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Our treasure-hunting Jim Johnson strikes gold in this gorgeous city of palaces, parks and gardens. Potsdam, he concludes, is much more than a Berlin sideshow.

By Jim Johnson

Neues Palais
Neues Palais

For nearly 40 years, Potsdam lay behind the Iron Curtain, a jewel of a city hidden to most of the world. Sadly, although the curtain has lifted, few Americans take the time to visit and most of them only on sightseeing buses from adjacent Berlin.

That's a shame, since this UNESCO World Heritage city is a treasure. It's rare to find such a wealth of history - old and recent - and such a concentration of architectural treasures, within so small an area. During a period of barely three centuries, Prussia's Hohenzollern kings built an amazing collection of palaces, parks and gardens. In the extensive parks surrounding the city, the Hohenzollerns commissioned palace after palace, all set in carefully designed gardens. In the 19th century, renowned landscape architect Peter Joseph Lenne' unified it all into the harmonious landscape of palaces and gardens that visitors enjoy today.

Most are within walking distance of each other - walks that cross a stunning aspect of 19 lakes, two rivers, expansive hills, forests and gardens. In fact, more than half of Potsdam is either forest or park.

As awareness of Potsdam grows, increasing numbers of visitors are opting to overnight there and do day trips to Berlin instead of the other way around. Hotels and restaurants seem to have a small town friendliness (visit a restaurant or pub twice in Potsdam and they'll know you) and are less expensive than in Berlin.

Berlin is masses of people, said one American visitor. For me, Potsdam fills the same need that it did for the 18th-century kings. It is a refuge, a peaceful place. I can spend hours exploring the parks, and never hear a car horn or see a traffic light. If I want big-city action, I can be in the heart of Berlin in 25 minutes by S-Bahn or train. In Berlin, the evenings belong to the young. I'd rather stay in Potsdam.

That doesn't mean Potsdam is a sleepy backwater. As capital of the State of Brandenburg and a university town, it is lively by day or night, and benefits from an overflow of students and international residents from Berlin. So, despite being a city of barely 130,000 inhabitants, it offers a surprising variety of dining (and drinking) choices.

The Dutch Quarter

Many of those options are in the Baroque Dutch Quarter, a group of red-brick, gabled houses built in the early 18th century to attract Dutch tradesmen. The four-block district is filled with courtyard restaurants, cafés and pubs like M18, Hollow Pear, Flying Dutchman, La Maison du Chocolat and Café Heider. Adjacent to the Dutch Quarter is Brandenburg Street, an 18th-century residential area built to house both families and Prussian troops - six soldiers to a household. Today, Brandenburg and neighboring streets have been transformed into wide pedestrian boulevards filled with smiling shoppers, and many of the houses into eclectic book stores, antique shops, boutiques and bistros.

Some Potsdam visitors also feel a poignancy associated with the recent past, starting with the 1945 Potsdam Conference, which in many ways set the stage for the division of Germany. It is a drama that played out quickly with the Russian occupation and the creation of the German Democratic Republic. The town is still marked by those times which, after all, ended a scant 14 years ago. As recently as 1994, Potsdam housed 60,000 Russian soldiers. Those interested in the Soviet presence can still wander the former Forbidden City, a walled-off villa district, once controlled by the KGB, and the KGB prison, now regional headquarters for Amnesty International.

Potsdam also presents an excellent case study of a former East German city adjusting to life in unified Germany. Under communism, many significant structures were torn down by the government or simply neglected. Of those that remain and are accessible to visitors, quite a few have been open less than a year, with restoration work funded by foundations and philanthropists. Work continues in other areas, including the ruins of the City Palace, which was built in 1662, severely damaged in 1945, and nearly demolished in 1961.