In my humble and important opinion, bike tours are one of the best ways to see most European cities, and my favorite bike tour company (Fat Tire Bike Tours) always manages to do all the things that make a bike tour great. I have taken three tours based in Paris (day tour, night tour, Versailles) and I have taken one of the many Berlin tours, so when I saw that there was a tour of Potsdam offered by Fat Tire I did not hesitate to sign up. When solo traveling these tours are great for meeting people and seeing the sights.
When I decided that Potsdam was on my itinerary I knew very little about the history of Potsdam other than the end of WWII and Potsdam had some distant connection in my brain. By the end of the day I knew as much as someone with a PhD in German history. (This is a lie, but I could pass a two question test on German history written in English.)
We kicked off our tour by informally introducing ourselves and it wasn’t long before we all agreed that it was a small world as we made connections from our pasts. (For example, one of the ladies on the tour had grown up in the mighty PNW and had spent many summers at a family cabin in Grayland, WA where I worked for 16 years.) We all hopped on a train to Potsdam and picked up our bikes. The bikes all have names printed on their frames and I ended up with The Alman Brothers, I really wanted Anna Kornikova but I didn’t think my wife would approve of me riding Anna all day. Off we went, it was a cooler than usual day and I was prepared by having hairy legs and arms. The people from California and Arizona in our group were cold, but I was comfortable the whole day.
Our guide, Craig, was from Australia and brought that Aussie relaxed attitude the entire day. One of the first things to decide on the tour is who gets to ride in the very back. In France they called this the derrière, but in Germany the last person is referred to as the “ass man.” The payment to be the “ass man” is one beer back at the shop, I had been the derriere before and quickly volunteered to take care of business as the “ass man.” The “ass man’s” job is to make sure no one gets left behind and at times is the person who blocks traffic. The nice thing about the Potsdam tour is that there was not any need to block traffic since most of the day we were riding through the huge parks in Potsdam.
I will now sum up everything you need to know about Potsdam in a paragraph. (If you need to check any of the historical accuracy of this section please use Wikipedia.) The Germans wanted to have a Versailles like place for their royalty to hang out, so they built a bunch of castles. It got a bit out of control. Many of the buildings were like Hollywood stage sets and did not have much substance. The different kings all had their own ideas about what to build and pretty soon there was a mess of different styles of architecture. Eventually the kings lost power after WWI and the place was kind of ignored for a few years, until the Big Three (not LeBron, D Wade, and Chris Bosh, but America, England, and Russia) were looking for a place to divide up Germany after WWII. The Big Three met in Potsdam because the rest of the country only had about three buildings left standing. (This bombing is described in Germany as inhumane, in the US it is described as necessary.) After the Potsdam Accord was signed the Cold War started and we got to move our hatred from Germans to Russians. After that Potsdam was controlled by the East Germans and the castles were used by the Communist Party leaders as summer retreats. There was some other important stuff along the way, but that is the condensed version.
On our bikes we saw some awesomely weird buildings and rode around the whole city. I must say, when people have unlimited funds to build things they go a bit nutty. The worst building was this Chinese Pagoda building. There were Germans who had been to China to trade opium and they returned with some great stories about the buildings, so instead of having the architect visit China or bringing in a Chinese builder, they just kind of winged it. The result is a building that is either blatantly racist, or just plain ugly. I believe the traders were smoking their product instead of just trading it.
One of the kings, Frederick The Great (aka Frederick II), had an exciting life. He tried to run away from his father and leave the royal thing in the rearview mirror, but one of his friends ratted him out. (Most historians agree he was homosexual and trying to escape with his lover.) The king executed Fredrick’s lover; forcing Fred to watch. Freddy then decided to behave himself and even got married (kind of, no kids and he is buried next to his dogs, his wife’s grave is nowhere to be seen). The best thing King Freddy did was bring potatoes to Germany. At first Germans did not want to eat potatoes, so the King Freddy made a law that said that only the royals could eat potatoes. This changed everyone’s attitude about potatoes and soon people were trying to steal potatoes from the royal potato patch. After a year king Freddy lifted the ban on potatoes and everyone was making potato salad, mashed potatoes, and eating potatoes like crazy. Germans are still potato crazy.
Around noon, we stopped to have a little lunch in a beer garden. This beer garden overlooked a lake and offered traditional German food: Beer, sausages, lentil soup, potatoes of various types, and pretzels. I decided that a liter of seasonal beer was needed to wash down my brat, potato salad, and kraut. It was a great break in the middle of the day and allowed all of us to sit around a table and find a little more about each other. Craig, the tour guide, said the most surprising thing of all; he wanted to travel to America and see the southern states: Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Texas. All of the Americans were shocked by this information. Most often, these are not the locations that tourists want to visit, but Craig said that he heard that people there were crazy and he wanted to see them with his own eyes. This view is even more odd when one considers that Craig is from Australia and seeing crazy people is easy enough in his homeland. This is not an opinion, it is a fact.
We finished the tour at the building where the Potsdam Accord was signed. I did not pay the extra fee to take photographs inside the building. There were three rooms for the three leaders: Churchill, Stalin, and Eisenhower; and one big room with a big round table for the actual meetings. It is strange to sit in a room where the course of history was changed, or at least to know that many of my childhood fears of the USSR were formed by the decisions made in this room. We hopped back on our bikes and cruised back to the train station, just barely made our train, and then headed back into Berlin. Once we made it to the bike shop I collected my beer and was given a chunk of the wall. I don’t know if the chuck was because I did a passable job as “ass man,” but it doesn’t matter why I was awarded the fist sized piece of cement because to me the fall of the wall is more about the potential for change than anything else. I never thought I would see the day when Germany was combined and I never thought we would live in a world where the Communist Bloc did not exist any longer. It gives me hope for the future and for all the challenges the human race will face.