A document reveals that in 993 Emperor Otto III, the 13 year old East Franconian German king, gave a settlement named Poztupimi to his aunt, the Abbess Mathilde of Quedlinburg. Oh, that all nephews were that generous. Anna Hyman loved her brief visit to Potsdam.
Poztupimi, which translates into something along the rather picturesque lines of ‘Under the Oaks’, was on the banks of the River Havel. The settlement grew to a small town and before not too long it even boasted a castle.
A Royal Residence
And so it might have remained. But in 1640 the Elector Frederick William, governor of Brandenburg who was based in Berlin realised that the little town would make a splendid spot for one of his residences and began to build a palace there – the Stadtschloss.
Potsdam, for that is what we today call Poztupimi, lay conveniently close to Berlin – a mere 25km or so. With its proximity to the river, rolling countryside and woods teaming with wildlife it provided fine fishing and hunting territory.
Its future was assured in October 1685 when Frederick William issued the Edict of Potsdam granting religious freedom to various minorities, including exiled Huguenots, who brought with them their culture, traditions, crafts and skills. Potsdam became a desirable place to live.
Frederick William I enlarged Potsdam into a garrison town and his successor Frederick II added not only the splendid palace and park of Sanssouci but other buildings and parks inspired by the fashionable French, Italian and English palaces and gardens of the day.
UNESCO World Heritage Site
This theme was taken even further in the middle of the 19th century by Frederick William IV. His various projects were to include the Belvedere, and the Orangery at Sanssouci – thus achieving a rich cultural landscape of magnificent palaces, gardens and streets. Even the building housing the steam pumping station, built in 1841 to supply the gardens with water, was designed to look like a mosque. Potsdam must have been the very epitome of style and elegance.
However, this lovely city suffered much in the bombing raids of World War II and during the years of the Communist regime. But luckily since German reunification much of the city has been, and is being, restored to its original glory. Indeed in 1991 parts of it were declared UNESCO World Heritage sites.
At least a long weekend
The first rail link between Berlin and Potsdam was built in 1838. Today there is a fast and comfortable service between the two, making it an ideal day-out destination for anybody spending a few days in Berlin.
But as I was to discover Potsdam really deserves at very least a long weekend. There are trams a plenty linking the palaces but it is easy to explore the city centre on foot. There are lots of bars and cafes thoughtfully located where weary tourists can sit awhile with something reviving whilst watching the world go by. One such we located in the charming Dutch quarter – the red brick Fliegenden zum Holländer. We didn’t stop long enough for a meal, though it has a good reputation for food, and with its garden and cosy, interesting rooms it is well worth a visit.
I loved the Dutch quarter with its charming red brick buildings dating back to the mid-18th century. There are some 150 of them, many with the traditional Dutch gables. It is hard to believe that in those days much of the land was a swamp and consequently difficult to build on. The Dutch who had already achieved fame in reclaiming land from water were brought in to supervise the land reclamation and house building.
I also loved the quiet cobbled back streets and little squares, especially the charming baroque Neuer Markt, or New Market. It was here that originally horses were stabled, and as if to emphasise this, a massive statue of stable boys and a coach and horses, complete with coachman sits atop the archway to the courtyard.
And don’t miss Potsdam’s own Brandenburg Gate. It was erected in the early 1770s to celebrate the victory of the Seven Year War.
Close by the Gate are some elegant baroque buildings, as well as a lively pedestrianized shopping precinct selling many well-known high street brands. On other streets are the more boutique-type shops. One that particularly caught my attention was the Confiserie Felicitas in Gutenbergstr with its fabulous selection of chocolates. And yes, they taste every bit as good as they look!
Palaces and Gardens
But charming a city as Potsdam undoubtedly is, arguably its chief claim to fame is its magnificent palaces and gardens.
My friend wanted to show me the Belvedere and so we left the city streets and worked our way past the Jewish and the Russian quarters, and up the Pfingstberg (Potsdam’s highest hill) part of the New Garden to reach it. It was built for Friedrich Wilhelm IV in the Italian High Renaissance style that he so admired. Had the palace ever been completed it would, with its commanding view, have been magnificent. Instead, we can only wonder what might have been; for with merely its high twin towers, arcades and colonnades it is still a magnificent structure.
At the base of each tower is a room designed originally as a tea room – one Roman style, the other Moorish. The Belvedere suffered badly from neglect during the years of the Communist regime but after the reunification of Germany it has been restored, as indeed has much of Potsdam following the destruction caused by WW2 bombs. The view from the top of the tower, reached by a narrow spiral staircase, is superb! www.pfingstberg.de
Our supper that evening at the close-by Kades Restaurant am Pfingstberg on Große Weinmeisterstr (www.restaurant-pfingstberg.de) was pretty special too – mushroom soup followed by duck, red cabbage and light as a feather dumplings.
And ‘pretty special’ too is the glorious palace of Sanssouci. It sits in an English landscape-style garden atop six terraces where fruit trees and grape vines grow.
The long single story yellow building was designed for Frederick the Great as his summer residence, and whilst interesting but not overly spectacular from the outside, inside the 12 richly decorated and furnished rooms more than compensate. The vines and bucolic life theme is echoed throughout the opulent rooms by magnificent carvings, stucco work and reliefs as well as paintings and sculptures. I was entranced by it all and especially the round library made from cedar wood houses which houses some 2,200 books; and the music room (Frederick played and composed music) – on top of one of the pianos lies his flute.
Frederick spent his summers in his adored Sanssouci (the name Sanssouci is actually derived from sans souci – French for ‘without a care’). For almost 40 summers he stayed there entertaining, and also quarrelling with, the intellectuals of the day. It was here that he died in 1786. His wish was to be buried in a simple tomb on the terrace alongside the graves of his dogs. He wasn’t, and that request was not to be honoured until 1991.
Potatoes, Pictures and a Kitchen
It is easy to spot the tomb, for on it alongside one or two flowers are usually potatoes. Yes, potatoes! Grain crops did not grow well on the local soil and people often went hungry. Frederick attempted to encourage the local farmers to plant the newly-arrived potato as a food crop. There was considerable resistance to this new-fangled plant but Frederick issued a decree ordering them to do so, and indeed the potatoes were successful. They have been considered as a memorial to him ever since.
Not far from Frederick’s grave lies The Picture Gallery. And what a picture gallery it is. Frederick II was a keen collector and needed somewhere to display his acquisitions. The gallery itself is a work of art and on its gilded walls in gilded frames hang French, Dutch and Flemish old masters alongside works by Caravaggio, van Dyck and Rubens.
The kitchen, rebuilt in the 1840s by Frederick William I, who was also responsible for several of the other buildings in the park, is fascinating – on display are utensils of the age and an old kitchen range. Occasional costumed guided tours of the kitchen take place.
Luckily many of the royal palaces and gardens have survived and have been renovated hence their UNESCO World Heritage listing. Sanssouci Park alone boasts a botanical garden as well as other magnificent buildings.
I now know better. A visit to Potsdam should be a leisurely visit, a visit without a care and most definitely not restricted to one day.
As I left Potsdam I couldn’t help but wonder what that young king way back in 993 would think about Potsdam today, and the events that followed his gift to an aunt of a small settlement and a piece of land beneath some oak trees beside a river.
City of Potsdam: www.potsdam-tourism.com
Hotel: Potsdam – Mercure: www.mercure.com/de/hotel-1582-mercure-hotel-potsdam-city