Viktoriapark in Kreuzberg is the perfect choice for a sunny spring afternoon. This pretty park comes complete with an impressive historic monument, an artificial waterfall, fabulous 360° views from the top of the hill and a cool Biergarten. Who could ask for more? Few cities can compete with Berlin when it comes to green spaces and water. In fine weather, people flock to the Tiergarten and fill pleasure boats on the Spree. Or they head off to the outer edges, full of forests and awash with lakes. But why get caught up in the crowds or leave the city centre when there is a green hill, not so far away?
The park in summer
Viktoriapark’s history is fascinating. In 1821, on a hill known for its vineyards and originally called the ‘Tempelhof Berg’ or ‘Runder Berg’, the great architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel unveiled his national monument to commemorate the Wars of Liberation. Schinkel’s neo-gothic cast-iron edifice consists of a 20-metre high column, adorned with twelve statues symbolising the twelve major battles against Napoleon and topped by a huge iron cross. It was commissioned by King Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia who instituted the award of the Iron Cross in 1813. In 1821 the hill was duly renamed the ‘Kreuzberg’ (Cross Hill).
Cast-iron statues around the monument
In 1878, the monument was made even more impressive by being elevated on to a massive granite and sandstone base. It was around this time that the land on the slopes of the hill was laid out as a public park and named after Princess Victoria, Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter and wife of the future Kaiser Friedrich III.
The monument seen from its base
Then, ten years later, Berlin’s Director of City Parks decided to give the park a mountain-like character by adding a 24-metre high waterfall, a miniature replica of the Wodospad Podgórnej waterfall in Poland, once a popular tourist destination for wealthy Berliners. As there isn’t a natural source of water on the Kreuzberg itself, water is pumped up the hill to feed the waterfall and the water circulation is now 13,000 litres per minute. The cascade over the rocks is an amazing sight and remains a big attraction.
Admiring the waterfall from above
Greater Berlin was formed in 1920 by merging Berlin’s suburbs into 20 boroughs and Viktoriapark found itself in ‘Hallesches Tor’. Only a year later, this borough was renamed Kreuzberg after its illustrious hill and now it is one of the most multi-cultural and liveliest areas of Berlin, known for its cafés, bars and nightlife. The fireworks in Viktoriapark on New Year’s Eve and the May Day street fairs all add to Kreuzberg’s explosive colour.
Artist’s impression of colourful Kreuzberg (Martin Schwartz)
But last week in Viktoriapark, I felt a million miles away from any urban vibes. We had taken the U-Bahn to Mehringdamm, then turned right into busy Yorckstrasse. We paused for a few moments of peace in the wonderfully-restored Sankt Bonifatius Church and then strolled through the calm courtyards of Riehmer’s Hofgarten towards Viktoriapark. We were already in another world.
The entrance to Riehmer’s Hofgarten
Viktoriapark was a haven of budding trees and birdsong. We climbed the winding path up to the monument and noticed several people walking or sitting among the rocks by the waterfall. Once at the top, the view across the city is fabulous. You might not see the Brandenburg Gate, but there are plenty of other landmarks to pick out, including Potsdamer Platz and Tempelhof Airport.
The Fernsehturm, seen through the spires of Sankt Bonifatius
When we’d soaked up enough afternoon sun and read every inscription on the 12-sided spire, we wandered down the grassy slopes to the legendary Golgatha Biergarten at the back of the park. Only a few tables and benches were occupied and the large sandy playgrounds were relatively empty.
One of several large playparks
In summer, it’s a very different picture. As the temperature rises, the atmosphere in Viktoriapark heats up too. The open spaces are packed with sunbathers, picnickers and musicians, and dogs and children frolic about in the waterfall. Watching the sunset from the steps around the monument is a must and Golgatha’s opening hours are from 9.00 am for breakfast until ‘Open End’.
Golgatha in early Spring
Although we didn’t come across it, there is apparently still a small vineyard in Viktoriapark which produces ‘Kreuz-Neuroberger’ wine. It was founded in 1968 when the vines were donated to the Borough of Kreuzberg by the town of Wiesbaden. Only about 300 bottles are pressed each year and they are mostly used as ‘prestigious gifts’ presented on special occasions. But I have heard that a 10 euro donation at the ‘district office’ will get you at a half-bottle. I will be following this up on my next visit to Kreuzberg. In the meantime you can find an interesting feature on the vineyards of Berlin by following this link.
If you look at a map of Berlin, the district of Moabit is pretty central. In the aerial photo below it takes up most of the top right-hand corner. You can clearly see the Hauptbahnhof (main railway station) and the green areas of the two Moabit parks, the Geschichtspark and the Fritz-Schloß-Park, described in my last two posts.
But despite its relative proximity to the Brandenburg Gate, Moabit gets left behind in the Berlin neighbourhood popularity stakes. It is generally viewed as a poor, working class district with cheap rents and a large prison. When the city was divided, the Berlin Wall placed Moabit on the very edge of West Berlin, leaving it rather neglected.
This map of Berlin shows the Berlin Wall and Lehrter Station in Moabit, now replaced by the Hauptbahnhof
Surrounded on all sides by the waters of the river Spree, the Westhafen Canal and the Berlin-Spandau Navigation Canal, Moabit is still technically an island. But since the fall of the Berlin wall, Moabit is no longer a border town between east and west and there has been substantial construction of new government buildings as well as the Berlin Hauptbahnhof. Moabit has been incorporated into Berlin-Mitte and things are beginning to look up.
Modern Moabit – on the Spree
The name ‘Moabit’ may be traced back to 1716 when the French Huguenots came to Berlin in the time of King Frederick William I of Prussia and settled in ‘Alt-Moabit’ (Old Moabit). These Protestant refugees are supposed to have called their new homeland after the biblical Kingdom of Moab. Another possible of origin of the word may be from ‘Moorjebiet’ which in Berlin dialect means ‘swamp area’. At any rate, it was poor wasteland until industrialisation followed in 1820. (You can read the full history on the Wikipedia website). For many visitors to Berlin, their first taste of Moabit is from the windows of a 109 or TXL bus which whisks them along Turmstrasse into the city centre from Tegel Airport. It is a multi-cultural scene with an abundance of Turkish and Arab-speaking shops, cafés and markets.
A short walk from the Turmstraße U-Bahn station is the fabulous Arminius Markthalle, a beautiful market hall from the 1980s, where you can eat good food and buy fresh produce and crafts. There is a bar inside that brews its own beer and a stall with the best fish and chips in Berlin. The Markthalle even hosts films, and live music and theatre.
Another ‘big name’ street in Moabit is Lehrterstrasse. It’s a short walk from the Hauptbahnhof or take the M27 bus to Quitzowstrasse. This street has a real ‘Kiez’ (neighbourhood) identity and has earned the local nickname ‘billige Prachtstrasse’ – ‘cheap Grand Boulevard’. Some of the buildings are magnificent, but have seen much better days
The ‘Kulturfabrik’- ‘Culture Factory’ is downright shabby, but exudes its own unique energy. Built in 1911, it was originally a meat factory, a biscuit factory and a home for many other industrial uses. Between 1976 and 1991 it lay vacant and neglected and was taken over by squatters. After reunification the Kulturfabrik Moabit was born. Artists, locals and students together founded a co-operative of non-profit clubs or associations including the Fabriktheater (alternative theatre), the Filmrauschpalast (an art house cinema which also runs an Open Air programme in summer), the Slaughterhouse Club (rock, punk and gothic and wave music concerts) and the Kunsthalle Moabit (an art gallery which existed until 1996).
There are a couple of restaurants along Lehrterstrasse worth crossing town for. Mediteranneo is an Italian place, very popular with locals. It opens from 4pm until midnight. I also love the friendly, retro atmosphere of Kapitel 21. This café-bar opened in 2012. It offers a gallery space and brings in an assortment of live bands, theatre, poetry, book readings and more. Kapitel 21 is somewhere special and officially opens from 5pm until very late. If you’re lucky you might catch coffee or one of their amazing juices the following morning.
For a chilled brunch, lunch or supper, head for Birkenstrasse. The U-Bahn station of the same name on line U9 will bring you out right on top of three of four good café bars. I have two favourites – both serving good food and drink at very reasonable prices and with tables outside. The iconic ‘Dicker Engel’ – with the eponymous ‘Fat Angel’ hanging comically from the ceiling – is best for traditional German specialities. ‘Arema’ on the other side of the street has a more eco feel and is well-known for its ‘Maultaschen’ (South German style ravioli).
For a really special evening meal try Grünfisch at 26, Gräfestrasse, in Kreuzberg. It is one of those wonderful restaurants hidden away in a big city, but so good that everyone would love to find it. Grünfisch has been going for several years and has built up a considerable reputation among Berlin food-lovers. The joint owners, Dang Vu Pham, originally from Vietnam and his partner, Giovanni di Liberto, from Sicily, started with a small 22 seat restaurant. As word spread and they grew bigger, they moved premises several times, eventually arriving in this leafy urban neighbourhood in 2012.
Grünfisch originally served just fish – hence the name. But why green? Apparently Fengshui says that green creatures with their harmonious colour bring happiness and luck. And that’s the way these two chefs create their dishes – to please both themselves and their guests. The food can be described as modern Italian with an Asian twist and it is both expertly prepared and served, along with a very good selection of wines.
The interior is tastefully decorated and the pavement terrace is equally inviting. The menu changes daily according to what is available and in season and many ingredients are sourced Sicily. You can always be sure of some fabulous seafood, fish, meat and pasta dishes (average ‘menu’ price for three courses is €27).
Grünfisch is open from 6pm-12pm daily, except Sundays. It’s best to make a reservation (030 -6162 1252) and the nearest U-Bahn stations are Südstern and Schönleinstraße, each about a 10 minute walk. Or start the evening with a stroll along the Landwehrkanal, admire the sunset from the Admiralbrücke and then make your way through the Gräfekiez (the name of this great local neighbourhood) to the Grünfisch.
Berlin’s vitality is best discovered in one of its Small Worlds (described in some detail in ‘Berlin Unwrapped’). The word often used to describe one of these city neighbourhoods is a ‘Kiez’. It implies an area with positive vibes, where local inhabitants get together and conjures up an image of pre-war buildings and a lively scene with plenty of culture, pubs and clubs. If it’s especially arty, it might get the tag ‘Kunstkiez’, which I recently saw translated into English as ‘Art’hood’ . One Kiez that really comes to life in summer is the ‘Rheingauviertel’, centred around Rüdesheimer Platz in Wilmersdorf (directly outside U-Bahn Rüdesheimer Platz). This square was built in the first decade of the 20th century and named after the town of Rüdesheim am Rhein in Hessen, famous for its Rheingau wines. Many of the surrounding streets are also named after towns in the Rheingau region and Rheingau wine is served from May until the end of September.(more…)