There’s a smallish town just outside the Berlin city centre that’s completely encrusted with palaces.
It’s only 30 minutes away, at the end of the S7 line, on the River Havel. And it’s the most popular day trip from Berlin.
Postdam was originally a Slavonic settlement, founded in the tenth century. But it was the Hohenzollerns who put it on the map.
The house of Hohenzollern rose to prominence from the ashes of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-48), and their Prussian court became a place of tolerance, where skilled European refugees sought protection. But it was still an autocratic and militaristic place.
When Frederick II took the throne in 1712 he brought a degree of sophistication, learning and culture to all that Prussian discipline, sponsoring leading figures of the German Enlightenment even as he deployed his powerful armies to conquer new territory.
He would later be known as Frederick the Great, and he hated Berlin.
He decided he needed a summer residence where he could live “without cares” — “sans souci” as they said at his French-speaking court — and the building began in 1744. This retreat would symbolize the Age of Enlightenment, a pastoral dream to remind its residents of their relationship with nature and reason.
Potsdam served as a royal residence for the Prussian kings until the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1918. The town was badly damaged by bombing in World War Two, and the socialist building programs of the Soviet occupation did much to uglify what was left. But not even the drabness of Communism could dull the glow.
This is a town that demands several visits. I’d like to come back with my bicycle in autumn to visit each of the palaces and structures in turn. And we’ll take another excursion down there quite soon to check out the new Barberini museum, opened in January 2017.
But this time we mostly just walked around Frederick the Great’s massive landscaped park, looking at palaces from the outside and enjoying the summer air.
It was impossible to get tickets to enter Schloss Sanssouci, the distinctive yellow Rococo summer palace on a hill overlooking the town. This is Potsdam’s biggest tourist draw, so those need to be booked in advance for set entry times. But you can still admire the fountains and the terraced hillside of vines from below.
We took our lunch in the Sicilian Garden, with it’s subtropical plants and coniferous trees, and views of the Neue Kammern with the old windmill looming over it.
We did go into the Neues Palace, a massive structure at the western end of the park which was built to mark the end of the Seven Years’ War. The building was plagued with structural problems right from the beginning, and much of it was closed for restoration. But we were able to see the incredible Grottensaal, a vast hall decorated entirely with shells, fossils and stones, with swirling dragons and gasping fish. And above it, the massive Marmorsaal with it’s intricate patterned marble floor.
This enormous baroque palace housed the royal family right up until the tail end of the First World War, when Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated in November 1918 and went into exile with his family.
When our legs were thoroughly exhausted, we caught a tram to the Holländisches Viertel — the Dutch quarter — for a cold beer. This compact neighbourhood of 169 gabled red-brick houses was built for immigrants from Holland who came to work in Potsdam for Friedrich Wilhelm I. Today it’s a pleasant place of cafes, shops and restaurants.
But we didn’t want to eat in a tourist area, not when we were so close to one of Berlin’s most famous biergarten.
So we made our way to the train station and took the S7 back several stops to Wannsee. We had to change trains there anyway — the S1 goes straight to our end of Berlin. But rather than simply step across the platform, we walked out the main entrance and down the road by a couple hundred meters, where a Biergarten called Loretta was waiting for us, her tables spread beneath the trees, with views of the massive lake.