Day 12- Former E. Germany: Potsdam

Wednesday March 24th (pt. 1)

A flautist greets us with music at the entrance to Sanssouci Palace

Wednesday morning we set off to visit the historic city of Potsdam. Potsdam is probably best known to most Americans as the location of the famous Potsdam Conference. The Potsdam Conference is where the leaders of the United States, United Kingdom and the Soviet Union  met to administer punishment to the defeated Nazi Germany. The conference took place nine weeks after Nazi Germany’s unconditional surrender on V-E Day (May 8th, 1945).

Cupola of Sanssouci Palace

Potsdam is southwest of Berlin and was part of the former East Germany. For those who do not understand the division of occupied Germany under the provisions of the Potsdam Agreement (formerly discussed at the Yalta Conference), Germany was divided among the three Allied Powers. This meant that Germany was divided into East and West occupation zones. The East was the Soviet portion, and the West was divided between the US and the UK (eventually, the US and UK gave a portion of their zones to France).

The Historic Windmill in Sanssouci Park

Furthermore, the capital of Berlin would also be divided. Strategically, this was tricky, because Berlin lay in the heart of  East Germany. Since the three powers had an uneasy alliance, the real intent was that Britain and the US wanted to be sure to have a presence of some sort within East Germany. Joint-occupation of Berlin afforded them the opportunity to maintain a military and political presence in the region. This was supposed to be a temporary situation, but with the onset of the Cold War, then the Berlin Blockade and finally the Berlin Wall it became a permanent division.

Since my family lived in W. Berlin during the Cold War, we could not go into Potsdam– for it was part of Soviet occupied East Germany. Thus, I was thrilled when one of my German-American friends took my husband and I to visit Potsdam in 2006. I was equally excited about sharing the sites of Potsdam with my daughter and sister on this spring day. We traveled to Potsdam via highway A 115 which, during Cold War times, required we pass through Checkpoint Bravo. This checkpoint allowed us to travel from W. Berlin through E. Germany into W. Germany.

There were very specific rules in place as provided by the Four Powers Agreement (among others) on Berlin concerning travel through various corridors through the East. For instance, the Soviets calculated how long it would take to drive the distance from Checkpoint Bravo in West Berlin to Checkpoint Alpha (Helmstedt-Marienborn) at the border to West Germany. If you took too long they assumed you were harboring defectors, if you drove too quickly, you would be in trouble for speeding. Either way, it could cause an ‘international incident.’ My dad was careful to always drive the speed limit.

I remember being very frightened at each border crossing as the heavily armed Soviet and East German soldiers were extremely intimidating in appearance and demeanor. Despite the high level of tension at the border crossings, the Soviets often tried to discreetly barter Russian ‘souvenirs’ for American goods– esp. liquor. My dad warned us not to make eye contact or aggravate them in any way.

Even though this was my second time doing so (2006 was the first) it was surreal traveling back through (under) the now abandoned Checkpoint Bravo crossing building unhampered on our way to Potsdam.

Sanssouci Palace- Spring 2011

A must-see site in Potsdam is Sanssouci Park: a UNESCO World Heritage Site, so that is where we went first. The Park is home to Sanssouci Palace. Sanssouci Palace (Schloss Sanssouci) was the summer palace of Frederick the Great, King of Prussia. Sanssouci was inspired by and reminiscent of  the French palace in Versailles. Sanssouci derives from the French: sans souci meaning ‘without worries’ or ‘carefree.’

Sanssouci Palace- Summer 2006

This palace was a place that the king could get away from the stresses of palace life in Berlin. The palace and grounds are incredibly beautiful even more than 250 years after their construction. It was early spring, so the full beauty of the lush grounds was not as evident as when I had visited it before in the summer. However, the grounds are still quite impressive.

View from the Palace looking down the terraced hill
(marble statues covered for cleaning)

The palace sits on a terraced hill at the center of the park. As pictured, each of the six levels were designed with convex centers to maximize sunlight to these now ancient vines which still thrive here year after year. I added a picture from my summer visit to the Palace so that its breathtaking beauty can be fully appreciated. During the summer, the vines are green, the fountains are spouting, and the marble statues surrounding the basin of the fountain are uncovered.  But, today the statues were being cleaned and therefore covered; and the fountains were not on since we were in the park during off-season.

Bildergalerie (Picture Gallery),
Sanssouci Park

We explored the grounds on the southeast end of the park after descending the steps from the palace. Here we came upon the Picture Gallery. The gallery is the oldest extant museum built for a ruler in Germany. Much of the art was lost during  WWII, as it was removed and taken to Rheinsburg. The Soviet Union returned some of the paintings to the gallery in 1958, but much of the art remains in private Russian collections.

Officially a tree hugger

It’s amazing that despite Allied bombing of Berlin, the grounds here seemed to have suffered little, as these are all original buildings, built in the mid-18th century (with the exception of the Orangerie and the Historic Windmill). As we were enjoying the grounds in front of the Picture Gallery, I saw an enormous old tree and just could not resist the urge to hug it– I could not get over how incredibly large its trunk was.  I have pretty long arms, so as you can see, it was a  very large tree!

Schlafgraben winding towards the
Tea House
Ironwork on a footbridge near the

A lovely stream called the Schafgraben winds its way through the grounds of Sanssouci Park. It ends in front of the Bildergalerie (Picture Gallery) and connects to the Maschinenteich (Machine Pond) behind Charlottenhof Palace, which is fed by the Havel River. We crossed over a quaint little footbridge on our way to see the rest of the grounds. Passing through the Lustgarten (Pleasure Garden), we walked towards the servant’s quarters, down a path ambling as well toward the Chinese House.

One of the many fountains in the Park
this one is just beyond the terraced hill

Patterned after the great baroque gardens of Versaille, King Frederick invested a great deal of money in a system of fountains on his palace grounds– but they never worked during his lifetime. It was 100 years before they would be operational at Sanssouci. I find this to be odd since, the Italians had retained this knowledge since the time of Ancient Rome. The eventual solution was steam power– a pumping station disguised as a Turkish mosque was built on the grounds to provide the pressure needed to make the fountains operational.

China House– boxes covering the figures at the base of the
gilded columns
As we wandered through the Park, we came to the Chinesisches Haus (Chinese House). The Chinese House is a garden pavilion that Frederick the Great had built to adorn his garden. Frederick was again copying the latest fashion, called  Chinoiserie, which was the height of fashion in the gardens of palaces in France.
Gilded figure adorning the exterior of
the Chinese House
Chinoiserie was a style that mixed elements of Western and Eastern design. In this case, it mixed the ornamental styles of roccoco with Chinese architecture. It was built between 1754-57, but due to the Seven Years’ War, it took nine years to complete the interiors. This was my first time getting close to the Chinese House, the last time I was here, I only saw it from across the Schafenburg.
Garden statuary near the China House
Golden Figure atop the cupola of the Chinese House
Up close it was even more impressive. The trefoil shaped building is surrounded by gilded Chinese figures. The entrance is flanked by four gilded sandstone columns. At the base of each column are more gilded Chinese figures. And to top it off- literally– there is a golden figure atop the cupola crowning the roof. We continued on through the gardens and paths of Sanssouci Park and ended up at the Orangerie, which I will blog about  in my next post…