Potsdam’s Sanssouci Palace
Last time I was in Berlin, the city was still stained by the soot of post-WWII deterioration. But last week, I returned to find the metropolis almost unrecognizable. Everywhere there were signs of construction and remodeling. There was one place, however, that remained unchanged; that is, Potsdam’s stunning Sanssouci Palace and Gardens. I made a return visit yesterday.
Sanssouci, roughly translated as ‘without a worry’, was the summer residence of Frederick the Great, King of Prussia. Located in Potsdam just 16 miles from Berlin, it was constructed between 1745 and 1747. Unlike other palaces of that era, it was intended solely as the King’s private refuge.
That being said, from April to October, Sanssouci became a haven for the arts and enlightenment. Philosophers, mathematicians and writers from all over the world travelled to join the King for extended stays on the property.
A MODEST KING
Despite the extravagance of his outer life, King Frederick was known for his modesty. Once declaring “A crown is merely a hat that lets the rain in,” he believed that man had an important connection with nature. An avid farmer, he took a great interest in the betterment of society. To that end, he created grain stores across Prussia and forbade his soldiers from pillaging.
And once Sanssouci was completed, the King opened his gardens to the public, welcoming them in “As long as they had a hat and cane.”
He also introduced the village folk to the common potato.
WHY THE POTATO IS IMPORTANT TO SANSSOUCI
‘The Potato King’, as King Frederick would later become known, was a great fan of the vegetable, which at the time, the lower classes viewed with suspicion. In spite of this, the king saw the potato’s potential in feeding his nation. He became its biggest promoter, distributing tubers to villagers and even instructing people on how to grow them. In time, his efforts bore fruit, and potatoes became a staple crop of the Prussian nation.
And that is why, if you visit Sanssouci, you will see potatoes scattered on top of King Frederick’s grave.
In 1990, Sanssouci was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List. It is the largest World Heritage Site in Germany and the most visited site in Potsdam.
A PLACE TO BE CLOSE TO NATURE
Sanssouci palace sits on a sandstone hill that affords sweeping views of neighboring Potsdam. At the time of construction, the hillside, which had been covered with oaks, had been deforested. King Frederick carved the land into terraced vineyards. Then, he commissioned his architect to build a palace on top of the rise.
The terraced vineyards of Sanssouci palace
In order to reflect the harmony between man and nature, Sanssouci was founded on a careful balance of architecture and landscape. Against his architect’s wishes, Frederick elected not to place the one-story palace over a basement, although it would have afforded a better view.
Instead, he chose to elevate Sanssouci by a mere three shallow steps. This kept the yellow rococo-style building in sinc with the sand-colored earth. (And some say it made it easier for the King’s dogs to gain entry to the palace.)
Sanssouci Palace is built almost at ground level
THE SANSSOUCI GARDENS
Still, the most striking part of Sanssouci are the series of terraced gardens that carpet the hillside. A total of six, divided by a main staircase, the symmetrical gardens are planted with vines from Portugal, Italy and France. Along the brick supporting walls are 126 fig trees, all in their own little niches.
Sets of metal and glass doors protect Sanssouci’s fig trees
THE SANSSOUCI PARK
Located at the bottom of the hill, the Sanssouci Park consists of some 70 kilometers of pathways. It ranks as the largest park in the federal state of Brandenburg. During King Frederick’s time, however, it comprised a much smaller, Baroque-style garden modeled after Versailles.
Today’s formal garden is built on a central axis and includes formal flower borders, expansive lawns, sculpted hedges and parterres. It is centered on the Great Fountain.
Sanssouci’s Grand Fountain
Constructed in 1748, the Great Fountain is encircled by 12 marble statues, some of which were gifts from the King of France. During his lifetime, however, King Frederick was never able to get it to operate. It wasn’t until another century had passed, when steam power was employed, that the fountain became fully operational. Reports are that in 1842, it was shooting jets of water 125 feet high in the air.
As we gardeners know, sandy soil doesn’t make the best growing medium for flowers. King Frederick solved this problem by carting in soil from Muhlenberg, a town that today is a two-hour car ride from Potsdam. He then commissioned Peter Joseph Lenné, Prussia’s leading landscape gardener, to lay out the gardens.
Map of the Sanssouci gardens
In keeping with Baroque style, Lenné arranged the park grounds along a straight main avenue. But instead of having the avenue run directly to the palace, he laid it out horizontally, beginning in the east and extending westward for a distance of about 1.5 miles. This idea of King Frederick’s was an unusual departure from the styles of the time.
View of main avenue with obelisk in the background
This innovate design means that the main avenue begins with the obelisk on the right and intersects with the ‘side’ avenue leading towards the palace at the Great Fountain. Running the entire length of the gardens, it can take hours to navigate. Over the centuries, these spaces have grown to include over 1000 statues, numerous follies and an additional palace called the Neue Kammern.
The main part of the garden comprises four symmetrical flower beds in a blend of country and estate style. The colorful jumble of summer flowers, including dahlias, daisies, sunflowers and zinnias, surround the Great Fountain.
In Frederick the Great’s day there were 90 gardeners employed at Sanssouci. Today there are just 4 full time gardeners. Hard to imagine when you consider that walking from one end of the park to another is a distance of over 2 miles. But our guide wisely pointed out,
‘Of course the beauty today is that you have these little John Deere carts that can get you around the garden.’