Perhaps in compensation for nature’s parsimony, one of the greatest concentrations of landscape gardens in continental Europe is to be found in an area of unproductive sandy heathland, scrub forests and marshy plains. Poorly endowed with natural resources, Brandenburg was a minor German state when in the seventeenth century it acquired the much bigger and more prosperous state, which was then known as Prussia.
But by dint of ruthless and energetic rule, backed by military prowess for which it became a byword, Brandenburg-Prussia became one of the most powerful states in Germany. By the middle of the eighteenth century, with Frederick the Great at the helm, it was successfully challenging the great powers of Europe.
Before the landscape movement came Baroque formality, the perfect expression of the absolutism of the time. Most of the innumerable princes of the highly disunited Germany had aspirations to magnificence manifested in the building of palaces and the creation of gardens – regarded as an indispensable extension of the other. As the most ambitious of all dynasties, with most to prove, the Kings of Prussia bestowed on posterity some of the grandest schemes in Europe.
As well as being one of the most able of rulers and soldiers, Frederick was also a lover of art, music and gardening. Sanssouci, his retreat from the affairs of state at Potsdam, is a uniquely extensive and well-preserved complex of gardens and palaces, extended and embellished by his successors. Sanssouci is the Mecca for all lovers of historic gardens, but there are also other outstanding parks, gardens and palaces close by.
Based for all five nights in Potsdam, this tour surveys the superb and elaborate gardens and palaces from Baroque to Romanticism created by the Hohenzollern royal family. There is also a day in the neighbouring state of Sachsen-Anhalt to see Wörlitz, the first and most important landscape garden in Germany.
Fly at c. 8.45am from London Heathrow to Berlin (British Airways). The afternoon is spent at Schloss Charlottenburg, the earliest major secular building in the Berlin area, an outstanding Baroque and Rococo summer palace with excellent interiors of the 1690s and 1750s (with Frederick II’s collection of paintings by Watteau). The first French-style formal garden in Germany extends into landscaped areas with a villa and mausoleum by Schinkel. Continue to Potsdam where all five nights are spent.
Intimacy and opulence jostle for space in Sanssouci. A full day is devoted to the 300 ha site which was in continuous additive development between 1744 and 1913. A string of contrasting palaces, the famous terrace garden and a series of ornamental buildings reflecting Italian, Chinese, Greek, Roman and Rococo tastes follow one another in this huge park.
Wörlitz. 90 km to the south, Wörlitz was the creation of Prince Franz of Anhalt-Dessau, his libertarian idealism contrasting with Frederick the Great’s expansionism. An extravagant homage to the Enlightenment, he created this earliest of English parks on the continent as the centrepiece of his new social order. His models in this great enterprise were Palladio, Brown and Rousseau, and the magnificent park is studded with mementos of Stourhead, Coalbrookdale and the idea of the ferme ornée. Even Vesuvius is here, overlooking its own Bay of Naples.
Today we explore the parks which gather around the River Havel and dependent lakes between Potsdam and Berlin which, though created independently, took into account views of the other gardens. The great landscape designer Peter Josef Lenné (1789–1866) had a hand in all of them; Peacock Island, with its ‘ruined’ castle folly, is ‘the most peaceful and enchanted landscape… in the whole of Germany’; the gloriously Gothic garden of Babelsberg, where Lenné collaborated with Prince Pückler, evolved around a Windsor-Castle style Schloss and is as different as can be imagined from Sanssouci; the villa of Klein-Glienicke is a dream of Italy, its gardens strewn with Neoclassical garden buildings.
The Neuer Garten, laid out from 1786 by Friedrich Wilhelm II, embraces the artfully informal, English landscaped style, while the lakeside Marble Palace at its centre is modest and playful and interestingly furnished. The Elizabethan-style Schloss Cecilienhof (1913–17) was site of the Potsdam Conference 1945. Free afternoon, opportunity perhaps to explore the town of Potsdam with its lively Dutch Quarter and Schinkel cathedral.
Walk once more though Park Sanssouci to the delicious Neo-Classical retreat of Charlottenhof and the adjoining Roman Baths. A sequence of Roman and Renaissance style rooms, patios and baths, this part was once a separate estate and was laid out by Lenné and Schinkel. Depart for Berlin Airport at midday, arriving Heathrow c. 3.30pm.
Price, per person
Two sharing: £2,220 or £1,980 without flights. Single occupancy: £2,360 or £2,120.
Air travel (Euro Traveller) on scheduled British Airways flights (Airbus A319); private coach travel throughout; accommodation as described below; breakfasts, 2 lunches and 3 dinners with wine; all admissions to gardens and palaces; tips for waiters, drivers and guides; airport and state taxes; the services of the lecturer.
Hotel am Luisenplatz, Potsdam: a comfortable 4-star hotel on the edge of Sanssouci park, overlooking the town square. Single rooms are doubles for sole use.
The parks are large and the tour would not be suitable for anyone who has any difficulties with everyday walking. Average distance by coach per day: 26 miles.
Between 10 and 22 participants.
Before booking, please refer to the FCO website to ensure you are happy with the travel advice for the destination(s) you are visiting: www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice.