Episode 299 – Walking & Gawking in Potsdam

Our first glimpse of Potsdam’s central area from the river, with the dome of the Nikolaikirche visible amidst elements of a more modern cityscape.

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.

Maybe we’ve become jaded, having seen so many spectacular fountains, but this one in the Neue Lustgarten was the garden’s most interesting feature and, without the waterworks turned on, didn’t wow us. The overcast skies did nothing to enhance the experience or the photo either.

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.

Reconstruction of the Barberini Museum, formerly Barberini Palace, was completed in 2016.
Top: the pale yellow Barberini Art Museum and a portion of the coral pink former Potsdam City Palace. Bottom: damage from artillery fire is clearly visible in the salvaged Corinthian columns of this section of the Potsdam Palace, contrasting the reconstructed columns on their left.
The Potsdam Museum, using the façades of the old city hall (Altes Rathaus).
I thought that Atlas with the weight of the world on his shoulders was an interesting sculpture with which to top a City Hall. When we approached from a different angle, Ted was able to zoom in and capture the gorgeous detail in the lower photo.

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 Nikolaikirche

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.

The church looks more like a Roman temple than a Christian church, and the angels more like Roman gods and goddesses.
(More about that obelisk in the top photo later)
The attached dome at the time of its original construction was considered to be one of the first iron rib constructions of its kind.

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.

View of the Nikolaikirche from the back, affording a clearer look at one of the corner 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 altar area of the sanctuary viewed from the entrance (top), closer up at floor level (bottom left), and looking down from the choir gallery (bottom right), from which vantage point the glorious frescoes are also featured.
Looking up into the dome from within the sanctuary. Note the triangular areas formed between the arches.

The interior was redesigned in 1849/50, deviating from Schinkel’s designs. The painting was done by the workshop of Peter Cornelius.

Details from the inter-arch paintings. Clockwise from top left: Ezekial, Daniel, Jeremiah, and Isaiah, all looking decidedly like ancient Roman aristocracy.
Details of the interior dome sculptures, as seen from the choir/organ level.
The pipe organ and absolutely beautiful angels playing musical instruments, seen from the choir level. (The angel on the left has lost her flute)

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.

At the first platform, views are only in one direction. That’s not joy on my face, but relief at having made it up the first set of stairs.

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.

To the left you can see the kind of steel used to reconstruct the first spiral staircase; to the right are the original stairs to the upper gallery. A third level has been blocked off to visitors (not that I would have wanted to climb higher). Getting out onto the open-air gallery also involved ducking through a low access-way. Although we certainly didn’t bend down to measure them, each step is about 18-20” wide around the centre post, creating a tower of about 4 ft/1.2 m total diameter. If you draw a circle with a 4 foot diameter, create a 4” diameter hole in the centre for the post, and then divide it into 10 equal pie slices, each slice representing one “stair”, you’ll create steps shaped like wedges with approx 20” long sides and a 12.5” outer arc. THAT’s what we walked up!

I found going up not too terrifying, but coming back down later EXTREMELY scary. Interestingly, Ted had the opposite sensation.

Panoramic views from the gallery at the base of the cupola.
Top: looking down over the Alter Markt, with the Potsdam Museum on the left.
Bottom: looking across the square into the courtyard of the reconstructed Potsdam City Palace.
Top: looking past one of the bell-tower angels over Potsdam.
Bottom: looking toward Sanssouci Park. Note the park’s old windmill on the left. You can see the dome of Sanssouci Palace in the centre distance.

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.

Left: the obelisk as seen from the entrance of the Nikolaikirche. Bottom: the obelisk as seen from the square. Note the sphinxes either side of the medallion.

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 Brandenburg State Parliament seen from the river (non courtyard) side.
The Parliament/Palace viewed from across the Market Square while standing in front of the Potsdam Museum/Old City Hall. The Fortuna Gate is at the right, with the other half of the building extending further but just barely visible.

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.

Looking through the Fortuna Gate from the courtyard, looking out at the Nikolaikirche.
Closer looks at the interior of the Fortuna Gate.
The view while standing at the Fortuna Gate and looking into the courtyard.
Within the courtyard, evidence of the kind of damage done during the 1945 air raids. note the indents from mortar and artillery fire, in addition to the more obvious missing pieces and smoke damage. Individual funds continue to supplement tax dollars to fund ongoing restorations.

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.

Freundschaftsinsel

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.

Sculptures are dotted throughout the park, most featuring figures who themselves appear to be enjoying the gardens.

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.

A portion of Potsdam’s waterfront and the dome of Nikolaikirche reflected in the Havel River’s Alte Fahrt (Old Channel) as we wandered the Freundschaftsinsel.

That ended our day in Potsdam. Here’s a tip of the hat to a city that captured our hearts and imaginations.

2 comments

  1. I love following your adventures but also love your top and pants. They look so cool and comfortable. Where did you get them?

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    • I packed lots of lightweight flowy crinkle cotton and cotton blend stuff, of which these are 2 pieces. Periwinkle, and Casa Donna are the labels. Bought them very inexpensively at a little independent store called Madison, back in Collingwood Ontario.

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