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City Sightseeing

A Day Trip to Potsdam

The main reason to visit Potsdam is to see Sanssouci Palace, the summer residence of Frederick the Great, built between 1745 and 1747 as a retreat from all the pomp of the royal court in Berlin, and from the queen & all other women — ‘Sansfemmes’ would have been an equally appropriate name. A single-storey enfilade of just ten rooms, the rococo-style palace is in fact more like an oversized summer house, all rather snug, overlooking a magnificent terraced vineyard. Other must-sees are the Picture Gallery of Sanssouci that Frederick had built to house his collection of paintings, of which Caravaggio’s Doubting Thomas is the absolute highlight, the New Chambers of Sanssouci, featuring a succession of elaborately decorated rooms, and the Orangery Palace, which is noted for its collection of 19th-century copies of paintings by Raphael. A bit of a walk down the park, the stately baroque New Palace is terribly nice as well, as are the neoclassical Charlottenhof Villa, designed by architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel, and the Chinese House in Sanssouci Park, one of the greatest epitomes of chinoiserie.

Sanssouci Palace
Sanssouci Palace

From the Brandenburg Gate, a triumphal arch built in 1770 & 1771 to celebrate Frederick’s victory in the Seven Years’ War, it’s some 30 minutes by tram (№ 94) & bus (№ 603) to Cecilienhof Country House, a 176-room Tudor-style manor built between 1913 and 1917, where in the summer of 1945 the Potsdam Conference on what to do with Germany took place, which led to the division of Europe and the erection of the Berlin Wall. From the manor house it is just a 10-minute walk to the Leistikowstraße Memorial, a former remand prison of the Soviet military counter-intelligence service, which hosts an exhibition that shows what the prison was used for, and how. Much more pleasant is Museum Barberini, an art museum with a focus on impressionism, which houses close to three dozen paintings by Claude Monet, and many additional works by Alfred Sisley, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro and Gustave Caillebotte, among others. If you catch the regional express train, it takes around half an hour to get from Berlin Hbf to Potsdam Hbf or to Park Sanssouci Bhf; an ABC day pass, valid for all local & regional public transport, is € 10.

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The Berlin WelcomeCard is valid for 48 or 72 hours or 4, 5 or 6 days and provides unlimited travel on regional trains, the S-Bahn, the U-Bahn, trams & buses, and with each ticket up to 3 children aged 6–14 travel for free. Prices for travel zones ABC range from € 29 for 48 hours to € 53 for 6 days. The discount it offers on sanssouci+ tickets applies only to regular tickets, not to family tickets.


In the BBC Radio 4 podcast In Our Time Melvyn Bragg & guests discuss Frederick II, King of Prussia from 1740 to 1786, who made Prussia the leading military power in Europe. An absolute monarch in the age of enlightenment, he was much admired by Napoleon and often romanticized by German historians. Others, however, vilified him for aspects such as his militarism and the partition of Poland.


When Frederick the Great (1712–1768) came to power in 1740, he was King in Prussia, a title invented by his grandfather, Elector Frederick III of Brandenburg (1657–1713), who desperately wanted to become a royal. Becoming King of Brandenburg was out of the question though, because the margraviate already had one: the Holy Roman Emperor, in his capacity as King of the Romans. Fortunately, Frederick also happened to be the Duke of Prussia, which lay outside the empire, so he simply upgraded his duchy to a kingdom & crowned himself king in 1701. Sadly, his Kingdom of Prussia didn’t cover all of Prussia — the rest belonged to the Polish Crown — and therefore our wannabe king could not be King of Prussia, so he became King in Prussia instead. His grandson got rid of the rather ridiculous ‘in Prussia’ in 1772, when he annexed all the Polish territories required to become King of Prussia.


Of the many works of art appropriated from Germany by Soviet trophy brigades in 1945, some 1½ million objects were returned in the 1950s, as a token of friendship between the people of the USSR and the GDR. The first shipment arrived in Dresden in 1955, when the Old Masters Picture Gallery got 1,240 paintings back; the rest followed around the end of 1958. The Picture Gallery of Sanssouci received 40 paintings, but nearly a hundred pieces of artwork are still missing. This has profoundly changed the gallery’s character: mythological representations used to be an important part of its collection, but nowadays, in contrast to the taste of Frederick the Great, religious subjects predominate.


Despite German hopes, further tokens of friendship are not expected any time soon, because the prevailing Russian opinion on the matter is in line with that of the late Irina Antonova, the director of the Pushkin Museum in Moscow from 1961 to 2013, who said in an interview with the German weekly Der Spiegel in 2012: ‘A country is liable, with its own cultural treasures, for the damage it inflicts on the cultural heritage of another nation’.


The German headquarters of Soviet military counter-espionage was based in Military Town № 7, in the neighbourhood next to Potsdam’s New Garden. The former KGB prison is the starting point for a 2½-km-long history trail that provides information on the history & function of the historical buildings, structural relics and preserved traces of this restricted area.


Museum Barberini is where I fell in love with the work of Gustave Caillebotte — particularly Rue Halévy, Couple on a Walk, Argenteuil Bridge, and Avenue of the Villa des Fleurs in Trouville. Other works that I liked were Camille Pissarro’s Boulevard Montmartre, Alfred Sisley’s Snow Effect in Louveciennes and his House at Moret, and of course The Port of Zaandam and Boats at Zaandam, both paintings of my home town by Claude Monet.


North-east of Potsdam is Glienicke Bridge, a bridge over the Havel river, which formed part of the border between East Germany & West Berlin during the Cold War. The bridge became somewhat famous thanks to the spy swaps that took place there, starting in 1962, when Gary Powers, an American pilot whose U-2 spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960, was exchanged for Rudolf Abel, a Russian intelligence officer imprisoned in the United States since 1957. The story became the inspiration for Steven Spielberg’s film Bridge of Spies, starring Tom Hanks as lawyer James Donovan, who negotiated the deal.


James Donovan’s counterpart on the Eastern side was Wolfgang Vogel, the lawyer who was also involved in the later negotiations over Anatoly Shcharansky, and, during the years between 1962 & 1989, in the release of 33,755 East German political prisoners, for whom the West German government paid to the GDR an overall ransom of 3,436,900,755 marks & 12 pfennigs — Deutschmarks, badly wanted in East Berlin.


Contrary to popular belief, there were not that many spy swaps on Glienicke Bridge — after 1962 it happened only twice. In 1985 four spies captured in the United States, from Poland, Bulgaria & East Germany, were swapped for twenty-five Eastern Europeans held prisoner in Poland & East Germany who had been, according to the Americans, ‘helpful to U.S. interests’. (Two remained behind for business & family reasons but were free to leave East Germany within two weeks if they wished, and family members of those who left were allowed to join them within a short time.) A year later, in 1986, Soviet dissident Anatoly Shcharansky was released to the West along with three others, a man from Czechoslovakia imprisoned for trying to escape the Eastern bloc and two spies from East & West Germany, in exchange for two Czechoslovak agents arrested in the United States and three Soviet, Polish & East German spies captured in West Germany.

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