Well this is it; we leave our ship for the final time. Bright side is the trip isn’t over. Not by any means. We still have Potsdam and, the capper, Berlin to go.
So early this morning our luggage was loaded onto a coach and we hopped on. Our coach made a beeline for Potsdam which is about 1¼ hours away via the Autobahn. Being on the Autobahn is always an experience because there is no speed limit. Also, since it was Sunday, there were no trucks since they are banned from the Autobahn on Sundays. This is for security reasons, though I don’t know what that means.
Since there is no speed limit, cars were zipping right long. Every so often, I would see signs that looked like speed limit signs I had seen elsewhere in Germany. Each would simply be a number like 110 or 130. If these are kilometers, they would convert to about 65 and 80 miles per hour. I asked our guide what they were and he said they were not speed limits. Rather, they were speed “guidelines.” No one gets ticketed and everyone ignores them – especially the Mercedes and BMW drivers.
Anyway, about Potsdam. Potsdam goes back quite a ways. The area was first settled by the Slavs in the 8th century. (The Slavs keep showing up first in a lot of places, don’t’ they.) In the 10th century, the Germans began a gradual process (re: wars) to push the Slavs out. That they completely did by the 12th century. (The pattern in many parts of Europe seems to have been that the Slavs show up first, but can’t hold on to anyplace.). I guess the closest equivalent today would be the Chicago Cubs.
Potsdam gradually gained in prominence and by the 15th century it had become the summer residence for Brandenburg regional rulers and Prussian kings. Today it has fourteen palaces and castles on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Many parts of Potsdam were heavily damaged by the Allied bombing in April 1945. Additional destruction occurred under Soviet control during the Cold War. This was an ideological thing as the Soviets had something of an obsession with obliterating any memory of Prussia. The residents of Potsdam say that about all the Soviets built were a bunch of “beautiful” (heavy on the sarcasm) Communist style apartments. In other words they were pre fab, dull, and dingy. Actually, we have heard similar words in about everyplace we have visited that was under Soviet control in the Cold War.
Because of the bombing in WW II and the Soviet domination for the following 40 years, Potsdam has been slow to recover. When the Soviet Union fell apart and East and West Germany reunited, Potsdam residents expected wonders. Instead, what they got was unemployment. But in the last ten years things have been looking up for Potsdam as it finally emerges from life under the Communists.
The first place we hit on our tour was Sanssouci which was a summer palace built by the King of Prussia, Frederick II in 1745. Let’s take this opportunity to say a few words about Frederick II – better known as Frederick the Great and referred to by Prussians as Old Fritz (and still is today). He is identified with the most prosperous and growth era of Prussia. Potsdam was in its golden age during his reign as his royal residences (such as Sanssouci) were located there.
Fred the Great ruled for a really long time – 46 years (1740 – 86). Unfortunately, he didn’t get along well with his dad, Frederick William I. Fred W. was a military, no nonsense kind of guy and very good at conducting wars. Well, our buddy Ol’ Fritz was pretty good at wars too. But his passion was for the arts, culture, and philosophy – all of which were dismissed by his dad as of no importance. In fact, Frederick William didn’t know if his son could handle being king. Luckily, he never acted on this feeling.
Okay back to Sanssouci which, by the way, means “free of care.” Looking at this place, I can see why. It is a three-wing complex built in what is known as rococo architecture style. (And with that I have told you all I know about rococo architecture) Sanssouci is built high above six tiers of terraces and vineyards. There are steps on both sides and the in the middle from the base of the vineyards all the way up the terraces to Sanssouci palace. The whole thing is 600 acres of vineyards, terraces, flowers, fountains, statues capped off by the Sanssouci palace. Quite a joint.
The grave of Old Fritz is here. It’s very simple, nothing ornate, which is just as he wanted. As we stood by the grave, we saw there were around 20-25 potatoes around it. Yes, potatoes; you know, “spuds.” What’s the deal? Well, Frederick II (Old Fritz) introduced potatoes to Prussia and they became a staple in the Prussian diet. (As they remain so among Germans today)
So, through the centuries the Prussians/Germans have paid homage to Old Fritz by placing potatoes around and on his grave. As we got a closer look at the potatoes, we saw that many were inscribed with the name of the person who put it there, the date, and where they are from. Seems to be a tradition.
Well, darn, I didn’t have a potato on me so I couldn’t leave anything. And leaving an empty bottle of Bombay Sapphire gin with “Greetings from Texas” written on it really didn’t seem appropriate – though it’s a thought. I have no idea what happens to the potatoes people leave. Maybe the tenders of the palace grounds always have a good supply of potatoes for dinner.
As I mentioned a little earlier, the Soviets were hell-bent on destroying or removing symbols of the Prussian aristocracy. After WW II Germany was divided into four occupied zones: American, Russian, French, and British. Berlin was in the Russian zone, but being the seat of power it was also divided into four zones. The other three powers didn’t want the Russians controlling Berlin. But more about that when we get to Berlin.
Potsdam was in the Russian zone. While the zones were being established, the Germans became concerned that the Russians would ransack or destroy Sanssouci including the grave of Frederick II. So, the Germans went to the Americans and asked them to take Old Fritz’s body and put it in the American Zone. The Germans trusted the Americans to protect the body and the Americans obliged.
Maybe though it was a good thing the Internet did not exist at the time. Being the capitalists we are, no telling what we could have gotten for Old Fritz’s remains on eBay. I’m kidding, I’m kidding. I am sure we accommodated the Germans because it was the right thing to do. Anyway, Old Fritz was returned to his burial place at Sanssouci in 1991 after the fall of the Soviet Union and reunification of East and West Germany.
Just as we were about to leave Sanssouci, I decided I wanted a picture from the bottom of the terraces looking up at Sanssouci. So, I took off to hoof it down the tiers. Seemed like a good idea at the time. But, brother, it’s further down than it looks at the top – especially when you have to hurry (pant, pant). Well I made it down and got a couple of shots. But not as great as I hoped. It’s still pretty cool in Germany in early April. So, all the greenery on the terraces hasn’t “greened” yet. It looks a little barren and drab. (Such are the trials and tribulations of a photo journalist – yeah sure, I am; only if the definition is stretched way beyond reality.)
Well, if I thought going down was a “pant, pant” trip, you can imagine what it was like going back up the terraces to Sanssouci. When I got about halfway up, I could see that our group was leaving. Had to do double time up the steps (“pant, pant”) to get to the top and catch up. I gotta think these “bright ideas” of mine through better.
Okay, so back on the coach and on our next stop – Neues Palais (Translation: New Palace). Fred the Great II built it after the end of the Seven Years war in 1763. By the way, the Seven Years war was Prussia (with some help from Britain) taking on France, Austria/Hungary, and Russia. Old Fritz had his ups and downs during these seven years. At times he would be on the brink of defeat only to then pull off a major victory and keep on truckin’. By 1763 everybody was pretty much worn out. The peace treaty mainly restored the status quo as it existed before the war. There’s a wonderful example of sacrificing human life for……. for what?
But it brought Prussia to the fore as the dominant power in Europe. The Neues Palais sits on a large expanse of grounds and is actually made up of several buildings. The palace itself is big – much larger than Sanssouci. It was built as a showcase for Prussian power.
As we stood outside, we could see all the ornate windows lined with gold. Well….not exactly said our guide. Old Fritz was not only a good manager; he was also a frugal one. What we saw as pure gold was actually wood painted over with a very thin layer of gold. Old Fritz’s comment to the palace builder was “I am not building this for eternity; I am building it for me.”
Today the Germans take very good care of the Neues Palais. First thing, as we entered, we had to put on these bulky blue booties so we wouldn’t tromp on the floors. I have to admit that’s a good idea since the palace still has its original floors of inlaid marble and wood. Quite impressive in and of themselves. There were several craftsmen in the palace as we went through. Our guide said they seem to be constantly renovating something to keep the palace in tip – top shape.
The inside of the palace, I must say, is impressive. For instance, there is a great marble hall lined with marble statues representing Caesar, Charlemagne, and many others. Then there is what is called the upper gallery which is huge and contains the works of the leading Italian and Dutch painters of the 16th – 18th centuries
Then there is the king’s bedroom (decked out as it was in Old Fritz’s day), the queen’s bedroom, concert hall and so on and so on. Unfortunately, picture-taking is not allowed so you’ll just have to take our word for how decked out this palace is – or better yet, go take it in yourself.
As we came out of the palace (finally ditching our blue booties), we got a better look at a couple of the other buildings on the grounds. We wondered what they were; smaller palaces? They looked that way. But no. In fact they housed the “staff” (servants, cooks, coachmen, and the like.) And one of the buildings is where all the meal reparation was done. There actually were underground tunnels connecting these buildings to the palace. It was common to have meal preparation take place away from the main residence. After all, if there was a fire in the kitchen, you didn’t want to lose the whole shootin’ match.
The Neues Palais is not occupied today. The last occupant was Kaiser Wilhelm II who abdicated in 1918 at the end of WW I. When he left, he decided to take a bunch of stuff in the palace with him. You know, just some odds and ends; bric-a-brac you might say. Like furniture, paintings, chandeliers, ornate pottery, and carvings. Just your typical everyday items for puttering around the house.
The Netherlands took Wilhelm in and they promised he would be kept under house arrest. Of course, he and his family were settled on a large estate. So he had a lot of room to roam under this version of house arrest.
When Hitler rose to power in the ‘30’s, Wilhelm was convinced Hitler would put him back on the throne. Hitler had no such intentions. The last thing he wanted to do was restore the monarchy.
Wilhelm died in 1941. He had said he did not want to be buried in Germany until the monarchy was restored. So his resting place is in the Netherlands. And he will probably be resting there for a long time to come.
The final stop on our Potsdam tour was at Cecilienhof Manor. Built 1916, it was the last Prussian palace constructed. The Manor’s design looks almost like English Tudor half-timbered style. Come to find out, as our guide told us, this comparison was intended – for whatever reason. It really is a spiffy manor and the gardens surrounding it are wonderful.
An interesting thing our guide told us was to look out across a large lake to land on the other side. The Berlin Wall ran right along there. Kind of puts things in a different perspective. So close.
But the main reason we came to Cecilienhof was because it was the sight of the historic Potsdam Conference in August 1945. This is where Truman, Stalin, and Churchill (later Atlee since he defeated Churchill in Parliamentary elections) met to settle the decisions on the post-war makeup of Germany. There were pretty intense negotiations on demilitarization, prosecution of war criminal, overhaul of the judicial and education systems and so forth.
Stalin was pushing for what he called a “neutral Germany” that would be under the “guidance” of the Soviet Union. Oh yeah, right. Truman and Churchill said “Don’t think so.” (They may have said it a little more colorfully than that, knowing Truman and Churchill.) Instead we wound up with the splitting of Germany (and Berlin) into four zones; one each controlled by the Americans, British, French, and Soviets.
Let us give you one example of what these tensions brought about. There were two doors leading into the conference room where the meetings were held. A third door had to be built so that all the leaders would enter at the same time. Didn’t’ want one leader saying “I must enter first.” Believe it or not, this is serious business from a diplomatic standpoint. These things matter. I imagine the staffs of each leader went absolutely bonkers trying to anticipate and deal with what might and did happen.
One last little sidelight. An inner courtyard at Cecilienhof has a large star made of red geraniums. In 1945 it was planted to honor Stalin’s attendance at the conference. And the tradition is to replant it every year. I can understand why the Germans kept replanting from 1945 – 1990. Potsdam was, after all, in East Germany; meaning they were under Soviet domination. But after 1990? The explanation we got was that the Germans want to recognize history and the Russian army was the first to get to Potsdam and Berlin to take on the remaining Nazis. Okay, makes sense; we’ll buy it.
So, we are done with Potsdam. Got back on our coach for the trip to Berlin. What we didn’t realize was that Potsdam, with a population of 130,000, is really a suburb of Berlin. Had no idea they were that close. It doesn’t feel like a suburb. In Dallas you can’t tell where Dallas leaves off and Plano or Garland or Duncanville, etc begins. They all run together in a heap of concrete.
But Berlin is really into green space. So you see a lot of parks, gardens, and wooded areas. On our ride to Berlin, we went by a couple of forested areas. Gives you a totally different feel than just concrete connecting cities. But, given all that, it still took us an hour to get to our hotel in Berlin, the Hilton. Even though Berlin has all that green space, it still has rush hour too.
Now, this Hilton is a very nice hotel plopped close to the center of Berlin. As we got to our room, one of the first things we remarked on was that our entire cabin on the Viking Schumann would fit in the bathroom of our room at the Hilton (Okay, granted, a little exaggeration). I think we can handle that.
We were having some Internet withdrawal symptoms, so we connected with good ol’ Wi-Fi through the hotel. But get this – it cost us 17 euros for 24 hours. That’s $23-24. Highway robbery! But, of course we did it.
Since it was getting a little late, we went out and grabbed a quick bite to eat close by and did just a little strolling around to get familiar with the area. When we got back to our hotel room, we were drop dead tired. But not too tired that we couldn’t have a little late night snack and final martini for the night. However, we didn’t want to drag ourselves down to the bar.
So we decided to overpay and order from room service. We had brought with us our own Bombay Sapphire gin and vermouth for the martinis, but had run out of olives. And you can’t have a martini without olives for Crissake. As we have said before, sometimes communication gets rather “adventuresome” when people who have different first languages talk with each other. Try explaining on the phone to a German Room service person that you want a bowl of regular olives.
Truth be told, we are rather particular about our martinis. (Hopefully, we’re not at the “martini snob level” – just particular.). Anyway, the olives arrived in short order and they looked fine. Except as the Room Service person set them down, he said “We don’t have regular olives, so we brought these.” He pointed to the bowl and said “They are special olives stuffed with almonds and chili.” Well those made for some, uh, really interesting martinis. But, Bombay Sapphire gin can overpower about anything. Pretty good, though I don’t think we’ll be changing the ingredients in our martinis.
With that, time for lights out.