East Germany conjures up images of cold Communist architecture, but the region is full of princely castles and parks, all of which were long unreachable because of the Iron Curtain. On a recent tour of the historic estates, I found that many had been renovated or restored and that the whole area is on the verge of recapturing its former glory.
Our first stop was Potsdam, the capital of Brandenburg, a place with stunning parks and magnificent palaces. In fact, this city contains seventeen palaces and palatial buildings, defining the features of this city which encompass both the baroque as well as the Modern. In 1990, Potsdam enjoyed the distinction of having Sanssouci Palace and the Babelsberg and Alexandrowka districts designated UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Shortly after arriving, we wasted no time in walking to the large and very grand Sanssouci Park which encompasses more than 800 acres of topiary and 3,000 fruit trees, lending dappled shade over stately winding paths. Frederick the Great made Sanssouci Palace his summer home and was instrumental in creating the remarkable gardens. The New Palace, the largest 18th century structure in this park, contains no less than 200 palatial rooms of which 60 can be viewed - among them Grotto Hall, the Marble Gallery and the guest apartments.
Potsdam is not a big city so traveling by bike or on foot is an ideal way to explore. Explore I did. Meandering along the newly restored canals and then strolling through Old Market Square, I came upon the most dominant building here, The Church of Saint Nicholas. Reconstruction of the church started in 1830, but this has been holy ground for a lot longer than that. My walk took me ultimately to the Russian village of Alexandrowka where I found a treasure trove of appealing shops, pretty small cafes and ancient wooden houses. After dinner, I couldn't resist another visit to Sanssouci Park in early evening, always an enchanted time. My twilight tour did not disappoint. The scene I experienced earlier in bright sunlight - one fairytale castle standing next to the other, strong trees with character flanked by an enchanted lakes - all was now bathed in a serene purple and mauve glow.
The next day we visited Cecilienhof Palace, another UNESCO Heritage site and the residence of Crown Prince William of Prussia and his wife Cecilie. It was here, in the summer of 1945, that the Potsdam Conference was held by the allied victorious powers of the Second World War: the United States, Great Britain and the Soviet Union. It was spine-tingling to walk through rooms that were the site of so much significant history, and knowing that they were furnished to match the taste of the participants, Winston Churchill, Clement Attlee, Joseph Stalin and Harry S. Truman. In the Great Hall, front and center, was an impressive round table where they all met and where Churchill and Truman issued the Potsdam Declaration defining the terms for Japanese surrender. Today, Cecilienhof is a museum as well as a hotel. In May, 2007, the palace was used for the G8 foreign ministers summit.
Potsdam, a lively center of culture and learning, in summer, 2012, Potsdam will welcome the International Festival for Dance and Performance in May, their Classical Music Festival in June, Potsdam Night of the Palaces in August and the Bach Festival in September.
Our palatial adventures next took us to Mecklenburg and the monumental, dream-like fairytale Castle Schwerin, known as the "Nueschwanstein of the North." It is the town's most famous landmark surrounded by glittering golden spires and perched on a most outstanding site, smack in the middle an island in Lake Schwerin. For centuries the castle was home to the grand dukes of Mecklenburg and it currently serves as the seat of the state parliament. The Castle was built from 1845-57 in the neo-renaissance style and, architecturally, is one of the most important buildings in Europe. Castle Schwerin is what one images a castle should look like, at once monumental yet delicate - and quite the fitting home for royalty.
In this same region, we had a late afternoon visit to Castle Wedendorf, former home of Prince von Buelow and von Bernstorff. It nestles in a dreamlike l7 acre wooded location overlooking the Lake Wedendorf and is one of the most beautiful Classicist palaces in the country. Today, as Schloss Wedendorf, this beautiful castle is a 4-star hotel, comfortable and offering luxury amenities.
Our final stop and Germany's second-largest city was Hamburg. It was this city's port that earned it the reputation of being Germany's "gateway to the world." Home to three state theatres, forty private theatres and as many museums, a world-class concert hall, and a vibrant art scene, Hamburg is a multi-faceted metropolis. It is also a virtual Greenland. Tree-lined streets, parks and gardens abound, so many that it was named the European Green Capital for 2011.
In the heart of the city lies Alster Lake, a paradise for yachtsmen and paddlers, but also for me. Because the lake is surrounded with picturesque paths, I trekked through some of the prettiest, greenest areas, including the region called Winterhude with waterways lined with centuries-old trees, Baroque villas and lanes thronged with people seemingly just relaxing and enjoying life. That appears to be a key pastime here for residents and visitors alike, and this visitor quickly adapted to the mood.
Spring and summer usher in some lovely events: In the first half of May, there's the Hamburg Port Festival, five days of celebrating the anniversary of the 800-year-old harbor. The Japanese Cherry Blossom Festival takes place mid-May, commemorating the first commercial links between Hamburg and Japan. Festivities include the election of a Cherry Blossom Queen and fireworks on the shoreline of Alster Lake. The Fleetinsel Festival is held every July over ten days along the historic waterways between the Elbe River and the Alster Lake in the city center, including artistic, cultural and culinary happenings.
Clare Boothe Luce once said that though a man's home might seem to be his castle, inside, it is more often his nursery. On my spectacular German castle journey, I spied no nurseries. Nothing but outstanding, glorious buildings on the outside and within, at the very heart.
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