Spendid Schloessernacht, when Potsdam’s baroque past comes back to live

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Fireworks are showering the night sky with bejewelled rain and illuminating the splendour of 18th century palaces and colonnades, the baroque backdrop to one of the most spectacular outdoor classical concerts you could ever experience.

The orchestra, Britain’s Royal Philharmonic, storms through its programme of Tschaikowsky and Elgar under the direction of Michael Francis. It reaches its crescendo with spine-tingling renditions of Land Of Hope And Glory and Rule Britannia and an audience of Germans breaks into rapturous applause.

If that is not surreal enough, then bear in mind we are sitting in a park set in the former German Democratic Republic, a place the majority of this audience would not have been able to set foot inside until the reunification in 1989.

And we are just yards from the very room where Kaiser Wilhelm II, the last German Emperor and King of Prussia, signed the Mobilisation of the German Armies in 1914, the document that effectively started World War I. His desk at the New Palace is right behind our seats in the moonlit Sanssouci Park in Potsdam.

In this, the posher sister of Berlin to which centuries of Germans have flocked for a dose of culture and history, history is omnipresent. But every August, it lives. The entire park, a UNESCO World Heritage site, stages Schloessernacht, the Night of the Palaces, and the population of Potsdam travel back in time to the days of the 18th century Prussian kings.

This celebration of Baroque splendour, now in its 16th year, sees the park and its palaces brought back to life. We wandered down moonlit pathways between the orangery, the Roman baths and the New Palace, beckoned on by artfully-lit statues and the blaze of palace chandeliers, passing singers, actors and musicians in historical costume entertaining at 36 magical venues around the park.

Visitors dress accordingly; cue women in swaying crinolines lining up at Frankfurter stands and gents in tailcoats, breeches and curled wigs necked bottles of German beer.

Schloessernacht is a magical experience, but don’t stay out too late; there’s so much to see in Potsdam by day. We went back to the palace rooms with Sebastian Stielke, an actor who works as a tour guide between roles (kontakt@sebastianstielke.de). I suspect he would have preferred to take us to the city’s own Hollywood, the Babelsberg studios, where the world’s biggest movie stars have filmed for over a century - from Marlene Dietrich to Brad Pitt, George Clooney and currently, Tom Hanks - or to the oldest museum of film in Germany, just across the road from our hotel, the Mercure, a 1969 towerblock but comfortable, well-placed and boasting a great restaurant.

We marvelled at the impossibly lavish baroque interiors of three glittering golden palaces and saw the bedchambers of kings. But contemporary history was written in Postdam, too. Sebastian took us a short tram ride (public transport runs like clockwork and a dayticket ABC costs only7,20 EUR) to the famous Bridge of Spies the Glienicker, and the Lindenstrasse Memorial site in the former Stasi Prison, chilling reminders of the oppressive regime which once forced Germany apart.