Friday, June 08, 2012

Chateau de Versaille - 15 April 2012

There is no way you could suggest the Palace of Versaille nestles into the countryside of the Ile-de-France region. It is the countryside. The palace and the gardens dominate.



Visiting Versaille is a severe test of patience.

Getting there via the metro etc is easy enough. The testing begins when you have to queue for entry tickets. As I was visiting in mid-April, the online ticketing did not seem to be functioning so had to buy tickets at an agency. Stand in line. Then you have to queue for entry and have your bags checked. After that queue you then have to pick up your audio guide for the Palace. Another queue. I guess if you have come as far as I had, you really have to visit the Palace....but of course this means yet another enormous queue!

Visitors shuffle through the galleries, chambers and corridors posing for photos, listening to their audio guides and sometimes queuing to get through the door to the next chamber.

Patience grasshopper!



Many gardens in Europe have the appearance, at least in part, of a natural landscape embroidered with some art, ponds and perhaps a fountain or two. Many have an arboretum that invites you to wander along meandering paths flanked by exotic and sometimes ancient trees. Not Versaille!

The gardens define the French style of parterre and grand avenues. Trees stand to attention in ranks ready for inspection by the King. Ponds and fountains follow a grand design that accentuate the flamboyant characteristics of the palace and courtyards. Each avenue leads your eye to another grand statement made by the Kings garden designer. Most of the credit for the structure of the gardens could go to Louis XIV and Andre le Notre with help from an army of others who expanded on the work begun by Louis XIII.

The grand canal is a statement in its own right. The grand canal dominates the view from the rear courtyard of the palace (if you can call any side the rear). The canal is no natural watercourse but a man made lake deep enough to sail and row upon. And by man made, I mean in the true sense of the word. The excavations being completed by hand tools and wheel barrows over an 11 year period.

One cannot but admire the skill of the engineers and architects of the day to make this, not only work, but endure for over 300 years. Imagine the stress of the "clerk of works" trying to manage a huge workforce when the price for losing an argument with "the boss" could be the guillotine.

You cannot fault the level of workmanship and the overall effect but you can't help wonder at the arrogance of the King who considered this his own. I wonder how the King would feel if he had any idea of the fate of his project.

Instead of private gardens and intimate salons decorated by master craftsmen and artists, today thousands of visitors knock on his door every day. They traipse through his bedroom chambers with cameras recording every detail.

The gardens are assailed by golf carts, mini-trains, bicycles and pedestrians posing in front of fountains and statues.

The cost of building such a structure must have been a severe strain on the economy at the time and I'm sure the original builders would never have imagined what dividend it would pay for the community into the future. I would imagine that, by now, it has paid for itself.


At least the gardens let you slip out of the queue and you can wander the 800 hectares to suit yourself, stopping as you please to inspect the ranks of trees and the magnificent and perfect parterre gardens.

Instead of walking you could hire a four seater golf cart on an hourly rate to cruise the highways and byways of the estate or you can catch the hop on - hop off mini train that will take you to Le Grand Triannon and the canal.

The fountains do not operate continuously but is an added extra to your ticket. To see the fountains operating certainly adds to the spectacle.

The palace is certainly spectacular and that is the reason it is sooo popular. Over six million visitors each year.




I think it would be a shame to miss the palace and just visit the gardens but you must allow for a big day to do all and hope, with all the crowds, that everyone has applied deodorant!




Thursday, May 24, 2012

Potsdam - Sans Souci - 12th April 2012

Schloss Sans Souci

One wonders at the arrogance of the 18th and 19th century rulers of Europe but at the same time, you thank them for their grand vision. How many other gardeners and landscapers have drawn on the collective experience provided by the great gardens of Europe.
This Prussian palace and garden is inspired from the French garden at Versailles. Even the French name Sans Souci (without care or could be no worries). Not only French but Sicilian, Italian and Dutch influences the architecture with a smattering of Greek mythology.


The walls are covered in vines in summer but at the time of my visit all was bare. Just buds and blossoms.

Being early spring, much of the garden was only showing the promise of the months ahead. I had caught the emperor in his underwear so to speak.

Still this was an opportunity to appreciate the fully deciduous plantings that are not readily on offer in the temperate parts of Australia.



The Sans Souci Palace construction predates European settlement in Australia by almost 50 years. The final shape of the garden was not complete for about another 100 years. The garden designer certainly had a long view.


Needless to say, the trees and vines have been established for over 100 years and the vines covering the various arbours creating green tunnels in the summer show the effects of countless prunings.





Tree trunks, laid bare, show their underlying form and texture which is often obscured by their normal summer foliage. I found the subtle displays of bracket fungus and moss fascinating.





Massive trees with pneumatofores, almost like giant mangroves surrounded by the green tips of bulbs instead of water and sand.


It is tempting to compare Sans Souci to Versaille and there are some similarities but personally, I think Sans Souci is more livable than Versaille. I could see me waking up there on weekends. Cooking a breakfast bar-b-que in the back courtyard while the gardener catches up on the pruning and mowing. I would have to do something about all the sticky beaks looking over my fence though.


Talk about over the fence, if you look out of the front door of the palace you have a grand view to a neighboring hillside that is adorned with a ruin. You know what countries with long histories are like, ruins here and there, well this ruin is by design. The hill actually houses a reservoir for the water supply for various fountains and the ruins are a decoration visible from the front of the palace. The story goes, however, that the fountain system did not work until after the invention of the steam engine and steam powered pumps powerful enough to lift the water from the Havel River and fill the reservoir.






And what garden is complete without a Chinese garden pavilion flanked with golden figures and protected by security motion detectors activated as soon as you step over the chain fence.


The Chinese house must have cherry blossoms.






Wandering through Sans Souci park is an enjoyable way to spend a full day. Any way you go you will find some point of interest. Of course if you want to see it all you will have to be more organised and follow one of the recommended tourist walking routes.
Don't overlook the picture gallery next to the Palace which contains painting by many old masters such as Rubens and Caravaggio.

Unfortunately for me, the New Palace was having a facelift and hair transplant at the time of my visit. The building was surrounded by teams of workers and machines cleaning facades, replacing paving and turf in preparation for the exhibition “FRIEDERISIKO – Frederick the Great”.








The Sans Souci garden houses an annex of the University of Potsdam. In fact the University has a sizeable presence in the garden although it did not appear to be intrusive or affect the enjoyment of the garden in any way.





It appeared to me that the university was deeply involved in the operation of the glass houses on site and maintenance of the vegetable garden. So perhaps the I should thank the staff and students of Potsdam University for the tremendous displays and plant arrangements in the glass houses.




I liked the tortoise sanctuary they had in one of the displays. Evidently they had taken in some unwanted pet tortoises because the tortoises had grown too large for a small domestic fish tank and too aggressive for the previous owners to manage.

The greatest influence on Potsdam was King Frederick II who was a patron to the arts and sciences of the time.
Frederick is now buried at Sans Souci and visitors often leave flowers on his gravesite. Some leave potatoes. It was King Frederick the great who introduced the humble staple, the potato, to prussia.
But that's another story.



Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Gardens of Poland

Wroclaw - 3rd April 2012

I came into Wroclaw on an overnight train from Cologne via Dresden. 
Having a first class ticket on the Polish rail seemed to mean that I had a compartment meant for six, to myself. A fairly comfortable trip on PolRail although the heater in the compartment seemed to be stuck on high. There was a lot of construction work at the railway station so I didn't have time to appreciate the 19th century architecture. A short ride in a taxi and I was enjoying the luxury of my hotel on the banks of the Odra river.

A large Dwarf 
I had a very impressive room at the HP Park Plaza with a top floor view of the river and old town. Although very comfortable and extremely hospitable, the structure itself, being a large glass fronted building seemed quite at odds with the surrounding architecture.
This was my first visit to Poland and I did not quite know what to expect. Wandering through the streets you see old buildings and cathedrals surrounded by cobblestones similar to many cities in Europe and then you are confronted by pictorial reminders that this city was in ruins  at the end of World War 2.

Buildings that were not destroyed by cannon and bombs were dismantled by the retreating German army for raw materials to build last minute defences against the Russian Army. After the war, bricks from the city were ferried to Warsaw to help with the reconstruction effort in that city.
This history, in my view makes the town reconstruction all the more remarkable. Most of the original architecture has been restored and now, as you trip over the cobblestones in the street, it is easy to drift back two or three centuries. You snap out of it when you stumble over a 21st century shopping centre, tucked in amongst the old buildings that has all the usual modern conveniences. 




The Odra River, Wroclaw

More by good fortune than design, I happened upon a gate providing access to the University of Wroclaw Botanic Garden. The Polish Ogrod Botaniczny sounds much better than Botanic Garden.

Now considering the harshness of the last Polish winter and the fact that it is only spring, this garden is starting to show the promise of summer. The tips of  bulbs were beginning to show, some daffodils were in full flower and mass plantings of pansies added to the colour of the garden. The alpine plant display in full flower, I found particulary delightful.



Botanical Gardens University of Wroclaw

Big nuts
The extremely thorough plant labelling was due, no doubt to the science staff and students at the university who use the garden as a teaching resource. Beneath some trees lie large carved representations of the nuts or fruits peculiar to that species of tree.

It wasn't unusual to see dwarfs placed at strategic places around the garden either. The dwarves started as a political statement during the time that Poland was behind the Iron Curtain. They have now become somewhat of a tourist attraction. But that's another story.

Garden dwarves


The strong connection with the university and education generally is reflected in the elements of the garden layout. 



Established in 1811 as a scientific institution, the plantings are grouped in sections to exemplify different plant characteristics such as types of flower distribution on stem, methods of pollination, leaf, and fruit types. These collections include edibles such as beetroot and potatoes as well as plants used historically for medical purposes. Wormwood is one example.

Succulent display including sombrero and poncho at the rear

The garden has a collection of green houses each devoted to a particular class of plants, as they usually are. I liked the little touch with the sombrero and poncho in the succulent display.


The collection of aquatic plants is a particular source of pride for the curators of the garden. Their collection consists of 350 different taxa of tropical and sub tropical water and marsh plants.

No mean feat when the recent winter had temperatures at 20 degrees celsius below zero and lower. Plants such as Hygrophila, which has the status of a weed on the Australian east coast are entirely unknown in Poland. With winter temperatures like that, I'm not surprised.
The greenest of the green houses is devoted to a large collection of Ivy (Hedera). The green house even had ivy transfers covering the glass. Must be someones favourite!
The ivy house complete with ivy transfers on the glass

This garden even has a display of coal, which I suppose was a plant sometime or other, and fossilized trees. As part of the alpine plant display, the garden has a large scale cross section of strata containing a coal seam and fault line. This exhibition illustrates the evolution of nature providing fossilized evidence dating back to the Pre-Cambrian era.

Fossilised trees and coal seam 

The arboretum surrounds a natural pond which is a remnant of the Odra river. The pond forms a perfect focus for the arboretum which is laid out like a recreation park in three geographic groups. Pecans, willows and larch trees, among others are representatives from North America, East Asia and the Caucasus.

A bridge and a timber walkway cross the pond which in summer is covered with a range of aquatic plants such as Marsilea quadrifolia, Schoenoplectus americanus,and Trapa natans. Most of these aquatic plants have weed status in Australia but suit the application here because they are quick growing and vigorous. 


As the publicity for the garden suggests, this is an oasis
The view from the alpine display looking back into the garden really sums up this relatively compact but exquisitely presented garden.
View from the alpine plant display





Delicate and soft  Pulsatilla Halleri


My advice to you , if you are heading to Europe, take a trip to Poland, you won't be disappointed I guarantee you. Polish people are welcoming, friendly and fortunately for me, many people spoke some English. Of course this only made me feel like a heel because I only speak English and, to top it off, When I thought I was saying 'thankyou' to people, my husband pointed out to me that I was actually saying 'hello' in a weird Australian accent, leaving these people totally bewildered I am sure.

Krakow

Krakow Botanical Gardens - 6th April 2012

Visiting the botanic gardens in Krakow really reminded me of the strong common interest shared by plant enthusiasts.

A last minute email contact bought me knocking on the door of the offices of  Professor Bogdan Zemanek of the Jagiellonian University.
Even though the the garden was not scheduled to be open for another two weeks, Professor Zemanek kindly offered a tour of their facilities.

Add to this that it was the Friday before their Easter long weekend and the weather was cold and damp to gauge the graciousness of his offer....Polish people are so nice!












The botanic gardens attached to the Jagiellonian University are the oldest in Poland. 


Founded in 1783 on the land surrounding a small palace built as a suburban villa around 1600 which had an existing Renaissance garden.

An observatory was incorporated in the garden precinct using the palace buildings in 1792. The street outside the gardens is called Mikolaja Kopernika, named after one of the local talents called (in English) Copernicus who, around the 16th century, is credited for the theory that the sun is the centre of the solar system circled by the earth and other planets. So this area has a long history of scientific investigation.

The garden itself is situated in a section of Krakow that was once the bed of the Vistla River. The river changed its course and left the clay bed behind. The main pond in the garden is a remnant of a bend in the river



The first section of the garden you see is the geometric display of plants in the French Baroque style. This is the legacy of the the original garden design which was fashionable in the 18th century and reflects the early use of the land as a Renaissance garden belonging to the Czartoryski family.


The second half of the 19th century saw upgrades to the garden which included a pond, which I mentioned before and an increase in the plant collection brought from Vienna, Paris, Vilnius, St. Petersburg and many local palace gardens. 


Plant enthusiasts love to share!


How lucky are we that science and exploration were so highly regarded in the 18th and 19th century that so much effort was put into the nurturing and display of rare and unusual plants. We are indeed lucky that this infrastructure still exists considering that today almost everything must suffer a cost-benefit analysis and bean counters have the last say. 

The garden somehow survived Nazi occupation during the second world war also, when all other sections of the University were closed. Fortunately the Polish staff, gardeners and assistants managed to minimise damage to the collections and this collection became a source of material for the restoration of other botanical gardens.



The beautiful Medinilla


Just one of the beautiful and healthy azalaeas in the collection



As the weather was overcast and gloomy looking, you can
understand why the azalea colleciton is so popular.





The fascinating "ant plant' Myrmecodia tuberosa. I just bought one of these online when I returned home





A collection of orchids in the glasshouse



The second half of the 19th century saw the introduction of tropical plant collections mainly due to the efforts of travellers and explorers of the new world. The main benefactor of the Krakow gardens was Joseph Warszewicz who became the director and chief gardener. Joseph travelled to Central and South America collecting plants and seed samples which he used to develop the collection at Krakow.

Many of the orchids and cycads in the garden are descendants of this original collection and indeed, the first generation of plants from the seed collection.
As Professor Zemanek explained, other gardens may have older cycads, for example, but their plants may have spent 200 years in the jungle and 50 years in the garden. Here, at Krakow, the plants have spent 150 years in the garden having been originally struck from collected seed.




There are three glass houses here, two of which are open to the public. The largest is "Jubilee" which consists of the palm house and a long hot house sectioned for different species of plants. The glass house, Jubilee, opened in 1964, is named to commemorate the 600th (yes, 600) anniversary of the Jagiellonian University.



According to Professor Zemanek, originally the site adjacent to the Jubilee glass house was the highest point in the garden and when the garden was planned, had commanding views of the Vistla River and surrounding valley. Gradually this view has been eroded by surrounding buildings so that now you can only see across the road.

The Victoria glass house derives its name from the genus of water lilly that grows in the pond there, the Victoria amazonica. This is the oldest of the glass houses in the garden being built 1786 - 1787

The "Dutch" glass house, Dutch being the type, designed for epiphytic plants and orchids but also contains rare plants which are kept isolated. The Dutch glass house is normally closed to the public but is sometimes used for educational visits.







You might normally see a collection of cakes or quiches in one of these units but it seems they are perfect for carniverous plants, of which there is a great collection


The emphasis on education is obvious with the target group 
being all ages. All plants are labelled and some of the glass house plants have full descriptions and pictures of dissections showing particular adaptations that have made the plant successful.

I found the Myrmecodia tuberosa (the ant plant) particularly fascinating having seen examples previously at the botanic gardens in Kew, London. 


Krakow Botanic Garden is one of the European gardens exhibiting a Wollemi pine. Professor Zemanek explained "we have two specimens of the Wollemi pine. One from the Polish collection and another supplied from Dresden Botanical Garden". 
They plan to place the Dresden plant in the outside garden to see how it copes with the harsh winters. 
"The level of frost at Krakow is more severe than Dresden. At Krakow we may have a severe frost event every twenty years that Dresden may experience every 100 years" explained Professor Zamenek.  

Sometimes it's flattering to see the level of interest in plant species from the southern hemisphere. Many of the plant species indigenous to Europe have been studied for a thousand years where as, from the European point of view, the south was "Terra Incognita". Some regions only being explored botanically from the last 200 years or so and surprises, like the Wollemi pine, still possible. 

What I particularly loved about these gardens was the level of care the staff give to the plants. the layout in many areas replicated a home garden, with lots of finishing touches that added to the charm.


The Aboretum is the largest part of the garden and is arranged as a landscaped park with examples of trees from East Asia and North America. The landscaping is complemented with collections of ornamental plants such as lilacs. The pond, which could be called a billabong, provides a space for the water plants. The water plants here are mainly native as introduced plants from more temperate regions do not survive the harsh winters. This section of the garden provides a very tranquil setting and is guarded by an old Ginkgo and a 200 year old common oak. Many specimens of trees here are more than 150 years old. 


Botanical Gardens are research units and deeply involved in the protection of flora and vegetation of the world and in Professor Zemanek's words "Living museums".  Not only providing knowledge of the principles ruling nature but also by framing the minds of the young generation, making people living among stone walls of cities conscious of the spiritual dimension of nature.