Potsdam's Palaces

Rediscover their lush surroundings

By Ann Hattes

Special to the Times

In 1945, Potsdam, Germany, set the scene for the last conference on World War II between Allied leaders. But the Cold War made the city off limits to the free world for decades.

Today the Berlin Wall is down, the Cold War is over and Potsdam is celebrating its 1,000th birthday with open doors.

From July 17 to Aug. 2, 1945, Allied leaders met to decide the future of Europe. The chief participants were President Harry S. Truman, Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Premier Joseph Stalin, leaders of the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union respectively.

Here President Truman learned of the successful completion of the atomic bomb in a telegram declaring "A baby is born." Here, too, Germany was divided, with a council of ministers from the United States, Britain France, Russia and China, set up to draft final treaties with the defeated Axis.

Cecilienhof Palace, site of the peace conference, is now a museum dedicated to this famous meeting. Tourists see charts, maps and the massive round oak table where the Potsdam Declaration was signed. (There are conflicting opinions concerning the authenticity of the table).

Resembling a romantic English-style country mansion, the Cecilienhof was built between 1913 and 1917. Today one portion functions as a hotel, permitting visitors to stay overnight where history was made.

Potsdam, a former fishing village on the Havel River 16 miles from Berlin, is a magnificent city of verdant parks and glorious palaces virtually unknown to Americans, as it was off limits during the Cold War era. Following the fall of the Berlin Wall, Potsdam, with its more than 20 palaces, has become a favored destination once again.

Though Potsdam dates from 993, its growth accelerated in 1713, under King Frederick Wilhelm I and his son, Frederick the Great. The picturesque surroundings of 19 idyllic lakes, hilly ranges and lush woodlands drew these and other Prussian rulers to establish their summer residences here. Potsdam was where royalty retreated to relax.

Frederick the Great's Sans Souci, very similar to Versailles, standing ornate and intricate on a hill in the middle of a 725-acre park, is perhaps Germany's best known example of rococo architecture. Surrounded by vineyard terraces, it is Potsdam's favorite visitor attraction and home to a magnificent art and sculpture collection.

Designed by an army officer turned architect, Georg von Knobelsdorff, Sans Souci almost brings the outdoors inside, for Frederick the Great was a passionate nature lover. The number of daily visitors permitted inside the palace is limited. But the palace and gardens of Sans Souci are internationally priceless and worth a visit whether or not you get inside.

A favorite park with locals is Babelsberg Park, with its meadows and woodland stretching down to the Havel River. Cruise the Havel and nearby lakes on a scenic excursion with the Weisse Flotte (White Fleet), one of several steamer lines offering excursions from Potsdam to Berlin April through October.

Stroll the old Dutch quarter with its quaint, red brick, two-story buildings built between 1737 and 1742, and nearby Brandenberger Street, once home to Mozart. Seek out the Russian complex, a dozen half-timbered log cabins designed in the form of a St. Andrew's cross [shaped like an X]. These were once homes to Russian singers belonging to a choir that had remained in the Prussian army following the campaign against Napoleon.

Close by are the Church of St. Nicholas and the old Town Hall, architectural gems looking onto the Old Market. In the historic Royal Stables of the Old Market is Potsdam's Film Museum. Nearby are the buildings of Babelsberg, cradle of German cinema and still a major media center.

Potsdam, once Germany's most important city as residence to Prussia's kings and royal families, claims Frederick the Great as its most important resident.

Sans Souci, hosts an annual summer music festival, but this year there are also parades and water festivals, art shows and railroad displays with the grand finale of the millennium scheduled for Oct. 3, the anniversary of German unification (1990).

For more information on travel to Germany, contact the German National Tourist Office, 122 East 42nd St., New York, N.Y. 10168; (212) 661- 7200. Or contact the German National Tourist Office on the West Coast, 11766 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 750, Los Angeles, Calif 90025; (310) 575-9799.

While you're there...

Potsdam is only 16 miles from Berlin. Some of Berlin's sites include:
The Brandenburg Gate, symbol of Germany's division during the Cold War and now its recent reunification.

The Pergamon Museum, noted for its archaelogical treasures, such as the Pergamon Altar, a full city block long, and an original Roman city gate.

Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, almost destroyed in World War II except for its tower.

KaDeWe -- Kaufhaus des Westens, one of the world's largest department stores, noted for its delicatessen with hundreds with hundreds of sausages and cheeses. It was a showplace of capitalism in the'50s. -- Ann Hattes

Ann Hattes last wrote for the Times about Wisconsin Ducks (DUKWs).

[ This article originally appeared in the October 4, 1993 edition of the Army Times. ]

Visit Ann's Site for more of her travel writing.

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