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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.


Sanssouci

But, for most visitors, it's Sanssouci that's the prime attraction. Its Park alone covers 724 acres compared to Central Parks 840 and has three palaces: the rococo Sanssouci Palace, the Baroque New Palace and Charlottenhof Palace.

A king who joined his troops on the battlefield, Frederick the Great, commissioned Sanssouci in 1747 as a summer palace where he could find respite from the battle sans souci. His fatigue is evident in the statuary: the warrior in marble, his sword in its sheath, his shield down, and a look of weariness.

Most of what visitors see here are ornate originals not reconstructions or duplicates and perhaps Germany's most impressive example of rococo architecture. In front of the palace, terraced vineyard stretch in geometric shapes into the park.

Over the following century, others made their mark on Sanssouci Park with more construction. The New Palace, a massive, 200-room Baroque masterpiece, was built after the Seven Years War to demonstrate Prussian pride - and in response to the palace at Versailles. The neoclassical Charlottenhof followed in 1826. A visual highlight then and now is the Orangerie, a 300-meter-long palace built to house large tropical plants - including 450 potted trees - during the winter. In warmer weather, the grounds in front of the Orangerie become a Mediterranean garden complete with palm trees.

Many visitors to the park neglect the small but exquisite New Garden, built as an English landscape garden in the late 18th century. Some Potsdam residents actually prefer the garden, a strip of green space between two lakes - the Heiliger See and the Jungfernsee. Relatively few tourists come here, even though it provides the setting for two charming palaces from two different eras: the Marble Palace, a Baroque jewel from the late 18th century, and Cecilienhof, the final Hohenzollern palace, built in 1917 in the style of an English country estate.


Cecilienhof

Although Cecilienhof is the youngest of the Hohenzollern palaces, it carries perhaps the greatest direct significance for Americans and modern Europe. In the summer of 1945, it was the site of the Potsdam Conference that addressed issues relating to post-War Germany. What we take for granted today was then being defined and discussed. In many ways, the future of Germany was negotiated here - and with that future, the hopes and opportunities of not just of that nation but of Europe and the world. The participants, Truman, Churchill, and Stalin, often did not agree and in a sense the Cold War started at Cecilienhof.

Much of Cecilienhof looks as it did in 1945. The conference room is the same, its circular table ringed by chairs. Flowers still form a large red star in the entry courtyard. The offices of Stalin, Churchill and Truman have also been preserved, and visitors can almost feel the personalities, especially in Stalin's red, no-nonsense office whose plainness seems to reflect his cold brutality. Visitors can also see evidence of some of the mind games that went on - such as the chair Stalin placed in Churchill's study that was too small for the rotund statesman. It was also at Cecilienhof that Truman got word the A-bomb was ready and where he gave the order to use it on Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

Babelsberg

Even less visited than the New Garden is Babelsberg Park, just across the Havel River. Located on a bluff, Babelsberg Palace, built in the early 19th century in English Tudor Gothic style, offers a commanding view of the Havel landscape and ample opportunities to explore the romantic park. Babelsberg is also adjacent to one of Potsdam's several villa neighborhoods, whose expansive Jugendstil homes reflect the relative wealth of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Some proud residents joke that Potsdam is "Prussian Disneyland" due to the rich representation of other countries and cultures such as the Chinese Teahouse, the Dragon House, the Roman Baths, the Italian gardens around Charlottenhof, and, of course, the Dutch Quarter, the Mosque, and the Orangerie in the Sanssouci Park, the latter having been modeled in part on the Villa Medici in Rome. Then there's the Russian Colony Alexandrowka, with its 13 houses built in 1826 for Russian singers left behind after the Prussian-Russian victory over Napoleon.


Krongut Bornstedt

After extensive restoration, the faux Italian village at the royal estate Krongut Bornstedt reopened in June 2002 looking much as it did 150 years ago and selling many of the same goods. There's a wood-oven bakery, a candle maker, a glassblower, a potter and a jeweler. Everything sold there is created on premises, right down to the tailor shop with its whirring sewing machine and to the Bornstedter Bueffel (Bornstedt Buffalo), a rich, frothy brown beer brewed as it was in the 17th century.

For English-speaking visitors, Potsdam does present a few challenges. The city and tourism websites are in German, and public sightseeing tours are in German only. For that reason, you may want to consider hiring a private guide, especially if you have specific interests in history, architecture or culture - and don't mind spending 120-150 euros for a half-day. In addition, many city guides are also allowed to provide private tours which can cut considerable time from waiting.

The best time to visit Potsdam is from May through October, although the end of July through August can be hot and humid. Fewer tourists come in May and October and, with the flowers in full bloom, May and June are perhaps the most colorful.

For the parks - especially the palaces - go early in the day. This isn't just to avoid crowds but also total disappointment. As part of the preservation process, the palaces are limited to a certain number of visitors each day. When that number is reached, they close. Pay attention to which palaces are open on which days, since is shut on a different day. The New Palace is the only one open on Mondays. Don't neglect the less popular palaces - historic and architectural gems that often offer no lines, no waiting.

While the parks and palaces are the prime attraction, set aside some time to walk around the Baroque Old Town. Also, some of the best views of the parks and palaces are from the lakes and river. Relaxing cruises are offered in varying lengths and routes, from 90-minute lake tours to full-day excursions from Potsdam to Berlin and back. The tourist office - which does speak English - can help find and hire an appropriate guide. On a recent visit, Kevin Kennedy, an American who has lived in the Potsdam area most of his life and is working on a doctoral thesis relating to German history, was superb with his knowledge, passion and insight.

Potsdam features an efficient, comprehensive public transit system of trams and buses, which also connect with the S-Bahn and regional rail systems for travel to Berlin and throughout Brandenburg. Probably the least expensive way to explore Potsdam is on bus route 695, which makes an almost full circle past the major sights. Buy a single- or multi-day pass (3 euros for one day to 10 euros for a week), step on and off at leisure, and explore.


Hotels

Hotel am Luisenplatz

(Editor's Choice)

The Hotel am Luisenplatz is a charming Italian-style palace built in 1726 and converted in 1997 to a four-star hotel. Upscale furniture is new as of November 2002. With just 25 guestrooms, all of them spacious and sumptuous, the hotel offers personal and cordial service right down to the hotel dog, Boy, who greets guests and, with tail wagging, makes sure they arrive safely at their rooms. Inside rooms overlook the courtyard and hotel garden. Outside rooms view the Luisenplatz fountain, the Brandenburg Gate (Potsdam's, not Berlin's) and Sanssouci Park. Room 11 has three large, bright windows to the park, with a balcony hidden behind the balustrade. Room 74 is the largest, a suite with a spacious bedroom with work area, a kitchen with skylight, and a huge living room.

The hotel also runs the adjacent Bed & Breakfast am Luisenplatz with smaller rooms, fewer amenities and super prices.

Contact: Hotel am Luisenplatz Luisenplatz 5, D-14471 Potsdam, tel +49/0331/97 19 00, fax 97 19 019, e-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Daily Rates: Singles €79-109, doubles €119-139, suites €129-169. Bed & Breakfast building: singles €49, doubles €69.

Rating: Quality 15/20 Value 16/20

Wohnen+Arbeiten, Das KleineApartment Hotel im Hollaender Haus

Hollaender House is in the heart of the Dutch Quarter, a red-brick, 18th-century building given 21st-century pizazz. Though some of the oldest parts of the building still retain a Baroque character, the architect team that owns the hotel has created five showpiece apartments that recently made the pages of the German edition of Architectural Digest. The units are upscale, upbeat and fun.

The spaces are bright, spacious and airy - long, loft-like rooms with living areas set off by freestanding, box-like modules. Furniture and design are ultramodern. Unit 16 is on two-levels with kitchen and bath downstairs, living room and bedroom upstairs and a balcony overlooking the courtyard. Unit 25, a top-floor room with skylight, presents an 18th-century view over the rooftops of the Dutch Quarter.

While there's no room service or 24-hour reception, guests can enjoy a sauna and a bar. All rooms have kitchens. A nice touch, even for those who stay but a short time, is that your name goes on the doorbell. For travelers mixing business with pleasure, the Hollaender House also rents short- and long-term office space, conference rooms and provides secretarial service.

Contact: Wohnen+Arbeiten, Das Kleine Apartment Hotel im Hollaender Haus, Kurfürstenstrasse 15, D-14467 Potsdam, tel. +49/0331/279 11 0, fax 279 11 1

Daily Rates: €100 to 180 per unit, depending on size; weekly rates €450-810. Breakfast €8. Bike rentals €7.50

Rating: Quality 15/20 Value 15/20

Hotel Vivaldi Garni

In 1750, Frederick the Great built a settlement for Bohemian weavers in Potsdam. The enclave, known as Old Nowawes, consisted of small two-family homes with residential spaces and workshops. Today, the neighborhood has become a meeting and living place for today's "Bohemians", sort of an 18th-century SoHo. A group of the houses surrounding a quiet, cobblestone courtyard has become the Hotel Vivaldi. The building's exteriors maintain the historic feeling, while interiors have been renovated into spacious, modern guest rooms. Room five is especially bright and spacious with a terrace to the courtyard.

The Vivaldi, two long tram stops away from the central Old Town, is a good bet for guests who want to be even farther off the beaten path or who want to save a few dollars off the more central hotels.

Contact: Hotel Vivaldi Garni, Karl-Liebknecht-Strasse 24, D-14482 Potsdam, tel: +49/0331/74906-0, fax 74906-16.

Daily Rates: Singles from €70, doubles from €80

Rating: Quality 14/20 Value 15/20

Schlosshotel Cecilienhof

Cecilienhof, in the heart of the New Garden, is perhaps Potsdam's most historic hotel. It was a Hohenzollern residence until 1945, a prestigious hotel in GDR times, and the site of the Potsdam Conference. To blend with the manor house's English style, the management chose an English interior design for the 1995 renovation. The decor features soft pastels, linen fabrics, parchment lampshades, and carpets specially woven to blend with themes of parks and gardens.

The 41 guest rooms are elegant and, despite the extensive renovations, still feel rich with history. Most have views to one of the palaces five courtyards, to the park or to the lake. Those who wish to splurge a bit can certainly take advantage of the hotels expansive (and expensive) suites, like Room 40 - the Prince's Room - once the living area for the Hohenzollern children. (President Bush stayed in Room 44.) But doubles like Number 29, a spacious room with a brick fireplace (not functioning), view to the park and large bathroom, will be just fine for most folks. Although the double rooms and suites are expensive, the single rooms - once the bedrooms of unmarried women staying overnight - are quite reasonable. Travelers who favor palace hotels will like the Cecilienhof just fine. Others may find the historic, manorial setting a bit overpowering. If mobility is an issue, specify the first floor (Erdgeschoss), since there are no elevators.

Contact: Schlosshotel Cecilienhof, Neuer Garten, D-14469 Potsdam, tel. +49/0331/37050, fax 292498.

Daily Rates: Singles €110-135, doubles €300-430, suites from €450

Rating: Quality 17/20 Value 15/20


Restaurants

Wiener Restaurant und Café

This quiet restaurant in a small neighborhood of art galleries across from Sanssouci Park is perfect for enjoying tea, coffee and pastries or heartier fare from south of the (Austrian) border. Creative and bountiful salads, such as arugula with pine nuts and strips of marinated duck breast in a honey-sherry dressing, are a speciality. You can also enjoy perhaps the best Kaiserschmarrn - that eggy, gooey, sugary fried-pancake dessert - north of Linz. Weekday breakfasts are extremely popular, and Sunday brunch is definitely worth any wait. Park-goers should note that picnic baskets are available starting at €20 for two people.

Contact: Wiener Restaurant und Café, Luisenplatz 4, D-14467 Potsdam, tel +49/0331/967 8314
Rating: Quality 14/20 Value 15/20

Café Heider

Located in the Dutch Quarter, the Heider is considered the most traditional café in Potsdam and its 1731 building has been a coffee house since 1872. It was rebuilt in 1995 with plans from an old Berlin café. Since residents and visitors of all ages and backgrounds come here to meet, eat, drink and relax, it's garnered the nickname, "Potsdam's living room". And it does have a nostalgic, parlor feel to it with sofas, gilded mirrors, wall-hangings and old black-and-white photographs. While service is attentive, the overall atmosphere is laid-back. Dishes are reasonably priced with tasty entrées like salmon with risotto, beef roulade and pork cutlets with Brussels sprouts for less than €10. The café also offers a variety of pastries, teas, coffees, beers, wines and spirits inside or on its 150-seat terrace.

Contact: Café Heider, Friedrich-Ebert-Strasse 29, D-14467 Potsdam, tel +49/0331/320 5596

Rating: Quality 13/20 Value 14/20

Zum Fliegenden Hollander

Zum Fliegenden Hollander - The Flying Dutchman - is a pleasant, relaxed restaurant on the fringe of the Dutch Quarter. The building dates to 1736 and the restaurant to 1881, and the dining spaces feel historic: wood plank floors, exposed ceiling beams, soft lighting, and fireplace with Delft tiles. It's a good choice for travelers in search of Brandenburger specialties like roast pork rolled with plums and served with red cabbage and potato dumplings, stuffed cabbage with potatoes, or calves liver with apples and onions served with potato puree. And there are a number of fish dishes.

Most entrées are between €16-26, though there are often superb specials for €12-15. At lunch, soup and an entrée are offered for €8.50. Service is attentive and well-paced, and food is tasty and piled high.

Contact: Zum Fliegenden Hollander Benkertstrasse 5, D-14467 Potsdam, tel. +49/0331/27 50 30, fax 27 50 321

Rating: Quality 14/20 Value 14/20