Do you ever wonder what life was like in previous centuries? Not just since Downton Abbey do I wonder how people used to live, work and play in the historic buildings that you can visit today.
Little did I know at the start of my day trip to Kassel that I would be granted some rare glimpses into the lifestyle of the ruling classes in the early 19th century. Yet, it was not where most people would go in Kassel. The world-famous Castle Wilhelmshöhe with its Unesco World Heritage listed Bergpark Wilhelmshöhe was a great start to the day but this was not the highlight.
To enter the time machine, we had to drive a little bit outside of town to see a small but stunning summer palace called Wilhelmsthal.
One of the Best Preserved Rococo Castles in Germany
Castle Wilhelmsthal was a rococo summer palace of which some claim it was one of the finest examples of its kind in Germany. An unassuming place when looking at it from the outside – a small three-building complex on the foot of a long slope. Not much on the outside hints at the original splendour inside.
Finding this hidden gem in Kassel was a bit of a journey – from a walk in the park at Bergpark Wilhelmshöhe with its delightful water games, to a guided tour in the only preserved part of the big castle, the Weissenstein Wing. And from here on to a journey to the past, where we saw first-hand the processes of an early 1800s country estate at Wilhelmsthal Castle.
Bergpark Wilhelmshöhe: Splendid Water Games in a Huge Park
We started our day trip to Kassel at Bergpark Wilhelmshöhe, a huge park in the central German city of Kassel. It is a Bergpark, which translates to mountain park, and on its highest point you will find Kassel’s most prominent landmark, the Hercules. It’s easily visible from most places in Kassel. There is a lot to see here, from areas of forests and playful water features to fantastical buildings and, of course, an impressive castle at the bottom.
Many people will want to see the water games, the grottoes, cascades, ponds and fountains. The system behind it is still original. A historic hydraulic system that builds up water pressure by withholding the water uphill and then pushing it through the system in one big release. When we visited in March, it was still too early to see the water games in action (you have to wait until May). But this did not take too much away from the charm of rushing waters and large pools with temples and pavilions reflecting on the surface.
Grottoes, Ruins, and the Devil’s Bridge
We had time to kill before we started our guided tour of the historic Weissenstein Wing in Castle Wilhelmshöhe, so we huddled together under the umbrella and visited some of the highlights of the park. For example, there was the enchanted Devil’s Bridge. It looked stunning even without the waterfall which was supposed to fill the picture on warmer days.
The aqueduct, another part of the elaborate water system, resembled with its arches and boulders a ruined castle. It was not quite like what you would find in a romantic English landscape garden.
It was just a idea of what the garden must be like in summer when the fountains would spray water high up in the air and visitors would fill the benches along the slopes. In the summer months, the water plays are even illuminated on the first Saturday of each month, which must be a brilliant spectacle.
Weissenstein Wing in Wilhelmshöhe: Precious Antiques in Historic Setting
When our tour of the Weissenstein Wing started, the guide advised us to leave our jackets on. Surprised, we complied and found that inside the historic wing the rooms were not heated at all. Inside the big stone walls and behind the wooden window frames, temperatures were cool on this early spring day. Not very comfortable for us but perfect for the treasures found inside.
The Weissenstein Wing is the only part of the castle in Kassel which is still original. All other parts were destroyed or badly damaged during World War II. Today, visitors can walk through the rooms and halls that used to be the private apartments of the ruling family. A summer house on the outskirts of the capital, albeit a big one.
This didn’t mean though that we were to see the actual condition around 1800. Rather, the Weissenstein Wing was a tableau to display furniture and artwork of the time period. There were beds and game tables, working desks and delicate chairs from the late 18th and early 19th centuries. In some places, wall coverings had been removed to reveal the historic paint layers underneath. Some of the highlights included the bathroom with the giant in-ground tub that was never used, the throne room, and the ready-set banquet room.
As the guide explained to us, this house offered just glimpses of what life was like in those days for the ruling classes. Rather than showing a moment in time, it was a museum of antiques in historic surroundings. If we wanted to see how life had really had been like at the time, to see a snapshot of a certain time period, he recommended a visit to nearby Castle Wilhelmsthal instead.
Castle Wilhelmsthal: A Day in the Life of Rococo Splendour
After our tour of Castle Wilhelmshöhe we drove to the much smaller Castle Wilhelmsthal. An unassuming little palace when seen from the outside. Surrounded by fields and farms and neolithic burial mounds. Overall, a very rural setting, contrasting with the magnificence of a rococo palace of such importance. Yet, Castle Wilhelmsthal is considered one of the best preserved masterpieces of its time.
The castle used to serve as a humble summer retreat. The family would live here during the hotter months. Guests would be invitied occassionally to join them during their stay in the country. For its time, a toned-down, intimate place where only the closest of friends were admitted.
The first two rooms we saw were the galleries of paintings, one of which the famous Beauty Gallery. The further you were admitted into the inner circle of the family, the more intimate the glances you would get as a visitor. While the first room would show just the standard portraits of ancestors and family members, the next – more private – room would show portraits of pretty ladies that must have been much more enjoyable to the owners of the castle – friends and favourites of the court.
We walked through the rooms to the left and right, all adorned with elaborate stucco and delicate wood carvings covered in gold-leaf. There were precious sofas with upholstering to match the wallpaper behind it. Pitch black lacquer furniture sourced from Asia. Priceless furniture with intricate artistic detail.
Upstairs-Downstairs the German way
Clearly you could make out at Wilhelmsthal Castle which rooms were in use by the owners of the castle and which were “invisible”. The ones facing the garden in the back were stately, bright and cosy. The ones behind hidden doors had been put aside to keep the household running behind the scenes.
We saw intricate detail such as a three dimensional parrot cage panel added to the wall in the one side of the house. In contrast, the servant part of the house showed a practical fold-out box bed and cacoa stove. The set-up was clear and easy to understand, the floorpan logical.
Our tour ended with a highlight: The big castle kitchen in a side wing with a central stove and spit roast fireplace.
A Trip Back in Time in Kassel off the Beaten Path
Our day in Kassel started with a visit to a place that was splendid but well-known. While Castle Wilhelmshöhe was a window to the past, it lacked the authenticity of a historic place where time had stood still. To really see how people used to live at the time of Napoleon, we needed to venture further and dare to leave the beaten path.
Castle Wilhelmsthal provided us with rare, intimate glimpses into a time that we had hardly looked into before.
For more information, visit the official website of Museums Kassel. Both castles have to be visited by guided tour only. Tours run every hour on the hour. Interior shots kindly provided by Kassel Marketing.
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