In­dul­gent Es­capism in Pots­dam, Ger­many

mailife - - Contents - By BEN MACK

Time travel has not been in­vented yet, at least as far as we know. But when vis­it­ing Pots­dam, it’s per­fectly un­der­stand­able to think it has been. Af­ter all, vis­i­tors to the Ger­man city can’t help but feel they’ve been trans­ported back to an era of knights, dragons and der­ring-do – all the more sur­pris­ing since it’s mere min­utes by train from the hus­tle and bus­tle of ul­tra­mod­ern Ber­lin. Like many places in Ger­many,much of the city was dam­aged in World War II.Yet it’s hard to tell today – and one of the most fa­mous build­ings as­so­ci­ated with the war still stands. The Ce­cilien­hof isn’t very an­cient as far as Euro­pean palaces go – it’s “only” just a tad over 100 years old. But the English Tu­dor-style manor played host to the Pots­dam Con­fer­ence in 1945, when US pres­i­dent Harry S. Tru­man, Bri­tish prime min­is­ter Win­ston Churchill, and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin dis­cussed how to re­build a world dev­as­tated by war. A lo­cal leg­end says the Ce­cilien­hof was re­mod­eled for the con­fer­ence, since the egos of the Al­lied lead­ers were such that they didn’t want to walk into the main meet­ing room be­hind some­one else. Whether that’s true, one of the most im­pres­sive things is how de­cep­tively large it is; it may look rel­a­tively small, but it ac­tu­ally has about 176 rooms! A few hun­dred me­tres from Ce­cilien­hof, through a beau­ti­ful English-style gar­den that re­gard­less of the sea­son is filled with ducks and swans and the in­vig­o­rat­ing scent of fresh­ly­cut grass and sounds of chirp­ing birds, is an­other struc­ture of his­tor­i­cal note, al­beit from a dif­fer­ent era: the in­fa­mous “Bridge of Spies.” Made even more fa­mous by the 2015 Steven Spiel­berg film Bridge of Spies, the Glienicke Bridge (“Glienick­erBrücke” in

Ger­man) earned that nick­name be­cause it was the site of nu­mer­ous pris­oner ex­changes during the Cold War – many of whom were ac­tual spies. The rea­son th­ese ex­changes took place here is be­cause the bridge marked the bor­der be­tween cap­i­tal­ist West Ber­lin and com­mu­nist East Ger­many. Also made fa­mous by John le Carré’s novel Smiley’s Peo­ple­and the movieFuneral in Ber­lin, among oth­ers, vis­i­tors can walk across the bridge them­selves; there’s even a spe­cial marker that sig­ni­fies where East once met West. But those are more mod­ern chap­ters from Pots­dam’s long and rich his­tory. Pots­dam has more UNESCO World Her­itage Sites than al­most any­where else in Ger­many, and a ca­sual stroll through the re­built city cen­tre, down Luisen­platz and through the Bran­den­burg Gate (a Ro­man-es­que struc­ture not to be con­fused with the more fa­mous gate of the same name in Ber­lin), leads to the grand­est of all: Sanssouci. To say Sanssouci is a mar­vel would be an un­der­state­ment; af­ter all, there’s a rea­son it’s con­sid­ered the Ger­man an­swer to Ver­sailles (though built in the Ro­coco style as op­posed to French Baroque). The sprawl­ing park com­plex hosts all man­ner of jaw-drop­pingly gor­geous palaces, tem­ples, fol­lies, green­houses, stat­ues and more, not to men­tion im­mac­u­lately trimmed hedges and fruit trees that have the ef­fect of also mak­ing vis­i­tors feel like they’ve ac­ci­den­tally stum­bled into a movie set or fairy­tale come to life, or at least a place where time it­self has stopped. That’s in­ten­tional, too: the name “Sanssouci” is French for “with­out con­cerns.” It re­ally doesn’t mat­ter which of the many palaces you choose to check out – whether it’s the “main” palace of Sanssouci, the Orangery Palace, the New Palace, the

Char­lot­ten­hof Palace, the Belvedere, the Pic­ture Gallery, the Chi­nese House, the New Cham­bers, the Ro­man Baths or more – be­cause they’re all ooz­ing with ro­man­ti­cism. Dat­ing to the eigh­teenth cen­tury, much of the com­plex was built under Fred­er­ick the Great (“Friedrich der Große”), a Prus­sian king cred­ited with, among other things, help­ing pop­u­larisethe phrase “dog is man’s best friend” and in­tro­duc­ing po­ta­toes to Ger­many. Today, it’s com­mon for po­ta­toes to be left on top of his grave, which is within Sanssouci’s grounds. While most vis­i­tors pre­fer to mo­sey about during the warmer sum­mer months (June, July and Au­gust), a trip during late win­ter/early spring of­fers a much more delectable treat: snow dust­ing verges and roofs like pow­dered sugar on top of a cake, and prac­ti­cally nonex­is­tent crowds – mak­ing the tran­quil ef­fect even more pow­er­ful; it re­ally is as calm­ing as the most se­cluded well­ness re­treat or yoga ses­sion. But re­gard­less of the sea­son, wan­der­ing amid all those kilo­me­tres of flaw­lessly main­tained path­ways – where you’re more likely to see a horse-drawn car­riage than a car – works up an ap­petite.If you’re al­ready feel­ing like Baroque-era roy­alty by just walk­ing around, why not up the ante by in­dulging in a meal in the fash­ion like peo­ple back then may have? Un­sur­pris­ingly, there are quite a few places to eat at Sanssouci that, con­ceiv­ably, roy­alty of old might have also dined at. But none are quite as in­dul­gent as the restau­rant in­side the Dragon House (“Drachen­haus”). Dat­ing back to the late 1700s, the Dragon House is so-named for the­six­teen dragon stat­ues on the cor­ners of its con­cave roofs. The build­ing it­self may have been con­structed to re­sem­ble a Chi­nese pagoda, but the menu is de­cid­edly Euro­pean. Meat, po­ta­toes and pasta may fea­ture promi­nently, but there’s noth­ing wrong with that – es­pe­cially when driz­zled with sump­tu­ous sauces that are fill­ing enough by them­selves. But try to save room for dessert: dishes like the crepes suzette and crème brûlée are not to be passed up – and less ex­pen­sive than one might as­sume. If you don’t feel like a full meal, even a delectable cof­fee or the high­est of high teas sets the imag­i­na­tion soar­ing. Even more in­cred­i­ble, staff will of­ten dress in the fash­ions peo­ple did about a quar­ter of a mil­len­nium ago.It’s culi­nary es­capism at its finest. With Sanssouci’s grandeur out­shin­ing al­most all it touches, it’s quite easy to over­look the rest of Pots­dam. But try not to, as it is chock-full of “hid­den trea­sures.” Take the Dutch Quar­ter (“Hol­ländis­chesVier­tel”), among Europe’s largest col­lec­tions of Dutch ar­chi­tec­ture out­side of the Nether­lands. It’s a quick walk, but com­pli­mented per­fectly by a meal at nearby Café Hei­der, which has been in busi­ness since 1878 and serves some of the best sand­wiches in town. With such a mish­mash of his­tor­i­cal eras in its ar­chi­tec­ture, Pots­dam may in­deed seem like a gi­ant movie set come to life. Mark­ing one of the main en­trances to Sanssouci is the Church of Peace (“Frieden­skirche”), built to look like a medieval Ital­ian monastery. An ex­pres­sion­ist tower in the city is named af­ter Al­bert Ein­stein. A Vik­ing-style arch can be found along the banks of the River Havel. Then there’s the lit­eral movie stu­dio, Ba­bels­berg, where the Tom Cruise-star­ringValkyrie, The Hunger Games, Cap­tain Amer­ica: Civil War, The Grand Bu­dapest Ho­tel, and more were shot. Said oth­er­wise, “es­capism” is the op­er­a­tive word in Pots­dam. As if fur­ther proof were needed: it’s not un­com­mon to see per­form­ers lit­er­ally dis­guised as stat­ues. Oh, and mo­bile phone ser­vice is, mys­te­ri­ously, some­what spotty.

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