A Historic Walk in the German Countryside
The trail around the Bagno Park in Steinfurt-Burgsteinfurt (in northwest Germany) makes for the perfect winter walk. It is not too long to be exhausting, but not too short either (just right, as a matter of fact, to get you going after all the rich Christmas food and too many days of idleness) and features everything that makes such a walk successful: an Old Town, a castle and a series of grey wintry landscapes.
The trail also enjoys, as a bonus, a unique distinction: at the centre of the park, there is a lake and there are some walkways around what was once one of Europe’s most famous Rococo gardens.
In the late 18th century, the Count of Bentheim-Steinfurt wanted a French Rococo garden in Germany, and, since he was a wealthy count, no expense was spared and enough cash was made available to bring in a proper French landscaping architect. Over the years, and specifically under his son Ludwig, more and more features were gradually added: colonnades, a temple dedicated to the Roman god Mercury, a Chinese pagoda and much else besides.
The crowning glory of the park, however, was an artificial lake with seven themed islands, featuring stuff such as Pirate’s grottos, Indian temples and Egyptian tombs… You get the idea. Boats were provided for guests to row over from one island to the other. Undoubtedly, it was all very, very decadent.
On the far side of the lake, a concert hall was constructed where a 40-strong orchestra, with all musicians in the pay of the count, went on stage most evenings, sometimes supported by members of the family (the Count and his son were celebrated amateur flute players).
The concert hall was carefully integrated into the landscaped scenery, and the audience was not supposed to sit still and listen with rapt attention – in the “bourgeois” style, later developed by Wagner into a “cult of artistic genius” – but to have a drink, to chat and even to wander around in the adjacent gardens to, ahem, frolic.
Actually, one cannot help thinking that the frolicking was the proper point of the exercise, with the music providing little more than background noise (much like an open-air rock concert in the 1970s).
Not much of the Rococo scenery is still around today. It was Count Ludwig’s bad luck that he built all this at a time, just before the French Revolution, when this type of lifestyle and any ostentatious display of aristocratic wealth or status were rapidly going out of fashion. There is a survey map of 1812 when nearly all the features had already disappeared.
Today, of all the major buildings, only the concert hall is still standing. Interiors with paintings on the walls and the ceiling have been lovingly restored, but the old spirit has not survived, judging from the orderly rows of simple chairs inside. You do not, at any rate, get the impression that frolicking in the gardens is much encouraged during the current season of musical performances.
The Bagno Walk
We recommend to start the walk from Burgsteinfurt station – a stop on the line between Münster and the Dutch border town of Enschede (with hourly trains in either direction; you must cross the rails when you arrive from Münster because the town is on the other side).
Follow the directions to the town centre and continue past the castle (down Burgstraße off the central market square) to the Bagno park. Take the route through the forest on your right hand side.
After a little more than 1 km, you will arrive at the lake. Walk around once and explore the area a little before returning on the long straight: this was the original main axis of the park when it was built. (There is a golf course now on either side of the trail.)
The entire walk will take you roughly two hours. To round off the day, you can take your afternoon coffee at the historic café Zum Schwan in the town centre …
… or in the Schlossmühle restaurant across the castle. The castle itself cannot be visited – it is still in use as a residence for the Counts of Bentheim and Steinfurt. Comforting to see that the family was not altogether ruined by the architectural folly of their forebears.