A jaunt southwest of Berlin is Potsdam, rich in history and lush in green space.
Long before it became known for hosting the Allies’ conference at the end of WWII, Potsdam was a city of Prussian royalty. As such, it houses a beautiful arrangement of gardens and parks, reminiscent of the grandeur enjoyed by kings and emperors during the Prussian Baroque period. And that luxury is exemplified like nowhere else in Park Sanssouci, a triumph of architectural harmony populated by temples, palaces, botanical and formal gardens.
Ironically, sans souci means ‘without worries’ in French, when in fact Potsdam and its surroundings were known for Cold War intrigue and the notable exchanges of spies, particularly on the Glienicke Bridge, connecting the city to West Berlin across the Havel River. Staff members were in the midst of setting up for the annual light show, Schlössernacht (‘Palaces by Night’), the weekend I visited and were busy herding people off the grounds. (I got access, however – it’s amazing what a media pass can do.) With a terraced vineyard in its foreground, Schlöss Sanssouci is an impressive summer residence that King Frederick the Great had built for himself in 1744 where he could live sans souci, in the midst of a European continent engulfed in continuous wars.
Historically a centre of European immigration (predominantly from France, Russia, the Netherlands and Bohemia), Potsdam has an international character evident in its culture and architecture. While it was severely damaged in bombing raids during WWII, many buildings in its historic districts have since been refurbished with great detail and large areas of this remarkable state capital have been granted UNESCO World Heritage status.
At the western end of shop-lined Brandenburger Straße is the Brandenburger Tor, a gate resembling a Roman triumphal arch that curiously, has two different façades designed by two different architects. I hit up the produce market in Alter Markt and perused the one along Nauener Tor, one of three preserved gates in the city, and a splendid example of the influence of English Gothic Revival architecture.
Holländisches Viertel (Dutch Quarter) is an ensemble of some 150 red brick buildings concentrated within four city blocks, Europe’s largest collection of Dutch-style houses outside of the Netherlands. The ‘Soldier King’, King Frederick Wilhelm I, ordered them built (1734-1742) under the direction of architect Jan Bouman for Dutch artisans and craftsmen that he had invited to settle there. If not to see this unique brand of architecture – with its white trim, shuttered windows, and oftentimes-sweeping gable roofs – then head to Maison du Chocolat, the neighbourhood’s undisputed ‘go-to’ for hot chocolate.