Yesterday I went to Potsdam. I was a bit ambivalent about going because I didn’t know whether my train ticket was valid or what I would do when I got there. Turns out I shouldn’t have worried as it was super easy.
I walk into the station, push my ticket into the validator machine, then a few minutes later a direct train comes up on the S7 line direct to Potsdam. There’s no barrier and not a ticket inspector in sight, it seems too good to be true.
The people on the train are all the kinds you’d find on a Wednesday during work hours: mothers with children, students, old people, shifty-looking guys in leather jackets. As the train passes through the city more passengers get off at every stop until the carriage is almost empty. We speed away from the centre, eventually punching through West Berlin and emerging right out the other side.
At Potsdam central station I take too many turns after coming off the platform and lose my sense of orientation, so I head for the nearest exit on Friedrich-Engels Strasse. From there I can see some sort of tower poking up from the trees in the distance and figure it’s worth checking out. When I get there I see a big stop sign, the place is clearly abandoned.
Below it there’s an another abandoned building, the site of the old ‘Restaurant Minsk’.
There’s a gap in the fence, so I climb onto the roof. There’s nothing much to see except more broken windows. The roof feels a little unstable and I don’t want to risk it caving in under my weight.
Opposite the former restaurant is a swimming pool which looks like it was built in the same period, though the inside has probably been renovated. The front wall of the pool is decorated with some typical themes of socialist wall-art: a woman looking at the sun, while sputnik flies overhead. Unfortunately it’s been covered up by a well-placed tree so I can’t get a good picture of it.
There doesn’t seem to be anything more to see here, and there’s definitely not any historic touristy stuff, so I head back to the train station to reset my bearings. It doesn’t help though. The only map in the station is back on the platform and by the time I reach it I’ve lost track of which way I’m facing. It’s frustrating because I’m normally really good at navigation but this station is a labyrinth with areas which look the same even if you approach them from different angles.
There’s a sign with obvious tourist stuff on it and a direction to take tram 975, that seems like the answer to my problems. I go outside to the tram stop and scrutinise the map and schedule for number 975. Alas, the directions are a complicated mess and after a while I decide to just get on the next tram regardless of where it’s going. After all, there’s only one tram line and I’ll come across something worth visiting after a while.
As it happens I get off two stops later, just across the river outside the film museum. This area feels alien, it’s unbelievably clean and really empty considering it’s supposed to be a prime tourist attraction.
What’s more it’s right up close against a tacky concrete apartment block. It feels very strange to walk from pristine historical landmarks straight across the road to graffiti and piles of cigarette ends. If the apartments are still there in a century will they be looked after as well as their neighbours?
Further up the road is a cafe attached to a library. I order a coffee and write up where I’ve gotten to so far. The cafe is cosy, with people sitting around reading books and there’s a low murmur of conversation. I don’t normally drink coffee, it tastes strong.
I took a quick tour through the library, the philosophy section has got a lot of books by Arendt, though nothing on Heidegger which is probably about right. Other than that there’s a russian-language section close to the entrance, and a separate children’s area. There are a couple of indicators of a russian influence in the city, a school sign in russian, further north the map shows a ‘russian colony’, and even further up than that is an abandoned Soviet military base. I think it has something to do with Potsdam’s relationship with historical Prussia, I don’t know enough about the history.
Outside the library is a monument, it reads “our victims our fight against fascism and war” then “reminder and obligation for the living.”
It strikes me that there’s definitely an anti-fascist politics in Germany, it expresses itself much more visibly than in any other country I know. Later on I see this image flyposted on some stone.
In Britain we sometimes joke that a strong Germany leading the European Union is re-treading a dark path, but that vision is much more serious for people here.
The town reaches a sort of natural dead-end at this point, beyond which it’s unclear where to go. In the absence of anything else guiding me I just carry on walking north.
After a few minutes I come across a church.
The church divides a square which acts as a bus station on one side and a market on the other. There’s a guy selling crates of bananas for €1.50 per kilo, which is cheap considering €1.80 is around the supermarket price. Suspect the local merchant probably isn’t paying tax.
On Hegel street I come across a plaque, it reads “here in November 1914, [citizens of] Potsdam charged Karl Liebknecht with voting against war credits in the Reichstag”. I can see why German socialists would be proud of that legacy, he was the voice of reason crying out against war and he was snuffed out.
The Nauener gate, straight out of a fairytale film set.
Finally I arrive at the park, entering through the Friedenskirsche. I like the building, it’s got a medieval feel about it, old stones and wooden rafters, it’s something I haven’t seen in Berlin. The Marly garden around it looks like it was done in a ‘capability brown’ style. Clusters of trees bordered by a stream, and little fields of open grass punctuated by groups of flowers and bushes. A placard nearby describes the garden as ‘paradisgleiche’ (like paradise).
Around the corner there’s the garden leading up to the Sanssouci palace.
Walking up all those steps was tiring, and the effect if the coffee is starting to wear off. Sanssouci - sans souci - means ‘without worries’.
The palace has these blue decorated structures to either side. They seem pretty pointless to me, just empty frames, they offer no protection from the weather.
From behind the palace I can see some old buildings among the trees. I want to go home before it gets dark, and I’ve had about enough of 18th century extravagance, so off to the mysterious ruins.
Turns out the ruins were ‘built’ in the 18th century along with the rest of the palace to make it appear as if there were some ancient castle here before. They’re fake ruins. Still, they look convincing when seen from a distance.
On the way back to the train station I come across a building with more murals from the German Democratic Republic.
The murals are accompanied by a quote by Karl Marx from the Grundrisse.
The less time the society requires to produce wheat, cattle etc., the more time it wins for other production, material or mental. Just as in the case of an individual, the multiplicity of its development, its enjoyment and its activity depends on economization of time. Economy of time, to this all economy ultimately reduces itself. Society likewise has to distribute its time in a purposeful way, in order to achieve a production adequate to its overall needs; just as the individual has to distribute his time correctly in order to achieve knowledge in proper proportions or in order to satisfy the various demands on his activity. Thus, economy of time, along with the planned distribution of labour time among the various branches of production, remains the first economic law on the basis of communal production.
There’s an empty lot adjacent to it where they’re going to build a church. More old buildings next to some student housing.
I walked back to the station, and there was a train waiting on the platform.
It’s just about night by the time I’m back in Berlin proper.