History of Mainau

We’ll shortly be home from our #adventuredownunder and I’ll be boring you all rigid with many more details about our holiday. Meanwhile, as they say on all the best cookery shows: « Here’s one I prepared earlier! »

On our recent trip down memory lane to Lake Konstanz, we revisited the island of Mainau which has an interesting provenance going all the way back to prehistoric times. A settlement of six houses was excavated on the south bank of the island which dates back to the Neolithic period. The island was then ruled  – like pretty much everywhere else in Europe – by the Romans and thereafter the Alemanni Dukes and Teutonic Order of knights. Evidence of their rule which lasted around 500 years remains visible today with the island’s Baroque castle and church.

Their rule was broken for two years during the Thirty Years War (1618-48) when the Swedes took control in 1647-9 leaving behind the so-called “Swedish cross,” cast in bronze in Constance in 1577, which today greets visitors to Mainau.

There followed a period of uncertainty and decline for the island where it changed hands many times until it was acquired by Grand Duke Frederick I of Baden who is seen very much as the founder of the park. He not only set up his summer residence here, but began to create order on the island to redesign it and plant rare exotic trees and plants, which he brought back from his travels. Significant parts of the Mainau park, such as the arboretum, Italian rose garden and orangery go back to this time, as well as the first glass houses for exotic plants, and the first iron bridge connecting it to the mainland.

After the Grand Duke’s death in 1907, the island was inherited by his son who bequeathed it to his sister Viktoria, Queen of Sweden, which is how the island of Mainau became the property of the Swedish royal family in 1928. After the death of Queen Viktoria, the island went to her son Prince Wilhelm of Sweden in 1930, who transferred the management of the inheritance to his son Lennart in 1932, who was just 23 at the time.

In the same year, Lennart Bernadotte moved back from Sweden to Mainau, after he lost all titles and claims to inheritance to the Swedish royal family, on account of his marriage to commoner Karin Nissvand. He made the island into a new residence for him and his family and little by little began to convert the neglected island into a park again.

Mainau was opened to visitors and in the years before WWII, it profited significantly from state managed tourism, the “Kraft durch Freude” (Strength through Joy) travels, which brought thousands of visitors to the island. Lennart Bernadotte left the island before the outbreak of war, leaving caretakers to manage the island which was turned into a rest home for officers and industrialists during the war.

Shortly before the end of the war, the German Foreign Office gave the island to French collaborators, who rallied around the head of the extreme right wing “Parti Populaire Français” (PPF), Jacques Doriot. From the south of Germany, the group planned to drive the Gaullists and communists out of France, which is why Doriot proclaimed a French liberation committee on the island of Mainau at the beginning of 1945. However, this German – French collaboration ended in February 1945, with the death of Doriot, in a low flying aeroplane bomb attack near to Mengen. As a result, his followers fled Mainau.

On 26 April 1945, a new era began for Konstanz and the surrounding area: the region became part of the French occupation zone. Mid-May 1945, the islands of Mainau and Reichenau were selected for the accommodation and recovery of French prisoners liberated from the Dachau concentration camp. A total of several thousand prisoners were brought to Lake Konstanz to recover. In September 1945, the French occupation concluded and Lennart Bernadotte returned in January 1946 to a deteriorated facility and a mostly empty castle. A long conflict arose with the French authorities regarding compensation for damages and the replacement of missing furnishings. However, it wasn’t long before Mainau was soon open to visitors again.

Initially the castle and park offered rehabilitation for young people after the destruction of the war within the framework of the Christian Young People’s Association, under Swedish management. By the end of 1968, aound 20,000 participants from 40 countries had attended events at Mainau. It was now time to resurrect the former gardens, some of which went back to the time of the Teutonic Order.

As mentioned above, it was Grand Duke Frederick I of Baden who had started to develop Mainau as a flower and plant paradise. His overall concept had been to open up the island with paths, alleys and viewing spots, which he gradually implemented, together with his court gardeners, before his death in 1907. In so doing, he created the basis for the current design of Mainau.

The park inside the island, the arboretum with tree stock that is now 100 to 150 years old, was created at the time of Frederick I, who brought numerous exotic trees with him from his travels. The Italian rose garden on the south side of the castle also goes back to the time of the Grand Duke who had a flower garden created in the Italian style in 1860.

That’s not the only part of the island with some provenance. As far back as the time of the Teutonic Order, wine had been grown on Mainau. Though the vineyard laid out on the south west slope of the island, near the “Swedish tower”, comes from the time of Frederick I. Over time vineyard walls were built, the soil was replaced, grape varieties were experimented with and an excellent Lake Konstanz wine flourished here.

After the death of Frederick I, at the request of his widow, nothing in the park and garden was changed. Therefore in 1932, Lennart Bernadotte took over a park overgrown with local vegetation, in which initially more had to be dug up than planted. Based on the foundations established by Frederick I, Lennart Bernadotte gradually developed today’s “Flower Island of Mainau”, which was to be his life’s work.

Initially, the previous arboretum was cleared of wild growth, and lines of sight of the lake were exposed. Then the basic structures of the original park were restored, and further designs were initiated.

Post-war, from 1950 onwards, the development of the island continued full steam ahead. By 1955, a year of rolling flower exhibitions had been established with the orchid show, spring bulbs, rhododendrons, roses, summer flowers, citrus collection and the respective collections of fuchsias and dahlias.

Gradually, the historical buildings were also fully renovated and in 1968 a large palm house was built to replace the former winter greenhouses. Today, the park and garden of Mainau attract approx. 1.2 million visitors per annum. 25 hectares of the total 45-hectare island are showcase areas and the park is continually being further developed.

In 2003, the island of Mainau was awarded protected status while the castle, church, harbour, the Italian rose garden, parts of the arboretum and fortification walls are under the highest level of protection and conservation. Meanwhile, the sensitive further development of the island is being continued by the Bernadotte family.

Postcard from Lake Konstanz III

Aside from the cities of Meersburg and Konstanz, there are three islands on the lake well worth a visit or, in our case, a revisit.


The 110-acre garden island of Mainau is renowned for its carpets of flowers and greenhouses. It has nearly 10,000 rose bushes, lots of different types of gardens, thousands of butterflies, a 13th-century baroque palace, plenty of restaurants, a petting zoo and a magnificent arboretum. Plus, as you wander around the gardens, you get tantalising glimpses of the lake.

It is an unquestionably beautiful place and one of the most visited sites in the area, with over two million visitors every year. It’s the place my late mother – a keen gardener – always wanted to visit when she came to stay. She, my father, and their friends, spent many a happy hour wandering through its gardens.

On the Thursday, we took the boat directly from Meersburg to Mainau. Given the time of year, we expected the island to be ablaze with colour, and we weren’t disappointed. We’d missed the spring bulbs but the rhododendruns were still in full bloom.


To the west of Konstanz, and directly opposite where we once lived in Hegne, is Reichenau. Declared a UNESCO world Heritage Site in 2000 because of its monastery, the Abbey of Reichenau. The abbey’s minster church is dedicated to the Virgin Mary and Saint Mark. Two further churches built on the island were consecrated to Saint George, and to Saints Peter and Paul. Reichenau’s famous artworks include (in the church of St George) the Ottonian murals of miracles of Christ, unique survivals from the 10th century.

Today the island is better known for its vegetable farms which at certain times of the year smell strongly of cabbages, its annual Wine Festival and the Wollmatinger Ried which is a large nature reserve next to the island. It’s a reeded wetland used by many birds as a stopover during their annual migration.


On the other side of the lake you’ll find Lindau which has a magnificent harbour guarded by a Bavarian (it’s in Bayern, not Baden-Wurttemburg) lion and lighthouse, in addition the town is full of medieval half-timbered and painted buildings.

We visited on Saturday when the sun shone, the market was in full-swing and the place was busy with tourists. Like many of the old towns on the lake, it’s not changed much and is instantly recognisable. We ate lunch (more asparagus) at one of favourite spots looking out over the harbour. There’s a boat from Meersburg to Lindau but it takes 21/2 hours to get there so we drove and parked in a new multi-storey car park next to the new entertainment centre, both recently built on the island but outside of the old city walls.

Any trip to the Lake of Constance should include visits to all three of these islands. In fact, it’s hard to think of anywhere around the lake not worthy of a visit, though obviously the more picturesque places like Konstanz and Meersburg are worthy of more than a cursory visit.