Having reached Potsdam via river cruise along the Havel, I’d originally planned for us to explore the Neuer Lustgarten (New Pleasure Garden), located very near where our boat dropped us off. We did do that, briefly, at the end of our afternoon, although it is an ordinary enough park space that it wasn’t particularly picture-worthy.
Instead of heading directly to the Lustgarten, we went in search of our Kaffee und Kuchen (coffee and cake) “lunch” and realized that we were right in the middle of the most beautiful square in Potsdam:
The Alter Markt (Old Market Square)
During his expansion of Potsdam into a representative residential city, King Friedrich II, a great fan of Roman-Italian art and architecture, had that style adapted into everything he had built on the Alter Markt.
The many buildings on the streets around the Nikolaikirche, with their magnificent facades and statues, were originally erected between 1744 and 1754. It’s a bit shocking to realize the pace of construction, when put into perspective against modern methods and machinery.
The entire area was heavily damaged during the 1945 British air raids, and several of the buildings were subsequently razed and replaced with more modern buildings during the years of the Soviet occupation. After German reunification in 1990, work began on faithfully reconstructing the exteriors of the historic buildings. That work is ongoing, with an anticipated completion date of 2025.
We walked past the hoarding around the last remaining empty block and saw some of the 19th century photographs being used to aid the reconstruction of buildings which will create much needed modern apartments and retail space behind faithfully recreated historic façades.
The imposing Nikolaikirche is definitely the focal point of the Alter Markt, so, after photographing the outside, we not only went in but also climbed the 280+ steps to the highest viewing platform around the dome that visitors are allowed to access.
This is the largest church building by Karl Friedrich Schinkel, who also designed the Berlin Concert House and Altes Museum, the Friedrichswerdesche Church, and the interiors of Charlottenhof.
It was erected in 1830-37 in the early classical architectural style, and is considered one of the most important sacred buildings of classicism in Germany.
For reasons of stability, corner towers had to be added, which are crowned by blessing and praying angels and serve as bell towers.
In 1841-49 Ludwig Persius and Friedrich August Stüler built the drum-shaped sanctuary in the spirit of Schinkel, who died in 1841.
The interior was redesigned in 1849/50, deviating from Schinkel’s designs. The painting was done by the workshop of Peter Cornelius.
Climbing the tower to the dome rotunda (the level above the columns in the exterior photos of the church) costs 5 Euros per person, and involves a several step (pun intended) process. From the choir gallery, we entered a small vestibule containing a ticket machine that dispensed bar-coded tickets which get inserted into a turnstile allowing access to the first set of stairs, which are of modern steel construction. There is a screen indicating how many people are already in the tower and how many more allowed, but also showing a wait time before allowed access in case anyone is already on the stairs – they are NOT wide enough to allow passage in two directions. Frankly, they’re not wide enough, especially as they spiral tightly and are each wedge-shaped, to allow passage by a single widely-built person.
When we reached the first small platform, we again inserted our cards into a turnstile, thus signalling to anyone below that the staircase was now empty.
A choice now had to be made to climb a further spiral staircase, with original decorative wrought iron stairs, in an even narrow, even darker tower, and in an even tighter spiral. A green light indicated whether the stairs were open for transiting.
I found going up not too terrifying, but coming back down later EXTREMELY scary. Interestingly, Ted had the opposite sensation.
Of course, most of what we saw of the church is a reconstruction done between 1961 and 1982, after the dome, portico, organ, and interior were destroyed in the 1945 bombings of Potsdam.
After climbing back down, using a combination of buttons and ticket scans to ensure that there was never the possibility of two-way traffic on the staircases, we took time to take a closer look at the obelisk located right in front of the church, almost central in the market square.
The Marble Obelisk
The 16 m/52.5 ft tall marble obelisk located here was virtually destroyed during the British air raid of April 14 1945, and not restored until 1979, during the Soviet occupation. Because white Carrara marble from Italy was too expensive for the medallions and decorations, Yugoslavian marble was used. Similarly, the original red Silesian marble was replaced by Russian marble.
The shaft of the obelisk originally depicted rulers of the House of Hohenzollern who had heavily influenced Potsdam: Frederick William, Elector of Brandenburg, as well as the kings Frederick I, Frederick William I, and Frederick the Great. During restoration the references to the old rulers were removed and replaced by portraits of Potsdam’s most important architects: Georg Wenzeslaus von Knobelsdorff (shown on the medallion in the collage below), Carl von Gontard, Karl Friedrich Schinkel, and Friedrich Ludwig Persius. Thus the proletariat replaced the aristocracy on the obelisk. The sphinxes had to be reconstructed, but amazingly the four antique statues of ancient orators at the base are still the originals, made by Gottlieb Heymüller.
There was still more to see before we left the Alter Markt, especially since we had had a glimpse into the Potsdam Palace courtyard from our vantage point beside the dome.
Brandenburg State Parliament/Potsdam City Palace
After coming to power in 1740, during his extensive efforts to beautify the royal residence city of Potsdam, Frederick II rebuilt the original Potsdam City Palace (completed in 1666 and considered the best example of the Frederican Rococo style) in a Baroque style in accordance with plans by Georg Wenzeslaus von Knobelsdorff, who also designed Sanssouci, the Berlin Palace, Rheinsberg Palace, Monbijou Palace, and Berlin’s Tiergarten Park.
That gorgeous 1751 baroque Hohenzollern palace was destroyed by a British air raid in April 1945 and the remaining ruins blown up by the SED Politburo in 1959/1960.
The Fortuna portal, the former entrance gate of the palace, was rebuilt true to the original in 2002. It now forms the main entrance to the current Brandenburg State parliament building, which was completed in October 2013, after 3.5 years of construction, in the exterior historical guise of the 1751 Potsdam City Palace. The interior is completely modern.
Absorbing all that architecture and history had us ready for something a bit more tranquil, so we walked across the bridge onto the small island in the Havel that provides a relaxing respite from the city – and yet in the city – for its residents.
The Freundschaftsinsel (literally Friendship Island”) was largely unused until the middle of the nineteenth century, when renowned horticulturalists Karl Foerster, Hermann Mattern, and Hertha Hammersbacher created an initial design for the island as a visual gateway on the water for Potsdam. That design incorporated dozens of flower beds with plants from different countries, symbolizing international friendship. The gardens were featured as part of the German Exhibition and Garden Viewing which took place during the Second World War, and shortly afterward were heavily damaged and almost completely destroyed.
After the war, the restoration of Potsdam’s Friendship Island was initially not a high priority and the former ornamental gardens were instead used for growing crops. Learning that reminded me of Berlin’s Tiergarten, where in the aftermath of WWII the trees were all cut down for firewood and the park used to grow potatoes.
In the Fifties, the original plants were reintroduced on Friendship Island., and the island was subject to constant changes until the Reunification of Germany. Much of the land has now been carefully restored to its original state and Mattern and Foerster’s design can be clearly seen and enjoyed today.
That ended our day in Potsdam. Here’s a tip of the hat to a city that captured our hearts and imaginations.