Potsdam rewards off-season visitors

POTSDAM, Germany -- We wandered.

The afternoon was cold but sunny, agreeable for strolling the vast grounds of Frederick the Great's 18th-century summer palace, Sanssouci.

PG map: Potsdam
(Click image for larger version)

Were this July and not February, the crowds of tourists would have been three- or four-deep around the ornate circular fountain, people crawling over each other to take pictures of the ducks.

But it was still very much late winter, and the birds were skittering along the ice. In the distance, Schloss Sanssouci (sometimes referenced as Sans Souci but in both cases meaning "carefree") loomed up and up, sitting atop a path of massive, tiered garden steps.

Frederick, King of Prussia, was a big fan of the royal French residences at Versailles. His architects planned the grand complex -- the grounds include numerous ornate buildings, fountains, an Orangery Palace, the Chinese House and a windmill within Park Sanssouci -- with a rococo sensibility.

In the 19th century, William Frederick IV expanded the gardens and grounds. They are all part of a larger UNESCO World Heritage Site in Potsdam, encompassing about 1,235 acres and 150 buildings. Potsdam, a city about 16 miles outside Berlin with a population of about 160,000, is capital of the federal state of Brandenburg.

Of course, there were treasures to be found inside the ornate palaces: fine artworks and lavish interiors. Although we skipped the indoor tours -- major sections of 200-room New Palace were closed for major renovations to bolster the interior structure -- we could still appreciate the over-the-top opulence.

There were quiet pleasures to be had in this cold-weather walk, boots crunching along the 1.5-mile-long promenade that crosses the grounds. The scenery in winter was not to everyone's liking, as evidence by a few remarks on sites such as TripAdvisor.com.

The six tiers of grapevines enclosed behind glass near the original palace were but scrawny, brown twigs. Some facilities were undergoing repairs, and most of the garden statues were boxed up in tall, gray wooden structures to protect them against the harsh weather.

We also took a different kind of stroll around Potsdam, which is actually a city on an island. The lakeside trail around Potsdam's Heiliger See ("Holy Sea") was still snow-covered in patches, with wide sheets of ice creeping right up to the shore. In summer, it's a great place to run or picnic, but on this morning, with very few souls in sight, the only noticeable sound was the bark of a distant dog.

If you go

The sheer number of palaces alone means Potsdam is worth more than a day's visit, but if a day is all you have, Sanssouci is a must. If you're lucky enough to have a few days, a number of lovely hotels and hostels are within easy walking distance of shopping and accessible to public transportation to the UNESCO areas.

Other sights to see in Potsdam include the lovely Babelsberg district, with its parks and castle. Historic Studio Babelsberg offers tours (for now, only in German) and was used in films such as "Inglourious Basterds" and "The Monuments Men." Currently shooting is "The Voices," with Ryan Reynolds and Anna Kendrick.

Potsdam sits in what used to be East Germany. After the Berlin Wall fell in 1990, the city began to re-imagine itself as an upscale, suburban area combining beautiful heritage sites with nicely maintained homes and apartments.

Connecting the city to Berlin is the Glienicke Bridge, famous for the exchange of political prisoners during the Cold War.

United, Lufthansa, American and Delta are among popular airlines that fly nonstop from the United States to Berlin's Tegel Airport, although none directly from Pittsburgh. From Berlin, the easiest way to reach Potsdam is via the S7 S-Bahn and then regional trains (www.s-bahn-berlin.de/en). The roughly 16-mile trip takes about 45 minutes.

Overlooking a bend in the Jungfern See is Schloss Cecilienhof, not so much a "palace" as a replica of a grand Tudor estate. History buffs will recognize it as the site of the historic 1945 conference among World War II allies Winston Churchill, Josef Stalin and Harry Truman.

Visiting sites in the offseason can be a challenge, because hours often are shortened and certain attractions may be closed for repair. The upside is not just fewer crowds, however, but sometimes the chance to experience very special conditions available only during quieter times (see accompanying story).

During an autumn visit to my aunt's home in Arlington, Va., when I was a little girl, the D.C. area experienced a freak snowstorm. Undaunted, my mother and aunt bundled up the kids and we set out by bus to visit George Washington's residence at Mount Vernon. It was a magical experience, with the home and grounds blanketed by snow and empty of tourists.

I was reminded of this when walking in late afternoon down the almost deserted streets of Potsdam's Dutch quarter. With roughly 134 low, red brick buildings, it is the second-largest collection of such architecture outside the Netherlands.

Small businesses selling artworks, jewelry and clothing share space in Potsdam's quaint shopping district, with a coffee shop (always excellent) on just about every corner. There was one especially charming place we passed en route to our sightseeing, but we did not enter. I'll be blunt: we could not find the door. We went to an interior hallway: no door. Looked carefully around the outside: no door.

The cheerful patrons inside, enjoying their hot drinks, had managed to find the door. There were even people sitting outside the cafe at little tables, where red blankets were supplied to ward off the morning chill. These people had figured it out.

Why couldn't we? In the end, we were too embarrassed to ask.

Still, the prospect of ending the day with a great meal and a drink at nearby La Maison du Chocolat was enough to kindle a warming sense of anticipation. Here the experience promised no end of creative meal -- and of course, dessert -- options.

Carrot soup with shrimp, fresh gnocchi with chanterelles, bacon and sage, obst toertchen (fruit tarts), macarons ...

La Maison du Chocolat is a popular restaurant, but on this winter night, we walked right in. Once more, wandering when others stayed home, had its advantages.

Maria Sciullo: msciullo@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1478 or on Twitter @MariaSciulloPG.

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