In his last will, Frederick the Great, the King of Prussia from 1740 to 1786, asked to be buried beside his beloved pet greyhounds in the terraced gardens of his favorite residence, Sanssouci Palace, in Potsdam near Berlin.
Ignoring the wishes of “Old Fritz,” the king’s nickname, his nephew and successor had him buried at the Potsdam Garrison Church. Only in 1991, on the 205th anniversary of his death, was his body finally moved to the gardens of Sanssouci.
Frederick’s grave is normally the first point of interest that tourists flock to. This year, the number of visitors has increased markedly because 2012 marks the 300th anniversary of Frederick’s birth, and special exhibitions and shows are being held throughout the year to commemorate the former, popular king.
To get a better understanding of Frederick, the man, a tour through the Sanssouci Palace is a must. The name derives from French and translates to “without worries,” perfectly embodying what the palace represented for Old Fritz.
Not only was it the king’s favorite place to be — compared to the court in Berlin, Sanssouci offered tranquility— but he also oversaw the design and decoration of the palace to suit his own tastes in the Rococo style. Frederick’s great interest in art and architecture can be traced throughout the palace and its surroundings.
During summer, numerous buses carrying tourists from all over the world line the street that leads up to Sanssouci, causing long queues at ticket booths. The wait to get a ticket can be up to 30 minutes and one more hour to actually enter the castle, as visitors are only let in every 10 minutes in groups of roughly 20 people to avoid overcrowding.
There is a 12 euro ($15.30) entrance fee plus an additional 3 euros if one wants to visit the palace’s kitchen. With another 3 euros for permission to take photographs, the fees and waiting time may feel like deterrents. But at the very least, the palace’s extensive gardens are worth a stroll (and cost nothing). They feature greenhouses and fountains, as well as the Roman Baths, Frederick’s Picture Gallery, the Chinese House (a pavilion inspired by oriental architecture) and the Church of Peace, to name just a few highlights.
But the showpiece, of course, is Sanssouci. Relatively small, as just a single-story villa containing “only” 10 rooms, it sits on top of a hill overlooking the gardens to the south. Named a World Heritage Site in 1990 by Unesco, it is the Prussian Palaces and Gardens Foundation that manages and tends to Sanssouci and other palaces in the region.
Upon entering the palace, visitors receive an audio guide, which is available in nine languages, and turns out to be a very practical, detailed and informative way to tour the palace.
The starting point is the gallery, where paintings by French artists from the early 18th century adorn the walls beside marble statues of Greek deities.
Visitors then take a peek into the circular library. Unfortunately, it is prohibited to actually enter it. The library boasts an impressive 2,000 books, which are mostly Greek and Roman writings, as well as a collection of French literature from the 17th and 18th centuries, including many works by Voltaire, with whom Frederick maintained a close friendship.
Frederick’s study and bedroom contain his desk and the armchair in which he died in August 1786. The king, who was very fond of music — he played the flute and composed several pieces himself — also had a special music room in his palace where he often held concerts.
The most impressive space in the palace, however, is without a doubt the marble hall that overlooks the terraced vineyard. Built in the style of Rome’s Pantheon, with marble from Italy and a cupola sitting on its dome, the hall served as a reception room and the place where major celebrations were held. It was here that Frederick would regularly organize the so-called “Tafelrunde,” a dinner party that included colorful characters from the world of literature, art and philosophy, such as Voltaire, the Marquis d’Argens and Francesco Algarotti.
In the west wing are a handful of guest rooms, each designed individually, to accommodate Frederick’s many and regular visitors.
It is notable that the queen, Elisabeth Christine of Brunswick-Bevern, doesn’t have her own room at Sanssouci, as she resided at her own palace north of Berlin. In fact, the arranged marriage between Frederick and Elisabeth remained childless, and they would only see each other on special occasions. One story goes that in 1763, when Frederick saw his wife for the first time in six years, his first remark was: “Madame has grown quite fat.”
Some historians have argued that Frederick was a homosexual, others claim that women simply were not among his priorities.
What is certain, however, is that Frederick was at his most content when spending summers at Sanssouci, indulging in his personal and artistic interests. From its spacious rooms to the wonderful views, it isn’t hard to see why.