Pots-Damn, this place has a lot of castles

Also a lot of Tors, of which this is apparently the gateway to fine Italian dining

You can’t really live in Berlin without being aware that Potsdam is hovering eagerly on the outskirts like the rich but lonely sidekick of the school jock. It lies on the very end of the purple line of the S-Bahn, and normal Berliners go about their days never considering the implications of simply riding that rail all the way down to that far away kingdom. Fortunately poor schmoes like myself and my colleague, whose codename in this article will be Eugene, are already used to taking the Bahns so far out that when we get to our destinations the only other person in the carriage is the janitor in his boiler suit, slowly sweeping in the corner. We’ve never been to Potsdam, we thought, and what a wonderful opportunity to see it before we both go back to the land of Marmite. Yes, it was time for another adventure.

The most striking thing on arriving in Potsdam was the sheer “what, me worry?” atmosphere in the train station. Compared to Berlin Hauptbahnhof or Alexanderplatz, where everyone is marching around and yelling at each other and dragging their dogs about, Potsdam Hauptbahnhof is like a transport spa, with ambient music and pleasant sculptures and market-sellers weighing out cheese (what, you’ve never been to a spa with cheese before?). From there the walk into town was short but briefly unpleasant, as a man with an enormous beard sniffed out that we were tourists and descended upon us, trying to get us to take his bus tour with persuasion tactics which were as violent as one can get without actually touching the other person. Given that the flyer he gave us promised to both ‘lead’ us (führen) and ‘seduce’ us (verführen) turning him down seemed the only safe option. With that little snaggle behind us, we took a deep breath and head across the river towards the city centre.


On the way to the middle of Potsdam, snuggling up to the bridge, is a little island called Freundschaftsinsel (‘Friendship Island’ – awwwww), which we gave a brief gander. It is a very cute mini oasis of plants and one incredible kids’ playground where the children have an amazing fountain and array of sandy water-gulleys to explore in and around, idyllically surrounded by slightly breeze-blown willow trees and flowers. There are also lots of coots there, with their crazy feet proudly on display. Already Eugene and I felt the stress of the Groβstadt melting away. We decided to head into the city centre in the direction of the Holländisches Viertel.

The Höllandisches Viertel, Dutch Quarter, is a funny little nook where all the buildings are designed in the typical dutch village style. Eugene had lived in Holland for three years and was delighted to see that they had even kept the traditional style of Dutch paving, namely where the streets are lined with small grey bricks. And…err, that’s it. The shops were all just random boutiques selling home made okra jam and teapots, so outside of the buildings and paving there is confusingly little to this famous quarter. Its very existence is somewhat of a question; it’s clearly shooting to be a kind of Chinatown, but my friend made the excellent comparison that it’s a bit like having a Yorkshire quarter in the middle of Bristol. Why whack a big chunk of a rather nondescript culture in the middle of a culture that is already vaguely similar to that culture? Still, if you like gables that is The Place To Be.
 
From there we made our way over to the very very famous Schloss Sanssouci and the Sanssouci park, pausing briefly to get our daily fix of MSG from another one of those “Asian” restaurants. Schloss Sanssouci and the whole complex is Potsdam’s biggest draw, as it’s an old sort of Rococo castle built in the 1700s and ceremoniously planted in the middle of a mind-bogglingly huge park. The park contains a total of roughly ten million other castles and important buildings, each of which seem to just suddenly barge into view as you innocently walk around looking for something else entirely. The most striking is, of course, the main Sansoucci Castle, which has in front of it a weird vineyard constructed on stepped platforms with fig trees inbetween each vine, for no reason shut behind barred doors as if it were some kind of fig-tree prison. From the back of the castle you can see the Ruinenberg, a funny old ruin on top of a hill which looks like a taste-test of the Acropolis. We decided to hike up to there via the Orangery, a bizarrely hidden enormous building which, like the rest of the buildings (and like everything in Berlin and its surroundings) seems to find itself in a constant state of renovation. The Orangery is massive and very attractive, although as with all the other buildings you had to pay to go inside and when we looked through the windows all we could see was, for some reason, a very large mechanical crane. Next up was the Ruinenberg, which looks incredible from far away and close up is rather odd, like a minuscule film set for an old flick about Caesar. The ruins surround a perfectly circular reservoir which was filled with deeply green, deeply nasty water and plenty of trash, and given that there was once again zero information or signs about what the heck it all meant we walked back down with a vague sense of confusion and unsatisfied curiosity. All over the park there is not a single plaque to explain anything that you might like to know – evidently the information you actually desire can only be reached by paying the entrance fees – but deep in the middle of the park’s forest we did find one informative plaque about the plumbing of the local mosque. No, I don’t know why.

We then wandered back into town to take another look at the streets themselves. The whole place had a very odd flavour to it, something that it took us forever to put our fingers on: the city looks absolutely brand-spanking-new. The buildings all look like they’ve been painted yesterday, in powder-puff Princess Peach colours that are so soft and matt the walls seem to have been gathered together out of clouds of coloured mist. The street signs are so nagelneu that they literally glisten, and the cobbles are that kind of pristine old-timey style where although they are worn and interspersed with moss they look perfect and artisanal. With all the Tors (gates) scattered around the place, each featuring fairytale castle turrets and sculptures of stags and the like, the city has a very Disneyesque vibe to it. It is also astonishingly clean, which coming from Berlin feels like moving house to the Mushroom Kingdom from the flat in Withnail and I; predominantly, the absence of dog poop EVERYWHERE is just such a treat I got a genuine thrill every time I glanced at the empty pavements. 

Potsdam is definitely a place to see, and it is distinctly beautiful in its way, but after a good day’s wandering we were left wondering what more there was to actually do there. You can’t spend your life simply seeing things, and in terms of tangible things to learn and discover we unfortunately stumbled upon very few. I reckon it’s the kind of town where you really do need to be shown around by a native and get told where the best places are, otherwise you just get lost in the mesmerising labyrinth of foggy mint-green and marshmallow-pink houses. But then again, perhaps it was my fault. Lesson learned: Wikipedia is not a travel guide, despite being an endlessly reliable source of ultra-true facts and objective informative content.

Rose T

Jill of all trades: writer, illustrator, designer, editor, web designer, craft maniac

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