Gary Phillips visits the Castles, Palaces and Gardens of East Germany vacated by the aristocracy when the Red Army marched in at the end of WW2.

schwerincastle1When the Red Army came marching across East Germany in 1945 the local aristocracy had to flee like their social circle had to, from across Poland, Belarus and the Baltic States to safer, and freer climbs. They also caused once famous palaces, castles and gardens to be hidden from view for nearly 45 years, while they were “usefully” employed by the communist regime. Now, after 21 years of re-unification, these properties have now been gainfully re-employed, mostly as hotels, making them more accessible than ever for tourists like me, particularly those with eyes and ears for history.

The first port of call for us was in Potsdam, scene of the famous conference between Stalin, President Truman and Churchill in August 1945 to discuss the terms of the Japanese surrender and the partition of Berlin and Germany. The venue was the Palace of Cecilienhof, named after the incumbent Cecilie Melkenburg, who had remained in the property ever since 1918 when her husband, Prince Wilhelm, fled the revolution after the German capitulation at the end of WW1. Their marriage was already over due to Wilhelm’s infidelity so she remained in the Palace to look after their children. During nazi years she continued to independently arrange events at the Palace until the Nazi regime insisted on control of all cultural life in Germany from 1933. In 1945 Cecilie herself had to flee to Bavaria when the Red Army took control of the Palace at the end of WW2. Bavaria is where she remained until her death in 1954.

Part of the Cecilienhof Palace has now been turned into a four star hotel the “Relaxotel Cecilienhof” where Queen Elizabeth II stayed in 2004 and the venue of the G8 meeting in 2008. With its discreet location, away from the centre of Potsdam, the security is perfect and its extensive gardens would surely have pleased Her Majesty. You can walk out of reception right into the area of the Palace where the 1945 conference took place. There are pictures on the wall of the illustrious participants and an audio guide to talk you through the events of those tumultuous days at the end of WW2.

Not far from the Cecilienhof is the Sans Souci Palace of Frederick the Great, so-named because of his intention to be care-free while staying there during the summer. Here you can take an organised tour of the Palace and the gardens or take another audio guide. The biggest surprise for me was the location of that portrait of Frederick himself, famously imitated by Andy Warhol. It is much smaller than I expected and placed high up the corner of a room. I imagined it to be of grander proportions and hung above a large fireplace.

From Potsdam we went on the Fredereick the Great’s other Palace at Rheinsberg which he occupied after his 1733 wedding to Elisabeth Chritine of Brunswick-Bevern. Currently in the process of restoration, Rheinsberg Castle is where Frederick the great developed a friendship with Voltaire, and with other musicians and philosophers during what is now called his Rheinsberg period. A music academy now occupies part of the building and a number of high-profile classical music events take place here during the summer. The lakes and forests in the surrounding area provide ample opportunity for outdoor sports including kayaking, canoeing and mountain biking. The Castle of Rheinsberg is open during working hours on weekdays, with guided visits available (033931 2105).

From Rheinsberg we moved on to the Lakeland of Fleesensee, now a significant holiday destination for many Germans, due to its extensive fresh-water swimming and new holiday resorts, much of it owned by Travel industry giant, TUI. We were staying at the Radisson Blu Resort Schloss Flesensee, in Gohren-Lebbin. It’s a converted castle built in 1842, formerly called Blucher Castle. It has 175 very large rooms and suites including private spa suites where you can have personalised spa and massage treatments without walking out of the door, something which is very popular in Russia these days.

The main draw for this five star resort hotel is of course golf. There are three 18-hole golf courses and one 9-hole course for “beginners”. It may not come as a great surprise that corporate groups are big business for this hotel, for conferences, events and meetings, as there are large reception areas and an enormous dining room at the Orangerie. The ladies can choose to spend all day at the spa and pool area, go cycling, or even to take a tour of the area by Segway.

Due to the adverse weather during our stay at Fleesensee, our leisure time was confined to the bar area, as the prospect of touring the enormous golf facilities was not a great one, especially as I have no personal interest in golf.

The next day took us to another hotel converted from a castle, Schloss Crivitz Basthorst, which is now owned by a Dutch couple who have moved to the adjacent village. It’s just 20km from the picturesque city of Schwerin but right in the deep countryside with its own stables, polo pitch, golf course and fine restaurant newly built in the former mews building. It has its own spa and beauty centre with an excellent pool, and is close to the Glambecksee Lake. Again, we were unable to get any further information about who actually owned the place pre-1945, but it’s certainly a fine hotel.

Home of the Dukes of Mecklenburg, Schwerin Castle rests on a site first used for a castle in the 9th century. It was conquered by Henry the Lion and his noblemen in the 12th century who built up a new fort from the ruins, and founded the city of Schwerin, now the capital of Mecklenburg, and the smallest capital in Germany with just under 100,000 inhabitants.

The descendents of Niklot who was deposed by Henry the Lion, bought back the site in the 14th century when they were made the Dukes of Mecklenburg. The castle was further developed in following centuries mostly by Duke Johann Albrecht I. (1525–1576). In the 17th century the thirty years war put paid to attempts to convert the castle into a Dutch Renaissance palace, but in the 19th century the whole place was rebuilt into the Gothic masterpiece it is today. It was designed by the architect George Demmler, who gained inspiration from the Renaissance castles of the Loire Valley, Chambord in particular. It was never completely finished, and after the revolution that occurred after the German capitulation in 1918, the Dukes left and the castle became a museum. During the communist years the castle was used as a teacher-training school.

Schwerin Castle has had 100 million Euros spent on it in recent years to bring it up to what it is today. Cruise passengers arriving at Rostock come here on day excursions.

Our hotel in Schwerin was the superb Speicher am Ziegelsee Schwerin, a carbon-neutral hotel in a building formerly used as a large 19th century grain store. It is in the former industrial area of the city and even has a disused crane next to it. It is a testimony to the benefits of smart low-carbon building technologies, which benefits not only the guest, the environment, but the economics of the hotel itself. It doesn’t have air conditioning, it doesn’t need it, the insulation used keeps the hotel at an ambient temperature. It needs very little heating for the same reason. The Radisson Blu at Fleesensee, on the other hand was an unashamedly big burner of energy, with floor heating constantly on and air conditioning running at the same time. I highly recommend visiting Schwerin, but you must use this hotel, it is excellent.

All in all you can easily follow a similar itinerary in three to four days, it offers new ground and certainly taught me a lot about a period of German history I had no previous knowledge of.

Getting there
Try booking an open-jaw ticket into Berlin and out of Hannover with BMI or BA. You can also try booking two single tickets with a number of low cost airlines listed in our flights guide.

Cecilienhof, PotsdamCrivitz Basthorst