This royal haven is Germany’s largest world heritage site
If you’re racking your brains for a day-trip idea from Berlin, look no further than Potsdam, an oasis of lakes, lush fields, thick forests and unique cultural landmarks along the Havel River. Boasting of the largest World Heritage Site in Germany, Sanssouci, as its centrepiece, Potsdam is to Germany what Versailles is to France and Windsor to England. And its just a 45-minute drive from the buzzing German capital. So, die-hard lovers of sumptuous palaces and extravagant gardens, zip away on that Autobahn now!
A restful aura of peace hangs in the air as you pass through the original city gates. What a dramatically different scenario from the World War bombing when 80% of Potsdam’s 300-year-old city centre succumbed to the attacks. The original City Palace, imposing St. Nicholas Church and the Pantheon-like French Church stand proud today in their carefully reconstructed reincarnations. Can you believe that during the cold war, spies were exchanged in this pristine paradise? Post-World War II Potsdam conference between the victorious Allies was staged here? Ugliness, war, death and destruction lay sprawled here? Potsdam’s current glamour quotient makes it all seem like a fantasy.
Potsdam’s claim to fame has shifted from its centuries-old royal residence for Prussian kings and German Kaisers to much more. A large film park with studios, accounting for 80% of all movies in Germany, the Postdamerplatz Film Festival, and one of the oldest Prussian railways still in use in Germany, pulls many different audiences here. But Germany’s largest World Heritage Site, Sanssouci continues to be the biggest crowd-puller for most. So, without further ado…
Relive the majesty of yesterday as you stroll along a wide 2.5-km path into the heart of the 700-acre Sanssouci Park. This is nature’s lap, generously overflowing with thousands of fruit trees, life-size marble statues, tinkling fountains, baroque terraces and hidden temples. Depending on how many times you’re distracted, you’ll get lost in the great labyrinth, discover the rococo-style, blue-gold Chinese pavilion, land up at the elaborately Dragon House Pagoda, find the Turkish mosque and minaret (which is actually a water pumping station), and wander into the Roman baths. But when you finally arrive at the18-meter high Große Fontäne (Great Fountain) and stand in silence before the Sanssouci Palace, you know why this is the biggest magnet. Salute the conceptualiser and the architect. A treat for the senses.
In 1747, Frederick the Great created his summer palace at Sanssouci and placed Potsdam on the map forever. Not just another royal retreat this…his passion for music, philosophy, culture and art drips from every inch. Interestingly, he sketched the structure himself and named it Sanssouci, based on the French phrase ‘sans souci’ meaning ‘without worry’ (meaning a place where one can live without worries). Picture him in his personal sanctuary, where he retreated to relax in the company of his dogs. RIP Frederick, in that crypt on the uppermost terrace.
His 12-room palace is small by royal standards, and anything but modest. A beautiful rococo style shines through its soft yellow columned walls, tall arched windows and a central ballroom topped by a large green baroque dome. The unique location on top of a multi-level terraced vineyard (the Weinberg or wine mountain), is a sight for sore eyes. Standing at the bottom of the wide steps at the centre of the terraced vineyard, you feel like you are looking at a massive piano, crowned by a grand golden villa. What a life and what a home!
Exiting the gardens, stop by a historical windmill, the last of 40 from the time of Frederick II…now an artisan museum. It stands there atop a stone pedestal about 13-meters high, its four wooden posts creating an ancient cross…a testament to the past. Visions of Holland countryside flood your mind.
Frederick may have been the imperial, but he was certainly not the only Potsdam resident with a tranquil haven on the Havel, you will realise when you explore the surrounding neighbourhoods soaking in the serenity of the sprawling nature reserve. Endless boulevards with leafy trees, hardly any people to be seen, charming houses with private gardens, green, green and more green for miles all around, dozens of lakes and sailing boats, bobbing silently in the docks. Another world, same earth. One lucky bunch, these Potsdamers. But not just the locals.
If you were an immigrant during the 18th-19th centuries, Frederick would have encouraged you to take up citizenship to his underpopulated Prussia with an irresistible offer. A native home, title of ‘court artisan’? Yes, please. Make sure you see the 134 historic red brick, three-storey Dutch houses and the 12 picturesque wooden houses in the ‘Russian town’ named Alexandrowka after the Tsarina. Expat life on your mind yet?
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