Remember that I still owe you an article about the Zoological and Botanical Gardens in my German hometown of Stuttgart? Because I had been raving about the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle a while ago, which reminded me of this marvelous institution that was such a great destination during my childhood and teenage years. It probably still is, and I know they have been working a lot on it ever since I’ve left Germany for good.
Well, my family used to make it an annual outing on my father’s birthday in May – and usually everything was in bloom. It easily was a full day’s adventure, and I remember days when we arrived at the gorgeous wrought-iron pavilion (built in 1843), the main entrance, shortly after it opened its ticket windows to when we shuffled out tiredly after the first closing gongs had been sounded at night. For the Wilhelma, as this park is called, is that immense in size. And there is so much to discover behind the terracotta-tiled wall that fences in the part that faces the river Neckar.
I always loved to walk into the long conservatories featuring all kinds of exotic plants. The air in them alone was of a special foreign quality. To reach the immense glass hall with its cast-iron pillars and palm trees, banana trees, and fountain was like being led into another part of the world. But then so is the entire historical, lower part of the Wilhelma. Because under King Wilhelm I, for whom the Zoological and Botanical Gardens are named, the latest architectural fad was the Moorish style. The garden though is a traditional baroque pattern with symmetrical axes, artificial terracing, a water-lily pool, subtropical plants, fountains, garden ornaments, and even a so-called Belvedere pavilion at its highest point. Beyond is the modern, upper part of the Wilhelma with lots and lots of open-air enclosures as well as a model farm.
King Wilhelm I of Wurttemberg employed architect Karl Ludwig von Zanth in 1837 to plan and build this exotic, luxurious estate as another place to live, including a theater and a banqueting hall. There even was a bath house using the then newly discovered mineral springs from the nearby Rosenstein Park, which held the king’s summer residence.
Covered walkways make a stroll through the lower part of the Wilhelma a pleasure even during rainy weather, and with thousands of tropical and subtropical plants and some very special animal houses, this historical part never tired me, even when a child. Though all the monkeys, elephants, tigers, and giraffes were further uphill. Just imagine what an impression these parks must have made on Emperor Napoleon III and Tsar Alexander II when they were invited there by the King of Wurttemberg for reconciliatory talks in 1853! The soothing lay-out of the park must have made for some peace of mind for sure.
In 1880 the royal family opened the Wilhelma to the public – and no doubt earned quite some income by the admission fees raised. Less than 30 years later, after WW I, aristocracy in Germany was abolished, and the gardens became state property. In 1944, during WW II, the Wilhelma was badly damaged due to bombing. Until 1949, the gardens were used to plant vegetables for the famished population of war-torn Stuttgart. Later, parts of the beautiful Moorish architecture were salvaged and restored; other parts had to be relinquished to demolition and were replaced by new buildings. In June of 1949, the gardens were reopened to the public again.
It was only in the 1950s that the first exotic animals arrived at the Wilhelma, and they laid the foundation to what would become Germany’s only zoological and botanical gardens as of 1952. Until today, the Wilhelma has Europe’s only rearing facilities for young apes, by the way. Over the decades the Wilhelma grew and became modernized. A fascinating house for night-active animals, a marvelous aquarium, a stunning insectarium are only some of the places I count amongst my favorites.
Of course, none of these outings would have been perfect without some yummy lunch at one of the restaurants, seemingly countless glasses of slush or cherry juice from beverage automatons, ice cream, browsing through the souvenir stands, and watching the seals’ feeding. I sometimes think it would be fun to revisit and see how much this wonderful place has grown and developed ever since I visited there last. I might not recognize a lot in the upper modern part these days. But just at the thought of the lower historical Wilhelma, my heart skips a beat. If ever you go there – bring back some pictures for me!