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For most visitors POTSDAM means Sanssouci, Frederick the Great’s splendid landscaped park of architectural treasures, which once completed Berlin as the grand Prussian capital. However, Potsdam dates back to the tenth-century Slavonic settlement Poztupimi, and predates Berlin by a couple of hundred years. The castle built here in 1160 marked the first step in the town’s gradual transformation from sleepy fishing backwater to royal residence and garrison town, a role it enjoyed under the Hohenzollerns until the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1918.
World War II left Potsdam badly damaged: on April 14, 1945, a bombing raid killed four thousand people, destroyed many fine Baroque buildings and reduced its centre to ruins. Less than four months later – on August 2 – the victorious Allies converged on Potsdam’s Schloss Cecilienhof to hammer out the details of a divided Germany and Europe. Potsdam ended up in the Soviet zone, where modern “socialist” building programmes steadily erased many architectural memories of the town’s uncomfortably prosperous imperial past. Yet this past still provides its most popular sights.
Stretching west from Potsdam’s town centre, Park Sanssouci was built for Frederick the Great as a retreat after he decided in 1744 that he needed a residence where he could live “without cares” – “sans souci” in the French spoken in court. The task was entrusted to architect Georg von Knobelsdorff, who had already proved himself on other projects in Potsdam and Berlin. Schloss Sanssouci, on a hill overlooking the town, took three years to complete, while the extensive parklands were laid out over the following five years. As a finishing touch Frederick ordered the construction of the Neues Palais at the western end of the park, to mark the end of the Seven Years’ War and there were numerous other additions over the following hundred and fifty years or so. The park is most beautiful in spring, when the trees are in leaf and the flowers in bloom, and least crowded on weekdays. The main visitor centre is by the historic windmill.
The Grünes Gitter provides a southeastern entrance to Park Sanssouci and has an information kiosk. Immediately to the north is the 1850 Italianate Friedenskirche, designed by Persius for Friedrich Wilhelm IV. With its 39-metre-high campanile and lakeside setting, it conjures up the southern European atmosphere that Friedrich Wilhelm strove for by using the St Clemente Basilica in Rome as a model, and with the design centred on the magnificent Byzantine apse mosaic from Murano. Adjoining the church, the domed Hohenzollern mausoleum contains the tombs of Friedrich Wilhelm IV and his wife Elizabeth, and Friedrich III and his wife Victoria. The garden to the west is the Marly-Garten, once the kitchen garden of Friedrich I, who named it, with intentional irony, after Louis XIV’s luxurious Marly park.
To approach Schloss Sanssouci as Frederick the Great might have done, make for the eighteenth-century obelisk on Schopenhauerstrasse. Beyond, Hauptallee runs through the ornate Knobelsdorff-designed Obelisk-Portal – two clusters of pillars flanked by the goddesses Flora and Pomona – to the Grosse Fontäne, the biggest of the park’s many fountains, around which a host of Classical statues stand, notably Venus and Mercury. The approach to the Schloss itself leads up through terraced ranks of vines that are among Germany’s most northern.
Frederick had definite ideas about what he wanted and worked closely with Knobelsdorff on the palace, which was to be a place where the king, who had no great love for his capital, Berlin, or his wife, Elizabeth Christine, could escape both. It’s a surprisingly modest one-storey Baroque affair, topped by an oxidized green dome and ornamental statues, looking out towards the high-rises of central Potsdam.
Inside the Schloss you’ll find a frenzy of Rococo in the twelve rooms where Frederick lived and entertained his guests – a process that usually entailed quarrelling with them. The most eye-catching rooms are the opulent Marmorsaal (Marble Hall) and the Konzertzimmer (Concert Room), where the flute-playing king forced eminent musicians to play his own works on concert evenings. Frederick’s favourite haunt was his library where, surrounded by two thousand volumes – mainly French translations of classics and a sprinkling of contemporary French writings – he could oversee work on his tomb. The Damenflügel, the west wing of the Schloss, was added in 1840, and its thirteen rooms housed ladies and gentlemen of the court. Nearby on the terrace is a wrought-iron summerhouse protecting a weather-beaten copy of a Classical statue, while just to the south an eighteenth-century sculpture of Cleopatra looks over the graves of Frederick’s horses.
Overlooking the ornamental Holländischer Garten, or Dutch Garden, east of Schloss Sanssouci, is the restrained Baroque Bildergalerie, which, it’s claimed, was the first building in Europe built specifically as a museum. Unfortunately, wartime destruction and looting scattered the contents, but the new collection includes Caravaggio’s wonderful Incredulity of St Thomas and several works by Rubens and Van Dyck.
On the west side of the Schloss, from a point near the Cleopatra statue, steps lead down to the Neue Kammern, the architectural twin of the Bildergalerie, originally an orangerie and later a guesthouse. Inside lie a succession of opulently decorated ceremonial halls and private suites, the highlight of which is probably the fancy Ovidsaal: a grand marble-floored ballroom surrounded by gilded reliefs from Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphosis. Immediately west is the prim Sizilianischer Garten (Sicilian Garden), crammed with coniferous trees and subtropical plants, complementing the Nordischer Garten, another ornamental garden just to the north, whose most interesting feature is the strange-looking Felsentor or Rock Gate, a gateway fashioned from uncut stones and topped by an eagle with outstretched wings.
Frederick was prepared to go to some lengths to achieve the desired carefree rural ambience for Sanssouci and retained an old wooden windmill as an ornament just north of the Neue Kammern. Four years after his death, this was replaced by a rustic-looking stone construction, the Historische Mühle, now a restaurant.
West of the Sizilianischer Garten, Maulbeerallee, a road open to traffic, cuts through the park past the Orangerie. This Italianate Renaissance-style structure with its belvedere towers is one of the most visually impressive buildings in the park. A series of terraces with curved retaining walls sporting waterspouts in the shape of lions’ heads leads up to the sandy-coloured building, whose slightly down-at-heel appearance adds character.
It was built at the behest of Friedrich IV and, like the Friedenskirche, inspired by architecture seen on his Italian travels. The facade is lined with allegorical statues set in niches, such as “Industry”, who holds a cog wheel. The western wing of the building is still used as a refuge for tropical plants in winter, and during the summer it’s possible to ascend the western tower for views of the Neues Palais and vistas of Potsdam’s high-rises. The Orangerie also houses a gallery, the Raphaelsaal, with copies of paintings looted by Napoleon.
From the western wing of the Orangerie, the arrow-straight Krimlindenallee, lined with lime trees, leads towards a Rococo Belvedere, the last building built under Frederick the Great. It was the only park building to suffer serious war damage, but has since been restored to its former glory. A couple of hundred metres short of the Belvedere, a path off to the left leads to the Drachenhaus, a one-time vintner’s house built in the style of a Chinese pagoda for the small vineyard nearby. Today the café inside is an ideal place to interrupt wanderings. Southwest of the Drachenhaus, a pathway leads to the Antikentempel, built in 1768 to house part of Frederick the Great’s art collection. This domed rotunda is now the last resting place of a number of Hohenzollerns, including the Empress Auguste Victoria, and Hermine, the woman Wilhelm II married in exile, and who became known as the “last Empress”.
Rising through the trees at the western end of Park Sanssouci, the Neues Palais is another massive Rococo extravaganza from Frederick the Great’s time, built between 1763 and 1769 to reaffirm Prussian might after the Seven Years’ War. At the centre of the palace is a huge green-weathered dome, topped by a crown, while the edges of the roof around the entire building are adorned by mass-produced sculptures of Classical figures. The main entrance is in the western facade, and once inside, you’ll find the interior predictably opulent, particularly the vast and startling Grottensaal on the ground floor which is decorated entirely with shells and semiprecious stones to form images of lizards and dragons. The equally huge Marmorsaal is the other highlight, with its beautiful patterned marble floor. The southern wing contains Frederick’s apartments and theatre where he enjoyed Italian opera and French plays. The last imperial resident of the Neues Palais was Kaiser Wilhelm II, who packed sixty train carriages with the palace contents before fleeing with his family in November 1918, following the revolution and abdication. Facing the Neues Palais entrance are the Communs, a couple of Rococo fantasies joined by a curved colonnade. They look grandiose, but their purpose was mundane: they housed the palace serving and maintenance staff.
From the Neues Palais, Ökonomieweg leads east between the Rehgarten or Deer Garden, the former court hunting ground (and still home to a few deer) and Park Charlottenhof, created by Friedrich Wilhelm III as a Christmas present for his son, and today one of Sanssouci’s quieter corners. A path leads over a bridge past a small farm building to the Römische Bäder, built by Schinkel and Persius in convincing imitation of a Roman villa.
South across the lawns from the Römische Bäder, Schloss Charlottenhof is another Roman-style building, again designed by Schinkel and Persius for Friedrich IV. Though called a Schloss, it’s little more than a glorified villa, but its interior, unlike most Sanssouci buildings, is original. The effect is impressive: the hallway is bathed in blue light filtered through coloured glass decorated with stars, a prelude to the Kupferstichzimmer, or Print Room, whose walls are covered in copies of Italian Renaissance paintings. Immediately east of Schloss Charlottenhof is the Dichterhain (Poets’ Grove), an open space dotted with busts of Goethe, Schiller and Herder, among others. West of here through the woods and across a racetrack-shaped clearing called the Hippodrom is the Fasanerie, another Italian-style edifice built between 1842 and 1844.
On the Ökonomieweg – en route back to the Grünes Gitter entrance – you’ll pass the slightly kitsch Chinesisches Teehaus, a kind of Rococo pagoda housing a small museum of Chinese and Meissen porcelain and surrounded by eerily lifelike Oriental statues.
One of Frederick’s most celebrated house guests was Voltaire, who lived here from 1750 to 1753, acting as a kind of private tutor to the king. He finally left when he’d had enough of Frederick’s moody and dictatorial behaviour, damning the king’s intellect with faint praise and accusing him of treating “the whole world as slaves”. In revenge Frederick had Voltaire’s former room decorated with carvings of apes and parrots.