Frederick the Great’s decision to build his favourite residence, the delightful Sanssouci Palace, in Potsdam sparked a huge flowering of building and landscaping. The result is seventeen palaces surrounded by magnificent parks and formal gardens. Sanssouci Palace was the first to be built in the 1740s and the massive Park Sanssouci expanded around it over the next few decades. You can spend the best part of a day walking the park and discovering palaces, temples and follies within it.
I was planning to take a tour of the palace but it was accessible only by guided tour – a weird feature of life in Germany that means you’ve either got to be organised enough to book in advance, or take your chances. I didn’t fancy waiting around for an hour, and it seemed crazy to spend time indoors when the sun was shining for the first time in months. It was mid-morning and the area around Sanssouci Palace was beginning to get crowded – it must be packed in summer. I headed off to explore the park.
The most imposing building in the park is the New Palace, which sits at the opposite end of the 2.5km central avenue from Sanssouci Palace. You can see its bulbous dome from a distance, the pink and white colours framed by woodland on either side of the gravel track. Despite the chilly temperatures, the blue skies and weak winter sun made it an enjoyable walk, every step giving me a better view of the palace.
Completed in 1769, the New Palace was intended to celebrate the end of the Seven Years’ War, which had confirmed Prussia as a European power. The monumental scale of this Baroque masterpiece was also intended to send a message to Prussia’s enemies. This is one reason Frederick preferred to use it to host foreign dignitaries rather than to live in it. Something of a waste considering the vast cost to build it and the fact that it has more than 200 rooms.
The palace fell into disuse after Frederick the Great died, and it was only in the middle of the 19th century that life returned to it when Frederick III used it as a summer residence. In one of those historical asides, when the last German Emperor, Wilhelm II, abdicated in 1918, furniture was removed from the New Palace and shipped to Huis Doorn in the Netherlands, where he lived in exile until his death in 1941. In the 1970s the Dutch discovered most of it in packing crates and returned it to the New Palace.
As I wandered around the side of the New Palace I spotted even more grand looking buildings. Directly behind the palace are the Communs, which housed the kitchens, palace guards and a multitude of servants, including a small army of gardeners. This area has been recently reopened to the public but there is still some restoration work going on. It now houses the University of Potsdam.
I set off back towards the town of Potsdam taking random paths through the grounds, and unearthing a variety of Italian-style buildings that date from a later period of the expansion of Sanssouci. I also found myself gazing somewhat incredulously at an ornate Chinese teahouse built between 1755–1764, when all things China were big in Prussia. It wasn’t open but has a collection of porcelain, which was so valued in Europe that it became known as ‘white gold’.
I wondered through gardens beneath the Orangery Palace, with a dramatic statue of an archer from antiquity, before arriving back at Sanssouci Palace. I’d passed several fountains which Frederick the Great had installed, but which he and his engineers could never make work. It would take 100 years and the advert of steam power before they would function properly. Which just goes to show, that even one of the most powerful rulers in Europe didn’t always have things his own way.