One of our decisions as a travelling couple on arrival in Berlin was to try and use bikes as much as possible in our attempt to see as much as we could of this famous city. On our first day, a long bike tour of the city was possibly a little extreme so we decided to have a more relaxed second day and ride from our hotel near Uhlandstrasse Bahn to visit Charlottenburg Palace. It showed us that Berlin is a bike friendly city with bike tracks on each side of main roads; you just had to ensure that you chose the right side of the road for the direction you were going, in order not to confuse other bikers. It was a comfortable ride to the Palace and meant that after we visited the inside of the Palace, our bikes were available to ride the huge landscaped park attached to the building.
Like everywhere in Berlin, having some understanding of the history of the building is vital, particularly in coming to terms with the opulence of the internal decorations. The other aspect of German history that we also needed to have some grasp of was the royal family of Prussia. Who was Charlotte in the first place? Who was the guy on the horse depicted on the grand statue that took pride of place in front of the Palace? Given that we knew of the mass devastation of Berlin during WWII, did this royal building remain unscathed while the City Palace of the Prussian royal family was so badly damaged that the East German Government blew it up?
The original palace was named after Sophie Charlotte, the wife of Friedrich III, who was the Elector of Brandenburg at the time. Sophie commissioned the building of the palace and it was inaugurated in 1699.
Friedrich himself wasn’t content with just being the Elector of Brandenburg, he had greater ambitions. He decided he wanted to be King of Prussia but due to international politics, decided to only call himself Friedrich I, “King in Prussia”. His grandson, Fredrick the Great (1740-86) is reputed to have described him as, ” great in small matters, and small in great matters.” Sophie Charlotte was his second wife and mother of Fredrick’s successor, Fredrick William I. She was only 36 years old when she died in 1705 but she is memorialised by many portraits within the palace.
It is amazing how many grand statues in Berlin have curious back stories. The equestrian statue of Friedrich Wilhelm I, Elector of Brandenburg, standing at the front of Charlottenburg Palace was originally designed and built in the late 17th Century and placed in the centre of a bridge crossing the Spree in the centre of Berlin. It was ‘evacuated’ in 1943 and on its return by barge after the war, it sank in Lake Tegel and spent four years under water before being rescued and placed at the front of Charlottenburg Palace.
One of the most famous palatial rooms in history, once considered the eighth wonder of the world, was designed and made for Charlottenburg Palace. The legendary Amber Room was begun in 1701 and was made from interlocking pieces of precious amber that had been collected from the Baltic coast for many years. It probably never made it into Charlottenburg Palace before the decision was made to relocate it to the doomed City Palace in Berlin where it stood for around 17 years. The King at the time, Fredrick William III (Charlotte’s grandson), gave the Amber Room to the Tsar of Russia, Peter I, to cement a treaty between the two nations. Peter the Great had toured Europe on a grand discovery tour in 1697 and had actually met Sophia Charlotte on his visit to Prussia and gifted her with “trunks of furs and brocade”. The Amber room itself was eventually installed in the Tsar’s summer palace near St Petersburg only to be looted by the German army in 1941 and eventually installed in Koninsburg Castle in Germany. The main theory as to its fate is that it was destroyed by the allied bombing of Koninsburg but conspiracy theories still abound to this day as to its whereabouts.
The Prussian Kings of the 18th/19th centuries continued to live in and expand the Charlottenburg Palace as either their premier residence or their occasional escape retreat. The last royal resident to make Charlottenburg Palace his home was the curious personage of Friedrich III and his story is worth briefly mentioning here. He reigned as Emperor for only 99 days in 1888 when he died aged 56. My attention was first drawn to him by two curious paintings in the Alte National Gallery by Anton Von Werner, the painter who was invited to Versailles in 1871 to record Otto Von Bismarck signing the treaty that closed the Franco-Prussian War. Two of his paintings represented in the Gallery show two moments of the life of Frederick when he was Crown Prince. The first when he was attending the Court Ball in 1878, the second when he travelled to Jerusalem in his younger years in 1869. He had been restricted in his duties apparently because both his Father, William I and Chancellor Bismarck were concerned about his liberal views. He was married to the eldest daughter of Queen Victoria of Great Britain, a ‘Victoria’ herself and was a great admirer of Queen Victoria’s husband Albert. His political views about the rights of all citizens were in opposition to the militaristic views of Chancellor Bismarck. There is a theory amongst some historians that if he hadn’t died so quickly from throat cancer, the course of German history would not have led inexorably to the two world wars of the twentieth century. It is a disturbing thought that one man’s tragic early death cost the continent of Europe so much.
Charlottenburg Palace did not remain unscathed by the bombing of Berlin in the last years of World War 2. It was badly damaged, just as much as its sister palace in the centre of Berlin. Luckily for us it did not suffer the same fate as the City Palace. It was slowly and carefully rebuilt to its former grandeur. In 2018 it is beautifully restored with its rooms crammed full of the decorative art of the last two centuries. It is well worth a visit, particularly when at the end of the tour, you can then stroll or bike-ride around the lake as well as the spectacular landscaped gardens behind the palace.