Very recently, on Facebook, I came across photos of a German friend of mine, who had walked one of my favorite hikes in my former hometown of Stuttgart, Germany. During weekends it’s usually overcrowded. But choose a weekday morning, especially when it’s cold, and you will find it to be a magic place to refresh body and soul. The Baerenseen (pronounce: ‘Ba-ran-zay-an, meaning bear lakes) are one of Stuttgart’s closest and most popular recreational areas and a nature reserve. With a hunting lodge turned into a restaurant to boot.
There are parking lots all around the lakes, from which you can access the 2-mile lake loop trail easily at different points. The ground is sloping softly through mixed woodlands, while curving around the three lakes that are fed by the Glems creek. Imagine the colorful foliage on a foggy fall day, the crisp silhouettes of branches on an early February morning, the relieving shade on a hot spring or summer day! No matter when you walk around the lakes, there is always something speaking to your senses. A red deer park and a boar corral add to the fascination of the former hunting grounds of the Stuttgart aristocracy.
Originally there were no lakes at all, by the way. The Glems creek was dammed (and to this day you can cross those dams to the other side of the lakes) to create first just one, later three artificial lakes. That must have happened around the time when, in 1768, Duke Karl Eugen of Wurttemberg decided he “needed” a small pleasure palace. So, he had built a two-floor stone pavilion old Roman style. There were gorgeous murals on the first floor and a salon with a painted ceiling on the second floor. The duke also imported Italian gondolas and had more rebuilt to put into the lakes, and he invited international guests to his hunting parties to shoot whatever animals the huge surrounding forests provided. It was a common measure by the aristocracy in those days by the way – those artificial lakes worked like a boundary line for the battues or drive-hunts. But after the duke died everything deteriorated, and the so-called Baerenschloessle (i.e. little bear palace) was torn down.
But obviously King Wilhelm I of Wurttemberg liked the idea of a hunting lodge well enough to have one built, classicist style, in the same place in the same year. And he started a large game enclosure that served for showy hunts “featuring” up to 700 harts. I can’t help but imagine the hillsides covered with the chases’ quarry. And, of course, the pavilion would be plastered with hunting trophies and paintings. The bear statues outside today’s site are replicas of the two that were also placed by the pavilion.
Don’t think that you were able to go visit the area as a regular citizen back then, though. The king knew how to make money by ticket sales. Well, once aristocracy was done with after WW I, the grounds became public. And during the Third Reich, the pavilion was even used as a state guesthouse. Then WW II came and with it destruction in the shape of an incendiary bomb.
But Stuttgart had come to love the former hunting lodge and deer enclosure – so the pavilion was rebuilt in the 1960s when money was flush again and, after having restored housing to the population, the town was able to wind their heads around more fancy objects again. The pavilion was turned into an excursion restaurant and started drawing people from all over the region. I won’t ever forget those summer weekend walks with my family ending up on the picnic grounds of the Baerenschloessle for a bottle of lemonade or a popsicle. And later with friends, on cold winter afternoons, for a glass of Gluehwein or grog, i.e. a shot of rum with hot water and a cube of sugar or two, inside the restaurant. You can imagine my shock and dismay when in 1994 the pavilion burnt down to the ground.
By the time I was engaged to who is now my husband, the structure had been beautifully rebuilt again, with gorgeous double glass doors on the top floor that grant an amazing view over the lakes and surrounding forests. I think we bought ourselves a buttered pretzel that Easter morning when I showed the place to my fiancé, and picnicked on the slope below the pavilion, soaking up the warming sun beams. It was one of the last times I visited and walked in that area. These photos brought it all back to me.