I may be a history buff, but even I find this a little much: Knights, Prussians, Soviets, and Quentin Tarantino; palaces, parks, and salami sandwiches; gates, trains and the Bridge of Spies — sacrosanct, yet action-packed; placid, but pulsating. Potsdam.

I wasn’t expecting it, honestly. I anticipated a lighter rehash of my adopted home of Berlin, a tale of World War II devastation and postmodern redemption in the form of a burgeoning arts scene hipper than even the hippest parts of Manhattan. I came to this city of about 160,000 for but a single day, which in itself was a mistake; there’s simply too much to see. I realized that before even arriving in the city proper.

Potsdam is probably better known to many as the name of a historical event than a city, so perhaps that’s the best place for any tour of this highly decentralized capital of the German state of Brandenburg, with an exquisitely intimate feel, to begin. Just outside the city center, amid the palaces and stately country homes littered about the Neuer Garten (New Garden) like statuary, is Cecilienhof, a 176-room palace that hosted the famous Potsdam Conference. In the closing days of World War II, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, U.S. President Harry S. Truman and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin met amid the ruins of Europe to determine the ultimate fate of Germany following its unconditional surrender a few months previously. While their meeting would also have enormous implications for the Pacific Theatre (namely, the U.S. warning it would use atomic bombs on Japan), it also laid the groundwork for what would become the Cold War.

Today Cecilienhof still stands, with its country estate grounds recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1990. Its three separate entrances (designed to accommodate the exceptionally large egos of the men who could not stand entering the main building behind someone else), serving as an entryway to what contemporarily is a surprisingly cozy hotel, were once managed by the communist East German government, and make for a nice introduction to one of the most underrated cities in Central Europe through its conveyance of the recent past. Indeed, the Cold War has left its mark on Potsdam more than almost any other period in history. The city was situated right along the border between U.S., British and French-controlled West Berlin and communist East Germany, meaning, for the better part of several decades, it was a virtual fortress meant to keep intruders out and residents in. Walking along what was once one of the most heavily guarded borders in the world, I silently gave thanks for the changes that have taken place since that age of near-paranoid suspicion.

Nowhere is that feeling starker than the Glienicke Bridge (Glienicker Brücke). The original “Bridge of No Return,” Soviet and Western troops stood directly opposite each other here in a decades-long showdown of steely nerves. The U.S. and Soviet Union used it at least four times to exchange captured spies during the Cold War, leading journalists to give it the moniker “Bridge of Spies.” While nothing more than a simple motorway today, a small bronze plaque along the center of the bridge marks the symbolic place where the East met the West for all those decades.

But despite the bleakness of its recent past, Potsdam is far more than a backwater city languishing in the shadow of nearby Berlin (whose S-Bahn light rail network offers several departures per hour for the ridiculously low price of around $5), banking on would-be Cold Warriors for its tourism revenue. This being Europe, its history doesn’t merely stretch back a few decades, but into bygone centuries where knights in shining armor were more than just a euphemism. I expected nothing less, but the sheer scale of one particular site almost literally knocked me off my feet — though, admittedly, the ice that clung to every surface like fudge on a vanilla sundae may have also been a factor.

Potsdam has more UNESCO World Heritage Sites than almost anywhere else in Germany, and a casual stroll through the rebuilt city center, down Luisenplatz and through the Brandenburg Gate (a Roman-esque structure not to be confused with the more famous gate of the same name in Berlin), leads to the grandest of all: Sanssouci. Sanssouci was commissioned by Frederick the Great, a Prussian King credited with, among other things, introducing potatoes to Germany (leading many to leave potatoes on his grave, which is located on the palace grounds) and known for his many eccentricities. Considered the German answer to Versailles, the sprawling grounds are a Rococo fantasy that more than evokes the English translation of its name “without concerns.” While most visitors prefer to mosey amidst the meticulously-manicured hedges during the warmer summer months — and rightfully so — a trip during late winter/early spring offers a much more delectable treat: snow dusting the verges and facades like a sprinkling of powdered sugar upon a cake, temperatures tolerable enough not to warrant a parka, and almost unfettered access to an afternoon of escapism minus the crowds. It’s as sure a portal to another world as one can find anywhere in Europe. My thirst for historical escapism is nigh unquenchable, but even I was satisfied admiring the facades under a light snow more becoming of midwinter than early spring.

At the very top of a terraced hill that’s much steeper than it looks lies the area’s crown jewel: the corps de logis of the palace itself. Designed by Georg Wenzeslaus von Knobelsdorff between 1745 and 1747 to fulfill Frederick’s need for a private residence away from the pomp and ceremony of the Berlin court, Sanssouci is little more than a large, single-story villa — more like the Château de Marly than Versailles. Containing just 10 principal rooms, the influence of Frederick’s personal taste in the design and decoration of the palace was so great that its style is characterized as “Frederician Rococo,” and his feelings for the palace were so strong that he conceived it as “a place that would die with him.” It certainly boasts a view to kill, offering a survey of not only the extensive gardens, reverent churches, and the 18th-century stucco-draped Chinese Tea House (inspired, of course, by tales of the Orient), but of the modern city center of Potsdam proper. Time, it seemed, stood still while admiring the vistas through the floating snowflakes.

With Sanssouci’s grandeur dwarfing all it touches, it’s actually quite easy to overlook the rest of Potsdam. It’s a shame, really, as it is chock-full of “hidden treasures” that offer a stunning contrast to Berlin’s “poor but sexy” modernity. Take the two-street Dutch Quarter (Holländisches Viertel), an ensemble of about 150 houses built of red bricks in the Old Dutch style. Built between 1734 and 1742 under the direction of Jan Bouman, it was to be used by Dutch artisans and craftsmen who had been invited to settle in the city by Frederick William I (father of Frederick the Great, and presumably said to have been even less stable than his son). It’s a quick walk through the area, but complimented perfectly by a meal at Café Heider, a nearby café that’s been in business since 1878 and known for serving some of the best sandwiches in town. The salami is particularly recommended, especially if taken with a piping-hot espresso. Décor-wise, the place exudes a Roaring 20s vibe, almost daring patrons to drop their meals and dance the Charleston. It’s culinary escapism at its finest. Pleasant enough at lunchtime, its dinner scene would seem perfect for an Orson Welles or Humphrey Bogart film, with Ingrid Bergman in a starring role.

Cinematic escapism is certainly the mode du jour southeast of the city center at Babelsberg Studio. Founded in 1912 and known as the oldest large-scale film studio in the world, it holds a vaunted — and somewhat infamous — place in the annals of cinematic history. Fritz Lang’s groundbreaking masterpiece Metropolis was filmed here, as was Josef von Sternberg’s Blue Angel. So too was Roman Polanski’s The Pianist, Valkyrie starring Tom Cruise, The Reader with Kate Winslet, and Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. Unfortunately, so too was Leni Riefenstahl’s infamous Nazi propaganda flick Triumph of the Will, as well as the virulently anti-Semitic Jud Süss, a film produced at the behest of none other than Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. Nonetheless, it makes for a fine stop if one has time to kill, or aspires to meet a famous movie star. Unfortunately, I met none.

Sounds stages and the latest special effects aside, Potsdam may indeed seem like a giant movie set given the mishmash of architectural styles and districts in the city. North of the city center is the Russian colony of Alexandrowka, a small enclave of Russian architecture (including an Orthodox chapel) built in 1825 for a group of Russian immigrants, and deemed a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1999. Hidden grottoes are dotted about parks that are the perfect setting for a picturesque picnic or a game of football (soccer). An expressionist-style tower in the city is named after Albert Einstein. And a Norwegian Viking-style arch can be found along the banks of the River Havel. Across the street from the train station, one of the largest adult bookstores in Germany serves a different kind of escapism. But what, you ask, is one of the greatest boons of Potsdam’s otherworldly offerings, despite being a stone’s throw away from one of Europe’s largest cities? Mobile phone service is, mysteriously, somewhat spotty.

Not that I minded.

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