Our first sight of Potsdam was from a small park on an island in the River Havel across from the hulking St. Nicholas Church, the Old Town Hall and the Potsdam City Palace. It provides an impressive view into the former glories of a city that was once home to Prussian Kings and German Emperors. This is the town that Frederick the Great made his summer home in the 1740s, but it was already a thriving and diverse place that grew on the back of immigrants fleeing religious persecution in other parts of Europe.
Seriously damaged by Allied bombing raids and Russian artillery in the Second World War, Potsdam found itself behind the Iron Curtain in 1945. As a consequence, the capital of Brandenburg has its share of ugly East German buildings dotted amongst the architectural and historical gems – although none as ugly as the Mercure Hotel. One of the gems is the area known as the Dutch Colony. Here, in the heart of Potsdam, 18th century Dutch immigrants created a mini-Netherlands of 134 red-brick Dutch houses.
Known as Little Amsterdam, today it’s home to galleries, boutiques and cafes. In April there is even a tulip festival. The Dutch were encouraged to settle here because there was a shortage of skilled craftsmen to build the growing city. A walk down the street today is like being transported back to the Netherlands. We reached the Dutch Colony after walking through the magnificent Old Market Square which also houses the very good Museum Barberini, which had an excellent Henri-Edmond Cross exhibition.
We meandered our way through interesting streets to Brandenburger Strasse, at the far end of which sits what looks like a pale imitation of Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate. Potsdam’s Brandenburger Tor is actually the original and pre-dates Berlin’s copy by 20 years – albeit a copy that is far grander than that found in Potsdam. It was built in the 1770s as a triumphal arch to celebrate victory in the Seven Years’ War, replacing an earlier wooden gate.
Elsewhere in the city there are streets lined with grand town houses and palaces that once catered to Prussian nobility and high-ranking civil servants. It’s miraculous that so many beautiful buildings survived the war. The streets were busy on a Saturday, with an outdoor market next to the old city gate of Nauener Tor. We passed beneath it and made our way uphill towards another unique part of the city. If the Dutch Colony had been a bit of a surprise, the Russian Colony was just odd.
Known as Alexandrowka, the Russian Colony was built in the 1820s on the orders of Frederick William III to commemorate the death of Tsar Alexander I. The story of the Russian Colony goes back to 1812 though, a time when Prussia was fighting alongside Napoleon in Russia. The Prussian army captured a large number of Russian troops and, for reasons best known to himself, Frederick William III created a Russian choir from them and forced them to live in Potsdam.
When Prussia finally allied itself with Russia and pretty much everyone else in Europe against Napoleon, the Prussian King and the Russian Tsar became friends. It was this that led to Alexandrowka being built. Today, thirteen wooden houses modelled on an actual Russian village were built around a hippodrome-shaped area of farmland. We walked through this strange area heading for our final destination, the site of the 1945 Potsdam Conference.
First though, we strolled in woodland to the Russian Orthodox Church of Alexander Nevsky on a nearby hill. The church has been in use continuously since 1829, and is the oldest existing Russian Church in Western Europe. I think the woman who warily watched us as we visited the small interior may well have been the oldest Russian in Western Europe. We dropped some coins into the collection under her judgemental glare and went on our way.