Potsdam’s Sanssouci Palace
Last time I was in Berlin, the city was still stained dark gray by the soot of post-WWII deterioration. But this week I returned to find the metropolis almost unrecognizable. Everywhere there were signs of improvements, scaffolding and construction. 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. The palace was intended soley as a private refuge. No affairs of estate were ever to be discussed within its walls. And the King forbade any repairs, as the structure was to last only his lifetime.
And yet, Sanssouci was to be Berlin’s version of ‘Versailles’; a place where the arts and the pursuit of enlightenment could flourish. As a result, King Frederick spent from April to October at the palace (in the company of his dogs.) In time, the Sanssouci became a haven for intellectuals, philosophers, mathematicians and writers (Voltaire among them). Hailing from all over Europe, they joined the the King for extended stays on the property.
A KING KNOWN FOR HIS MODESTY
It may surprise you, though, that among royals, King Frederick was known for his modesty. Once declaring “A crown is merely a hat that lets the rain in,” he saw a connection between man and nature. An avid farmer, he took a great interest in the betterment of society, creating grain stores across Prussia and decreeing that soldiers could no longer pillage the land.
And once Sanssouci was completed, he threw open the gardens to the general populace, “As long as they had a hat and cane.”
He also introduced the village folk to the common potato.
WHY THE POTATO IS IMPORTANT IN UNDERSTANDING SANSSOUCI
‘The Potato King’ as King Frederick would later come to be known, was a great fan of the root vegetable, which at the time was considered unfit for human consumption by the lower classes. That being said, the king recognized 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 the potato 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 the end, the Prussian king’s final wish was to be buried on a knoll by his beloved Sanssouci palace. However, his wish wasn’t carried out until after German reunification. Finally in 1991, he was laid to rest in a marble tomb alongside his beloved dogs. (His dogs’ graves are in the upper part of the photo.)
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 Potsdam. At the time of construction, the hillside, which had been covered with oaks, had been deforested. King Frederick ordered the land to be carved into terraced vineyards. Then, he commissioned his architect to build a palace on top of the rise.
The terraced vineyards of Sanssouci palace
In keeping with the ideas of Enlightenment, Sanssouci was founded on a careful balance of architecture and landscape; one that would reflect the harmony between man and nature. Against his architect’s wishes, Frederick decided not to build the one-story palace on a basement, which 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 harmony 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 about Sanssouci are the series of terraced gardens that flow down the hillside from the palace. A total of six divided by a main staircase, the symmetrical gardens are planted with vines from Portugal, Italy and France. Along the sun-baked brick supporting walls, in their own little niches, are 126 fig trees. Each niche has a pair of metal and glass doors that serve to protect the plants during the winter. They are still in use today.
Sets of metal and glass doors protect Sanssouci’s fig trees
THE SANSSOUCI PARK
The Sanssouci Park consists of some 70 kilometers of walkways and is the largest park in the federal state of Brandenburg. During King Frederick’s time, however, it was composed of a Baroque-style garden modeled after Versailles. Today’s formal garden is built on a central axis and includes formal flower borders, lawns, hedges and parterres. Located at the bottom of the 120 steps leading down from the palace, it is centered on the Great Fountain.
Sanssouci’s Grand Fountain
Built in 1748, the Great Fountain is encircled by 12 marble statues, some of which were gifts from the King of France. Despite repeated efforts over his lifetime, however, King Frederick was never able to get the 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 tons of soil from Muhlenberg, a town that today is 2 hours from Potsdam by car. 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
The main avenue begins with the obelisk on the right and intersects with a ‘side’ avenue at the Great Fountain. It can take hours to navigate as it runs the entire length of the gardens. Over the centuries, these spaces have grown to include over 1000 statues, many follies and another palace called the Neue Kammern.
In the main part of the garden, the symmetrical flower beds are a blend of country and estate style, with colorful mixes of bright summer flowers. They run along the edges of 4 symmetrical quadrants surrounding 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.’