to become a real garden again. Perhaps we can eventually even replace the fountain that was in the middle.” With a team of only 24 people working on the grounds as a whole, it is impossible to spare someone for the work that needs to be done – and it is evident that it is not a job for only one person. We walk over to the apple trees. “I hope that, once the path system has been completely restored, we can get the volunteers from European Heritage Volunteers to start working here. It might take years, but that does not matter – it is working for the sake of the heritage that is important.”

A semi-ruined wall marks the boundary of the Kitchen Garden

A semi-ruined wall marks the boundary of the Kitchen Garden

Andreas Pahl holding up historic plans for the gardens

Andreas Pahl holding up historic plans for the Park and Gardens, explaining the Path System Restoration Project

Later, on our way back to Weimar, we reflect on our afternoon spent with Andreas Pahl and the gardens of Belvedere, agreeing that one thing is abundantly clear: as human beings we need heritage and we know this – the very fabric of our very identities are based thereupon – but what we sometimes forget is that heritage needs people too. If we do not make a constant effort to maintain, revitalise, regenerate or restore heritage – in whatever way might be necessary – we run the risk of losing it. The gardens of Belvedere is a fitting example of this, where the physical effects that time have makes for a complex display of heritage: just because heritage it is hidden or inaccessible to most people does not mean it does not have a purpose – as in the case of the of the Orangery’s heating system; sometimes all heritage needs to become accessible is some effort – as in the case of the historical paths’ restoration; and, as we saw in the site of the old and (hopefully) future Kitchen Garden – the efforts of people committed to creating future access to heritage should never be underestimated.


[i] Some parts of the UNESCO site “Classical Weimar” are managed by either the church or the City of Weimar


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