Indulgent Escapism in Potsdam, Germany
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.