If this gorgeous palace were built today, it might be called Hakuna Matata, since Sanssouci literally means carefree, or “no worries”, and was built by Prussia’s King Frederick the Great as a summer retreat from the pressures of ruling a kingdom. It was not originally the Baroque mini-Versailles-like palace it is today, but a 10 room “villa” in the Rococo style overlooking vineyards.
I’d thought that after visiting Charlottenburg I didn’t “need” to visit another Hohenzollern palace, but Sanssouci kept coming up in conversations and correspondence – and it was, after all, the palace we’d intended to visit once I booked our time in Berlin.
So off we headed for the hour-long trip by train and bus, through lots of picturesque streets lined with stunning architecture and lush trees.
No other palace is so closely linked with the personality of Frederick the Great, and perhaps that is why it attracts so many more tourists than other palaces. There is something special about that King that draws people into his story.
Prince Frederick was twenty-eight years old when his father Frederick William I died and he became King. By all accounts, the father was a brute, who reacted to his son’s love of books by selling all of them (his sole idea of appropriate education was the learning of military strategy), who reacted to his son’s interest in music and art by threatening to remove him from the line of succession, who apparently thought beating his son would make him less “effeminate”, who once even threatened to execute him, and who forced Frederick into a marriage that was by all accounts so unhappy that as soon as Frederick II ascended the throne, he and his wife led completely separate lives.
Frederick II (“The Great”) had his own revenge, I guess, by not only creating a royal library, but Germany’s first purpose-built art gallery. He sponsored dozens of artists; commissioned paintings, sculptures, and music; wrote libretti and music himself (26 flute sonatas, among other things); read philosophy extensively, and became a close friend of Voltaire. He reinstituted the Prussian Academy of Sciences which his father had closed down. He also managed to annex significantly more lands, far surpassing his father as a military strategist. He ended up as King of Prussia, whereas his father could only be called King “in” Prussia. He also neglected to produce an heir (it would have been difficult given that he and his wife lived separately their entire lives), and was eventually succeeded by his nephew Frederick William II.
The whole combination of factors makes the idea of him building a place where he could be “without care” particularly attractive.
Once again, we pre-booked our timed tours of the main palace, and arrived well before our designated time slot to visit some of the other buildings within the Sansoucci park complex.
We arrived at the park (whose buildings open at 10:00 and close at 5:30) just before noon. That’s when it hit us that there are a LOT more buildings spread over a much larger area at Sanssouci than I’d realized. In 5-1/2 hours we were only able to tour a fraction of them, and missed a couple that I wish we’d had time for (the Bilder Gallerie/Picture Gallery and Neues Palais/New Palace, for instance) but…. we had only so many hours and so much energy, especially on a really hot day. It would be impossible to see everything in a single day anyway.
TIMELINE OF BUILDINGS AT SANSSOUCI PARK: Sanssouci Palace was built in 1747 by and for Frederick II. He also built the Picture Gallery (1763), the New Chambers (1747), the Chinese House (1754-57), the New Palace (1763), and the Belvedere on Klausberg (1769). Schloss Charlottenhof was completed between 1826 and 1829 by Frederick William III, for the eventual Frederick William IV. The Roman Baths (1829), the Church of Peace (1845), and the Orangerie Schloss (1851-64) were all built by Frederick William IV. Of course, there was extensive building going on at many other sites in Prussia as well during the Hohenzollern dynasty’s rule.
We did three actual “tours”, beginning at Schloss Charlottenhof (not to be confused with the gorgeous Schloss Charlottenburg that we toured last week, which was built by Frederick I, grandfather of Frederick the Great), partly because I assumed that a building with “Schloss” in its name would be palatial. Not so. Charlottenhof was originally a manor house, that was renovated into a royal summer cottage. King Frederick William III of Prussia bought the land that borders the south of Sanssouci Park and gave it to his son Frederick William and his wife Elisabeth Ludovika for Christmas in 1825.
The “cottage” has 10 rooms, coincidentally the same number as the original Sanssouci, but that’s where the similarity ends. The house is cozy, with small rooms, which our guide described as “klein aber fein” (small but elegant). The décor and furniture are largely the work of the very prolific Karl Friedrich Schinkel, a Prussian architect, city planner and painter who also designed furniture and stage sets. Everything from cornice paintings, to lights, to chairs, desks and cabinets are his design, reflecting Frederick William’s love for natural stone and clean classical lines in his private spaces. Ornate remained the watchword for official residences.
The original wood floors have held up really well for 200 years. We were each given a pair of one-size felted wool “pantoufles” (slippers) to wear over our shoes as we toured Charlottenhof. Clearly, if there are enough tours, no one would ever need to dust the floors – except that guests never get into the corners!
Our guide was very knowledgeable, but honestly we found the buildings interiors underwhelming… until we got to the “tent room”, which was just strange enough to be interesting. Apparently if you have enough money and imagination you can have a desert camp built in your home and use it to entertain adult friends for exotic sleepovers, or for tea and recitation of stories and poems.
Leaving Charlottenhof we had to walk (literally) past the Roman baths – past them because we needed to be at Sanssouci Palace for our timed entry, or risk not getting in.
On to Sanssouci, the original reason for this park: the summer retreat that Frederick II built, where he could enjoy his vineyards and fig orchards, his dogs, his books, and his many artistic friends.
The palace façade seen when approaching the castle from the lower fountain through the vineyards, using the 6 sets of 22 steps, is breathtaking.
To reach the visitors’ entrance, we walked around to the “front” of the palace, first passing an ornate fence and the gorgeous green and gold gazebo.
The main entrance to the castle is not the stunning view that today’s visitors first see, but is a semicircular main courtyard formed by double Corinthian columns.
To the east of the vestibule are the Frederick II’s 5 private rooms. To the west are five separate guest rooms. Since they didn’t live together, no space was provided for Queen Elisabeth Christine.
We began in the vestibule and the oval marble hall, and then moved into the King’s 5-room apartment: his audience/dining room, concert room, study/bedroom, library, and small gallery.
In the guest wing are 5 more rooms, all beautiful but not of the calibre or ornateness of the King’s spaces.
The notable exception is the Voltaire Room, with its incredible naturalistic sculptural wall decorations in bright colors are on a yellow background. The amazingly realistic carved fruits, birds, flower garlands and little monkeys were all created by the younger of the Hoppenhaupt brothers in around 1745. The chandelier and four sconces are porcelain. Although the King built this room for his friend, records indicate that Voltaire preferred to stay in the Potsdam City Palace. Maybe being watched by all these animals prevented him from getting a good night’s sleep!
Our last stop for the day was a wonderful guided tour of the Orangerie.
In addition to the lateral plant halls, which are still used as winter storage for frost-sensitive tubbed plants like the many, many palm trees in the gardens, the over 300-meter-long building also used to house royal suites and servants’ quarters.
For perspective, the plant halls are the largest indoor special events locations in the Berlin-Brandenburg region, able to accommodate 1000 people each.
The central section of the three-winged palace complex is comprised of the impressive Raphael Hall, containing more than fifty 19th century copies of paintings by Raphael, in gilded frames hung on red silk walls.
Guides always ask “are there any questions?”, and usually there aren’t, but there were two very curious children in our group, aged around 10, who had LOTS. Our guide enthusiastically and patiently answered all of them, to everyone’s benefit.
There’s also a Malachite Room in the guest apartments, containing fabulous Russian green malachite objects gifted to Frederick William IV by his sister Charlotte, who became Empress Alexandra Feodorovna of Russia, married to Tsar Nicolas I.
After all that grandeur it was time to take off our second pair of pantoufles and head home to our cute little 2-room apartment… it does have 10 foot long floor to ceiling draperies though!