There’s good reason to make repeat visits to Potsdam and its surrounding parks and lakes. Not only is it home to centuries of Prussian royal history, it is also one of the largest UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Germany. So big in fact, it would be impossible to see it all in a single day. A few weeks back I made my fourth visit, and there’s plenty of ground still to cover.
UNESCO made it a World Heritage Site two months after German reunification, and it has added new bits over the intervening years. It now covers an area of 20km². The centrepiece of the whole thing is without doubt the delightful Sanssouci Palace and park, commissioned by Frederick the Great in 1745. It was here I headed after first visiting the “Mosque” of Potsdam.
The “mosque” is a building that wouldn’t look out of place in Moorish Córdoba. The “minaret” has a crescent moon that you’d see on a regular mosque, but this is a 19th century secular fake. Commissioned by Frederick William IV in the 1840s, the striped stone hides a pump house – within which a steam engine powered the fountains of Sanssouci.
It was closed (thank you, never-ending pandemic), so I didn’t get to see the richly decorated interior that makes this one of the most beautiful industrial buildings in Germany. Leaving 15th century Al-Andalus behind, I headed to Renaissance Italy – or at least a 19th century Prussian version of the Italian Golden Age – and a picturesque Italian villa containing “Roman” baths.
A short stroll and several centuries away is Schloss Charlottenhof with nice formal gardens. A Neoclassical villa mimicking ancient Rome, part of its interior is designed to look a bit like an Arabian tent that found itself at a Baltic Sea resort. Whimsy isn’t an accusation you’d make about Prussian monarchs famed for their rigid militarism, but Sanssouci shows a more sensitive side.
Sanssouci is designed as a Prussian Arcadia, an idealized vision of unspoiled wilderness with a few Italian villas thrown in for good measure. Arcadia comes to an abrupt end when you arrive at the Neues Palais. A colossal palace built after Prussia’s success in the Seven Years’ War (1756-63). It was meant to show Prussia’s power despite the economic devastation of the war.
On a hot, sunny day, I walked around the Neues Palais to the equally beautiful buildings of the University of Potsdam – a less colourful reflection of the Neues – and then made my way to the shady low escarpment where the Belvedere Klausberg sits. The Belvedere commands, as its name suggests, beautiful views.
Walking in Sanssouci, it’s hard to ignore the pretensions of the Prussian monarchy. Frederick the Great’s insistence that the Belvedere be designed as a replica of Emperor Nero’s imperial palace does little to dispel this fact. All is forgiven, though, when you walk down the glorious avenue of trees linking the Belvedere with the exquisite Orangery Palace.
The Orangery is like a love letter from 19th century King Frederick William IV to Renaissance Italy. It’s a glorious building that really does make you appreciate Frederick William’s nickname, the “Romantic on the throne”. It’s 300 metres long and has several ‘plant halls’ filled with different types of flora, all closed when I was there.
A little further along the escarpment, positioned perfectly to catch the wind, is an 18th century windmill. As I stood looking out over the park, above me the blades slowly turning in the breeze, I could almost have been in Frederick the Great’s Sanssouci.