June 5, 2007

The Secret Garden

Today I discovered a secret garden. Although it’s probably no secret to anyone but me. Technically it’s part of the elaborate system of public parks that enclose the Altstadt in an emerald ring, where a medieval wall once stood. This particular garden is called the Landesgartenschau Park, and it lies in the shadow of the Festung Marienburg, surrounded by the only remaining section of the old hundred-foot-tall wall. But I live in the shadow of this wall, and until today I never imagines such a garden existed.

Before, whenever I stood on my balcony and looked up the hill, all I could see was the red and white castle standing sentinel over the city and a thick canopy of trees cascading down the side of its ramparts. I thought I knew this area fairly well. Now that the weather is nice and the sun stays out until 9 pm, Kevin and I walk up its winding paths nearly every evening. We inspect the progress of the grapes in the vineyards to the south and the community garden plots to the west, where garden gnomes breed like rabbits. There’s even a forest path, where enormous red-brown slugs weave silver webs over the mossy gray stones. But today we chose a different direction, and that path led us to the Landesgartenschau and the secret garden that lies at the heart of it.

The first clue that you’re off the beaten path is the small Swiss chalet that greets you as you round a wooded corner. Complete with half-timber walls and a real thatched roof, it looks like something straight out of the pages of a fairytale. To further disorient your sense of time and place, around the next corner lies a real log cabin surrounded by sycamores and red oak and dogwood. Further a field, there’s a traditional Scottish dry stone wall – straight off the highlands – and a Japanese garden filled with bonsai and koi and mock Shinto temples. It turns out these gardens are the source of the name Landesgartenschau, or exhibition garden, and they were built by Würzburg’s sister cities, Caen, France; Faribault, Minnesota; Dundee, Scotland; and Otsu, Japan, back in 1990, when the city played host to the Bavarian Garden Show. Although these gardens must once have been visited by thousands of Würzburgers and international guests, on the evening of our discovery, we were the only two souls exploring its secrets.

At the center of this curious menagerie is Würzburg’s own contribution: a walled rose garden, the likes of which I’d never seen. Roses of every variety were in high bloom and their perfume was a little dizzying. Enormous bumblebees were busy at work in one corner of the immense garden, and in another corner a well-fed tabby was keeping watch over a mossy fountain. And in the center, aviaries of brightly painted parrots and lovebirds where chirping away over a dinner of apples and Johannisbeeren. Stepping inside I couldn’t help feeling like Mary Lennox, entering her secret garden at the height of its season.

We stayed as long as the sun allowed and then walked the hundred yards back to our apartment. It’s hard to believe that all this time such a little Eden has been right in my own backyard. On earlier trips to far more grand cities like Heidelberg or Munich, I found myself wishing we lived there instead, where we could stroll down the Philosopher’s Way or through the park at Nymphenburg whenever we wanted. But even though this garden is much smaller, it’s all the better, precisely because it feels like a well-kept secret. I’ve plan to go back every evening for the remainder of my time here in Würzburg, even after the bloom has faded from the roses and the parrots return to their winter abode, wherever that may be. I’m not sure that there will be anything in Edmonton half so lovely. However, I should always remember that a secret garden could be waiting behind any turn.

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