Although inhabited since the Bronze Age, Potsdam became prominent in the late 1600s, when Frederick’s father, Frederick William I, chose it as the site of the Prussian army garrison. But it was Frederick the Great who made the city the center of the Prussian court and endowed it with two of Germany’s most elegant palaces.
Tiring of Berlin, in 1745 he built a getaway here atop a hill, a brilliant rococo palace he named Sanssouci (carefree, in French). He surrounded it with 700 acres of gardens and parkland, at the far end of which he would later build his New Palace. Sanssouci Palace, a World Heritage site since 1990, is approached by a sweeping staircase that climbs through six terraces of vineyards and lemon trees (which winter in greenhouses). With an interior highlighted by rich paneling, marble and stucco decoration, Sanssouci is one of Europe’s finest examples of 18th-century rococo palace.
The New Palace was still under extensive restoration when we were there a few months ago, but is now back to its original glory, with more than 60 of its 200 rooms open to the public. In the center of the palace, between the wings of apartments, are the building’s most jaw-dropping rooms. The Grottensaal is an immense space decorated with semi-precious stones set into its rough grotto-like walls, and directly above it is the equally large Marmorgalerie. This ballroom is completely lined in marble, including its floor, whose weight is impossible to imagine. The recent restorations replaced the supports that keep it from falling into the Grottensaal below.
The New Palace overlooks formal gardens, which give way to a park of meadows and woods, interrupted here and there by gardens. In the midst of this is the nearly-round Chinese Tea House, completely covered in gold and almost blinding on a sunny day. A pavilion of pure fantasy, it is decorated by figures with clearly European faces, dressed in Chinese style. This fanciful folly reflects the 17th-century passion for all things Asian.
Overlooking the water is the more restrained Marble Palace, begun in 1787 for Frederick Wilhelm II, Frederick’s nephew and successor, but not finished until the mid-1800s. Used – and abused -- by Russian soldiers during Potsdam’s half century behind the Iron Curtain, it is also fresh from restoration.
The fifth palace was the biggest surprise, looking more like a cross between a Tudor castle and an English country cottage. Cecilienhof Palace, also part of the UNESCO World Heritage site, was built between 1914 and 1917 for Crown Prince William of Prussia. It was this palace that gave Potsdam its place in modern history, as the site of Potsdam Conference, where the allies drew the lines for the occupation zones of Europe at the close of World War II.
Along with marveling at the lavish luxury enjoyed by the great royal families of Europe, visitors to Potsdam’s Hohenzollern palaces and gardens can’t help but be struck by the regimented and unfulfilling lives many of them lived. Frederick was dominated by an unforgiving father who tried to squelch his son’s interests in anything except military prowess. Royal offspring were married off as pawns to strengthen alliances or gain control of coveted lands. And in the end, it is their stories, not the excesses that surrounded them, that we remember.
Frederick’s library at Sansoucci, a smallish and – compared to the palaces all around – relatively simple room, its walls covered in books on every subject, gives glimpses of the wide-ranging interests of this remarkable and highly cultured ruler. Perhaps the most poignant of these vignettes is Frederick’s simple tomb on the terrace next to the Orangerie, surrounded by his dearest friends – his greyhounds.