Potsdam Palaces and a Bit of WWII History
By Wednesday, I was ready to leave the history-heavy Berlin behind and head out of town to Potsdam, where Frederick the Great (1712 – 1786) spent his summers.
In Potsdam, Frederick had two places, at opposite ends of the grand Sanssouci park (a UNESCO World Heritage site). The small, more intimate Sanssouci housed his quarters and apartments for guests. Normally, a kaiser’s residence would also have his wife’s quarters, but Frederick did not live with his wife, princess Elizabeth from Bavaria. She spent her summers in Charlottenburg. Perhaps not surprisingly, the two had no heirs. The Sanssouci palace is done in a super Rococo style and is very opulent. Frederick was an avid reader, and he had three libraries here – it was more convenient to have multiple copies of books rather than remember what was where.
On the side of Sanssouci, Frederick had his own Painting Gallery.
His collection consisted mostly of Rubens, but I was delighted to see a Caravaggio among the others. In a striking image, St Thomas, doubting that Christ has risen, sticks his finger in his side, while two other apostles look on. Christ is lovingly guiding St Thomas’ hand, while two others apostles look on in disbelief. The painting utilizes the chiaroscuro technique – the light seems to come from the left and gives the four figures almost three-dimensional volume.
Across the vast park, the grander New Palace stands. Frederick did not live here but used the palace to entertain guests and dignitaries.
On the way there, I visited the Chinese house – a garden pavilion – and the Orangerie – a palace built by Frederick William IV based on his own drawings. The Orangerie is under renovation, but a guided tour in German is available every half hour, with a hand-out available in other languages. I arrived just 3 minutes before the half hour, so I took that as a sign that I should take the tour – especially since my Rick Steves guidebook said the Orangerie is supposed to be closed for renovations till 2018. These renovations are still going on, as it was evident by the scaffolding, but I guess they have opened a few rooms since the guidebook was written. I was curious to see how much of the German-language tour I’d pick up, and I was happy with the amount of stuff I understood. We saw a half dozen rooms, of which the most fascinating was the Rafael room. There were about 50 copies of Rafael works here. Wait, copies?!?!?! The guide explained that copying works of art was commonplace back then, as photography did not exist. Creating a copy of a work of art was akin go taking a photograph of it in a museums – it was a way to create a memory of the visit. I never thought about it that way.
The guest chambers next door were reserved for Frederick’s sister, who’d married a Russian king and changed her name to Alexandra. The room was outfitted with many items made of a green stone I forget the name of. Alexandra had these made in Russia and sent them to her brother as gifts.
When I finally reached the New palace at the other end of Sanssouci, I was maxed out on Rococo, so I decided not go in. Instead, I headed to Cecilienhof – site of the Potsdam conference after WWII where Churchill, Stalin and Truman negotiated the spheres of influence that emerged after the war. I was really not expecting to see much at Cecilienhof – I was more interested in the beer garten behind it with fine views of the Jungensee. But since I passed Cecilienhof on the way, and I had purchased a Sanssouci combo ticket that included entry to this site, I decided to duck in. I skipped along the first few rooms because the audio guide was way too detailed, but then I found myself in the exact room where the aforementioned Big Three sat in 1945. It was a large room with a round table in the middle. Where each of the three leaders set was evident by where the flag of that country was placed on the table. Can you imagine? Churchill and Stalin and Truman all sat on the actual chairs I was looking at. I got the chills thinking about that. The decisions made at this table are still influencing what’s happening in Europe today.
A display along one of the walls had a picture of the Big Three, with Stalin smoking a cigarette and smiling. I am so glad I decided to go through Cecilienhof – it was an unexpected treat.
I had a late lunch in the Meierei, the beer garten behind Cecilienhof. I enjoyed my schnitzel, but I am getting tired of meat and carb heavy meals. The beer hit the spot though. 🙂
In the evening, I had a few more beers with a German friend who used to live in LA but now lives in Berlin. We compared notes on rent, house prices, vacation days and all kinds of other topics between Germany and the US. We sat outside on a nice street in my neighborhood, Mitte. It was really nice to sit down for a while and just relax. 🙂