Treasure chest of an empire

Pearls of Potsdam ... Sanssouci Palace, the summer home of Frederick the Great.
Pearls of Potsdam ... Sanssouci Palace, the summer home of Frederick the Great. Photo: Getty Images

Glenn A. Baker follows in the footsteps of spies, kings and dictators as he uncovers the riches of Potsdam.

Back when Berlin was in two and you'd had your fill of wandering along the graffiti-festooned wall, you could make your way out to what there was of the suburbs of West Berlin to Potsdam. The attraction, at least to those who had consumed a brace of espionage novels, starting with The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, was to walk halfway across the Glienicke Bridge, where the spy swaps (such as that of downed U2 pilot Gary Powers) were conducted.

Even those who didn't smoke would be inclined to pluck a burning stick from between the lips, toss it to the ground, grind it out with a heel, spin around smartly and saunter back to the freedom of the West. Like Berlin itself, the entire bridge was divided - there was a sense of menace just being on it.

It still features in tourism but now the multi-language hop-on-hop-off buses that collect visitors at the station trundle over it at regular intervals, turn around at one end and head off to scores of other attractions. In two hours, though, they'll have barely touched them, for Potsdam is Germany's treasure chest, and always has been.

There has scarcely been a German empire, reign or regime that has not been centred in or affected by Potsdam, a grand, elegant collection of palaces, castles, churches and chapels, estates, pavilions, halls, galleries, gardens, parks, forests, lakes, rivers, baths, city gates, squares, towers, artisan houses, colleges and institutes, summer residences, winter residences, film studios and cultural landmarks. With the same status as Windsor in England (but with a great deal more splendour), it was the residence of Prussian kings and German kaisers.

It even topped and tailed the short-lived Third Reich. In March 1933, there was a ceremonial handshake between President Paul von Hindenburg and upstart new chancellor Adolf Hitler in the Garrison Church. Thirteen years later, in the nearby Cecilienhof Palace, Truman, Churchill and Stalin came together at the Potsdam Conference to carve up a defeated Germany and essentially decide the future of postwar Europe.

Around Potsdam there is evidence of settlement since the Bronze Age, and it's not hard to see why the place has always been thought desirable. About 20 rivers and lakes dissect the area, of which three-quarters remains green space. Today it consists of seven historic city parts and another nine village components that were embraced by Potsdam about a decade ago. The name (first mentioned in an AD993 document as Poztupimi - "beneath the oaks") has been prominent in European consciousness and envy since it was chosen as a hunting residence by Frederick William I in 1660.

While "location, location" has always counted for a great deal, there has been an eternal allure in what Potsdam represents politically, culturally and socially. The promise of religious freedom in the 1685 Edict of Potsdam drew immigrants from all over Europe - French Huguenots, Bohemians, Russians and Dutch. The houses the latter built stand proudly and give the city much of its visual motif.

Those who came to stay and luxuriate in its elegance and its proximity to Berlin (today an easy 20- to 30-minute rail sweep) ranged from artisans, students, religious practitioners and pilgrims, as well as members of royal courts, spies and jailers.

During the divided years, the Russian KGB, with and without the co-operation of East Germany's Stasi, set up residence in a row of handsome manor houses, where they could conduct surveillance and interrogation, and enjoy a much less spartan existence than in Moscow. And certainly less austere and brutal than in the KGB prison at Leistikowstrasse 1 that was established in Potsdam after the "Big Three" conference at the end of the war by the SMERSH counterintelligence body. Declared a historical monument by a united Germany at the end of 2004, it is accessible to the public, providing an eye-opening insight into how ruthlessly and effectively the Soviets took control of all they could while the rubble was still smoking in a conquered nation.

All that comes to life if you're in the hands of a good guide, though you need to hang on all the words that come gushing at you - there's a huge amount to cover. The principal drawcard is the largest world-heritage site in Germany, Sanssouci Park, just west of the city centre, where King Frederick the Great decided to surround himself in opulence and ease (the word is French - the language of royal courts - for "no worries") in 1744. The grounds are resplendent with manicured gardens and imposing buildings, though that could well describe all of Potsdam.

Moving fast, you will take in the vast and imposing Neues Palais (New Palace) - with its 200 rooms and 400 statues - built to celebrate the end of the Seven Year War; the Orangerieschloss (The Orangery) Palace; the Schloss Charlottenhof; the Romische Bader (Roman Baths) from the 1830s; the Alexandrowka Russian colony; the Dutch Quarter; the Marmorpalais (Marble Palace); the Franzosische Kirche (French Church); the Bornstedt Royal Estate; the Chinese Tea House; the Jagertor (Hunter's Gate); the Fortunaportal (Gate of Fortune, which stands on the site of the bombing-destroyed Stadtschloss, or City Palace, in the Old Market Square); Potsdam Harbour (on the River Havel); and a seemingly endless array of research institutes.

If a few hundred years of classical history and elaborate architecture reach saturation level, you may want to make your way south-east for immersion in a particularly 20th-century art form. Before the disruption of World War II, Babelsberg was the heart of the German (and perhaps even European) film industry. It is said that Studio Babelsberg, now celebrating its 100th anniversary, is the world's oldest surviving large-scale movie studio, its almost-sanctified precincts now home to a film school with about 600 students.

Here they absorb the ambience of the 2.5-hectare lot where Marlene Dietrich brought to life The Blue Angel, Fritz Lang made Metropolis, Nazi propaganda master Joseph Goebbels directed the Leni Riefenstahl "classics" and, more recently, Kate Winslet appeared in The Reader and Tom Cruise in Valkyrie.

On the way back to the station, you might be able to divert your transport to obtain a final touch of the city's new essence - the Filmmuseum Potsdam, a touch of Hollywood on the Havel. It's worth the negotiation.

The writer travelled courtesy of Finnair and Design Hotels

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Finnair has a fare to Berlin for about $1985 low season return from Melbourne and Sydney, including tax. Fly with a partner airline to Hong Kong (about 9hr) then non-stop to Helsinki (11hr) and finally to Berlin (1hr 55min); see finnair.com. Potsdam can be reached in less than half an hour from central Berlin by frequent and inexpensive express trains.

Staying there

For those staying overnight there are 50 hotels in Potsdam, most costing less than $100 a night. The Steigenberger Hotel Sanssouci is located beside the famous park in the centre of Potsdam, the Mercure Hotel Potsdam City overlooks the Havel River and the Romantik Hotel Am Jaegertor is an elegant property in the Old Town. See booking.com/city/de/Potsdam.html.

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