Potsdam’s Prussian Arcadia

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.

Neues Palais, Sanssouci Park, Potsdam, Germany
Orangery Palace, Sanssouci Park, Potsdam, Germany
Neues Palais, Sanssouci Park, Potsdam, Germany
The Roman, Baths, Sanssouci Park, Potsdam, Germany
Belvedere Klausberg, Sanssouci Park, Potsdam, Germany

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.

University of Potsdam, Sanssouci Park, Potsdam, Germany
Sanssouci Park, Potsdam, Germany
Potsdam “Mosque”, Potsdam, Germany
Schloss Charlottenhof, Sanssouci Park, Potsdam, Germany
Orangery Palace, Sanssouci Park, Potsdam, Germany

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.

12 thoughts on “Potsdam’s Prussian Arcadia

  1. Your photos definitely do this area justice. Love the close-ups of the statuary. And the shot of the alleyway of trees. Beautiful!

    1. I love Potsdam, such a beautiful place, and it attracts a fraction of the tourists similar sites elsewhere get.

  2. I remember walking around Sans Souci at the end of the day at golden hour, the colour of the castle walls suited it beautifully. There was also the game of light and shadow of the columns.

  3. Thanks for the walk back to Potsdam. We did walk in the same steps. It was an interesting visit ten years ago. Not too well kept then, after years of East Germany lack of maintenance. It is a nice place. A recall of how an all powerful King did what he pleased. Sans worry…

  4. I didnt realise Potsdam had so much to offer, an absolutely stunning place to visit!

    1. It’s really nice, especially when escaping lockdown in the city!

  5. I regret not having been able to get there yet. We decided on our 5-day long weekend in Berlin back in pre-Covid times that we didn’t have time to do it justice. I think we were right, but the gods alone know when we’ll eventually manage it.

    1. If the opportunity ever presents itself again (and it really does feel like if rather than when), it’s definitely worth a day of wandering. Potsdam itself is also nice, and I suspect it has some decent restaurants.

  6. I’ve seen images of the Sanssouci Palace, but I didn’t realize that the entire complex was this expansive. It’s interesting to see different architectural designs within the compound, and that “mosque” is totally unexpected. This whole grand monument surely is a statement of Prussia’s wealth and power.

    1. It’s a wonderful place, Potsdam, Sanssouci and the surrounding parks and lakes, and really very close to Berlin for regular visits.

  7. I might have mentioned this before, but my last trip before the coronavirus lockdown, in January 2020, was to Lübeck, where I saw the opera Montezuma by Carl Heinrich Graun, to a text by none other than Friedrich the Great himself. This was combined with parts of a play about Friedrich, showing the two sides of his split personality (played by two women). https://operasandcycling.com/montezuma-in-lubeck/

    1. They definitely had split personalities, but I suppose high art and war was the stuff of kings.

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