WORLD HERITAGE POTSDAM
Our exceptional holiday along the elegant Elbe River brims with discoveries. One Viking Cruise excursion introduces Potsdam's intriguing past, beginning with Cold War history at the legendary Glienicke Bridge.
"After WWII, the Havel River divided East Germany from West Berlin. Only those with passes could cross this bridge into Potsdam," recounts guide Hannah. "And until the late 1980's, secret agents were routinely exchanged right here." In one highly publicized 1962 exchange, U2 pilot Gary Powers was traded for a Soviet spy. The bridge became commonly known as Bridge of Spies...and since such clandestine handovers ended has ‘starred' in novels, movies and pop music to symbolize freedom.
Beyond, a tree-lined avenue leads us to Germany's largest World Heritage Site. We meander along shaded pathways in themed gardens of exotic plants, marble sculptures and decorative columns. Sanssouci palace soon comes into view, crowning the terraced green hillside ahead.
"The king absolutely loved gardens," explains Hannah. "Affectionately called old Fritz, he experimented with plums, figs and grapes along these sunny terraces." To look more closely at Frederick's favourite residence, we climb 132 stairs amid trellised grapevines and fruit trees.
The single story, golden-yellow palace immediately conjures lighthearted fun. Grape clusters, wine god Bacchus and his companions intermingle with white-trimmed windows. Below the central dome's green roof, gilded letters spell out SansSouci. Cherubs perch near oval windows; vases dot rooflines.
"Completed in 1745, Frederick the Great designed this rococo summer palace," Hannah reports. "Preferring to speak French, he named it Sanssouci, meaning without cares. This retreat allowed him total relaxtion with his closest friends and beloved dogs, an escape from weighty demands at court...and women!" Also within these extensive royal parklands, he built New Palace, a beautiful home just for his wife.
Near one gold-emblazoned gazebo above the terraced vineyards, Frederick's simple grave lies alongside his loyal grayhounds, accomplished only following German reunification. His nephew successor had ignored Frederick's wishes for burial at Sanssouci. The fresh potatoes strewn upon his gravestone reference his introduction of this popular crop to Prussia and how much he loved eating them himself!
On the entrance hall ceiling, Goddess Flora drops flowers in the painted sky. Venus, goddess of nature and Apollo, god of the arts flank the reception hall doorway. Gilded swirls trim ceilings, walls and painted panels. Scenes of pastoral bliss by 18th-century French artists decorate the sumptuous dining room. In one painting, Frederick plays his flute with an orchestra. Even Bach entertained here, accompanying the king on one of several harpsichords.
Ten principal rooms provided an intimate space for easy, pleasurable living. Lavish guestrooms included old Fritz's chamber, where one humble portrait shows him in ordinary martial attire, though widely considered a military genius. Nextdoor, exotic birds and flower garlands adorn philosopher friend Voltaire's room, whose works join other French literature and Greek and Roman classics filling Frederick's circular library. Through a gap in the back plaza's semicircular colonnade, we marvel at mock Roman ruins, an ornamental folly installed at great expense to remind guests of past history.
Continuing into Potsdam's historic centre, Hannah relates, "Over 300 years ago, Prussian kings welcomed Dutch and French Huguenots immigrants. They helped transform what had been a garrison outpost into a gracious royal city, home to the Hohenzollern dynasty and sometimes compared to Versailles."
From St Peter and St Paul Church, we head into old town for lunch. Boutiques, cafes and street musicians line Brandenburger Strasse. Of the defensive citywall once preventing smuggling or soldiers deserting, three gates remain. In the distance, Nauener Gate borders the Dutch neighbourhood's picturesque courtyards, offbeat bars and avant-garde galleries. Our stroll ends at Brandenburg Gate, closely resembling Berlin's ionic monument. This smaller arch celebrated Frederick's Seven Years War victory. And named after former royal hunting grounds, Hunter's Gate lies beyond, oldest of the three.
Our final stop reveals Cecilienhof, last palace built by German royals. Finished in 1917, this Tudor-style countryhouse was built for Crown Prince William and wife Cecilie. Multiple courtyards disguise its surprising 176 rooms. Today, flowers form a red star amid the main courtyard. For twenty-five years, this gracious, three-storied home served as the Soviet's East German headquarters.
When WWII ended, the victorious allies held the 1945 Potsdam Conference at Cecillienhof. Over two weeks, Churchill, Truman and Stalin met here in comfort, ultimately deciding how to partition postwar Germany. The conference room and work areas used during these historic negotiations are open to the public.
Our day ends with dinner aboard the riverboat Astrild, homebase for further enlightening adventures.
IF YOU GO:
More Information: Viking http://www.vikingrivercruisescanada.com/content/elbe/
PHOTOS by Chris & Rick Millikan
1 Potsdam's fabled Glienicke Bridge, commonly known as the Bridge of Spies.
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