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 are signs of improvements, scaffolding and construction. There is one place, however, that remains unchanged; that is, Potsdam’s stunning Sanssouci Palace and gardens. I made a return visit yesterday.
Sanssouci, roughly translated to mean ‘without a worry’ or ‘carefree’, was the summer residence of Frederick the Great, King of Prussia. Located just 16 miles from Berlin in the town of Potsdam, it was constructed between 1745 and 1747 as the King’s private refuge. No affairs of estate were ever to be discussed within its walls. And the King forbade any repairs, as he envisioned the palace to last only for the duration of his lifetime.
Instead, Sanssouci was to be Berlin’s version of ‘Versailles’; a place where the arts and the pursuit of enlightenment could flourish. King Frederick spent from April to October at the palace in the company of his dogs. The place also became a haven for intellectuals, philosophers, mathematicians and writers (Voltaire among them) who came from all over Europe to join the King for extended stays on the property.
Still, among royals, King Frederick was also 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 and took a great interest in the betterment of society. An avid farmer, he created grain stores across Prussia and decreed that soldiers could no longer pillage the land. And once Sanssouci was completed, he opened the gardens to everyone to visit, “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 generally considered unfit for human consumption by the lower classes. The king saw the potato’s potential in feeding his nation, however, and became its biggest promoter. He distributed the tubers to villagers and even instructed 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.
The Prussian king’s final wish was to be buried on a knoll by his beloved Sanssouci palace, a wish that wasn’t carried out until after German reunification. He was finally laid to rest in 1991 in a marble tomb alongside his beloved dogs. (His dogs’ graves are in the upper part of the photo.)
Sanssouci was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1990. 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 ordered the land to be carved into terraced vineyards. Then, he commissioned his architect to build a palace on top of it.
The terraced vineyards of Sanssouci palace
In keeping with the ideas of Enlightenment, Sanssouci was to be 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 raised the building up substantially), but to instead elevate it by a mere three shallow steps. This kept the soft 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
But 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. The niches, which are still in use today, each have a pair of metal and glass doors that can be closed to protect the plants during the winter.
Sets of metal and glass doors protect Sanssouci’s fig trees
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 one at Versailles and built on a central axis. The formal garden, which includes flower borders, lawns, hedges and parterres, lies 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 are gifts from the King of France. Despite repeated efforts over 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, and in 1842 it was reported to be 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 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. Note the main avenue that begins with the obelisk on the right.
View of main avenue with obelisk in the background
The main avenue intersects with a ‘side’ avenue at the Great Fountain. It is the main way to get around the gardens, which over the centuries have expanded to include over 1000 statues, many follies and another palace called the Neue Kammern.
The orderly 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.’