Potsdam is the capital and crown jewel of the Federal State of Brandenburg. Renowned for its exquisite baroque architecture, beautiful Prussian royal palaces and gardens, in 1990 it was awarded UNESCO World Heritage City status. Wartime destruction and the lack of funds during the bleak GDR years left terrible scars on the city centre, but since reunification it has undergone a massive programme of reconstruction and now positively gleams in its new grandeur and glory.Only a 22-minute train journey from Berlin main railway station, Potsdam is not only a great lure for visitors, but has become one of the most sought-after residential addresses in Germany.
Panoramic view of Potsdam in 1871
In January, Potsdam gained yet another fabulous attraction – the Museum Barberini, a museum inside a palace. The ‘Palais Barberini’ was originally built by the Prussian King, Frederick the Great in 1771/1772 next to the Stadtschloss (Potsdam City Palace) and modelled on the Palazzo Barberini in Rome. Destroyed in a bombing raid in 1945, it has now been reconstructed as a museum by the Hasso Plattner Foundation. At the official opening, its creator, media magnate Hasso Plattner, a co-founder of the multinational software company SAP, described the Museum Barberini as his gift to the city and “one of the most important things” he had done in his life. Plattner is a member of ‘The Giving Pledge’, a group of billionaire philanthropists who promise to give half their wealth to charity during their lifetime or in a will.
Queues of visitors outside the Museum Barberini
Plattner’s assets are estimated at $9.8 billion and his substantial private art collection will form the core of exhibitions. The museum’s first exhibition, for example, showcases Edvard Munch’s ‘Girls on the Bridge’ which Plattner is said to have bought at Sotheby’s last November for $54.5 million.
‘The Girls on the Bridge’
His social circle is sufficiently elevated that both Angela Merkel and Bill Gates attended the museum opening. Frau Merkel reportedly declared the museum to be “breathtaking”. Plattner has now been made an honorary citizen of Potsdam, a title he shares with Berlin luminaries such as landscape gardener Peter Joseph Lenné, naturalist Alexander von Humboldt and President Paul von Hindenburg.
Hasso Plattner with Angela Merkel
The opening of the Museum Barberini marks the end of years of strife. There were disputes over everything – from what Plattner was allowed to exhibit to where the museum should be built, and the project nearly foundered on several occasions. But Potsdam’s Barberini has finally been reincarnated on its original site and completes the historic rebuilding of the fabulous Alter Markt square, which also includes the Parliament building for the State of Brandenburg. The cost of reconstructing the historic façade of the Palais Barberini and creating its modern, airy interior is estimated to have been more than €60 million. For further details, follow this link to a recent article in The Economist.
The reconstructed Alter Markt Square
(photo by Konstantindegeer, March 2016)
I paid my first visit to the Museum Barberini a couple of weeks ago and adored it. The beautiful exterior architecture speaks for itself and the three state-of-the-art exhibition floors are light and crisp, with 7-metre high ceilings and fabulous views from large windows. In the summer the building’s regal position on the waterfront of the River Havel will undoubtedly be a great attraction in itself.
The debut exhibitions at the Barberini Museum are ‘Modern Art Classics: Liebermann, Munch, Nolde, Kandinsky’, and ‘Impressionism: The Art of Landscape’, featuring works by Monet, Manet, Renoir, Sisley, Pissarro and Caillebotte, among others. Both of them are perfectly curated and carefully themed. Most of the works are labelled ‘private collection’, although there are some on loan from major art galleries around the world. It is not clear how many of the paintings actually belong to Plattner himself.
‘Liebermann versus Nolde’
Impressionist seascape and snowscape
Apart from the two major exhibitions, other attractions include a display of Rodin sculptures loaned by the Musée Rodin in Paris and on the top floor the museum features an auditorium with a ‘smart wall’ where visitors can forensically examine most of the collection’s paintings, which have been reproduced in high resolution images. Just as interesting are the contents of the gallery next to auditorium, telling the fascinating history of the Potsdam Barberini Palace. After its illustrious beginnings under Frederick the Great, by the time of its destruction in 1945, it was being used as a youth hostel, public library and registry office.
Rodins in the Lelbach Gallerty
English speakers are well catered for in the Barberini Museum. All the information, including the large panels and the useful descriptions of individual works, is given in both English and German. Headphones are available at €2 or the Barberini App can be downloaded free. The Museum is open from Wednesday to Monday from 11am to 7pm, as well as on the first Tuesday of each month until 9pm. Admission is €14. Forthcoming exhibitions include ‘From Hopper to Rothko: America’s road to Modern Art’ (3 June until 3 October) and ‘Behind the Mask: Artists in the GDR’ (28 October until 11 February 2018). I would recommend booking online in advance as this museum is proving hugely popular. The excellent café on the ground floor is doing a roaring trade too.
Most visitors to Berlin associate Tegel with the name of the main airport. But for Berliners themselves, it has always been an area on the north-west outskirts of their city famed for its beautiful lake and dense forests. In 1793, a vicar who fancied himself as a poet coined a phrase still used by Berliners today – ‘mit Kind und Kegel raus nach Tegel’, an encouragement to make an outing to Tegel ‘with the family and a ball’. In those days the journey from the city centre might have taken a couple of hours by farm cart, now the U-Bahn Line 6 gets you to Alt-Tegel from Friedrichstraβe in about 20 minutes.
Coming in to land at Tegel Airport
The attraction of plenty of space and fresh air is the same over two centuries later, even though Tegel is much more built-up. The glorious scenery around the lake probably hasn’t altered much and there are still endless possibilities for walks and boat trips. In summer, there is also an official lakeside beach with water slides, a diving platform and café – a great alternative to Wannsee. But now is one of the best times of the year to head out to Tegel; the leaves are changing colour and there is usually plenty of warmth left in the early autumn sunshine. Last Monday, I was especially lucky with a temperature of 25°C, a clear blue sky and only a light breeze.
Strandbad Tegel in late September
I arrived at Alt-Tegel U-Bahn station and walked down the cobbled, tree-lined high street called Alt-Tegel towards the lake. It leads past cafés and ice-cream parlours, the old village clustered around the church and then on to the impressive Greenwich Promenade. Here colourful flower beds, a British red telephone kiosk and old street lamps create an English seaside atmosphere reminiscent of Worthing. The stunning vista of the Tegeler See (Lake Tegel) combined with a series of jetties advertising a variety of boat trips proved irresistible.
The ‘Havel Queen’ on Greenwich Promenade
The British touch
I decided on a two-hour boat trip northwards to Nieder Neuendorf and back. This covered the Tegeler See itself and a stretch of the Havel River in the former GDR, outside the boundaries of Berlin and where I had previously never ventured. It was a magical mystery tour. The ‘Havel Queen’ made its way regally through calm waters, past islands and forest edges interspersed with small marinas and lakeside settlements. It was useful to have a walking map of Berlin and its surroundings in order to follow the boat’s route. There was occasional commentary in German, but not enough to disturb the peace and the top deck was only half-full. Friendly waiters were on hand to supply drinks and snacks, but it was all pleasantly low-key.
Waterside scenes – including a former border watchtower
Back at the Greenwich Promenade my next destination was Schloss Tegel, the ‘palace’ where Wilhelm and Alexander von Humboldt spent much of their time in Berlin and which is still lived in by Wilhelm’s descendants – many Berliners now refer to it as the ‘Humboldtschloss’. It is only open on Mondays, from May to September and entrance is with a guided tour. I decided that I would go for the 4pm slot – the last tour of the year. I crossed the Sechserbrücke, a former toll bridge, at the north end of the promenade, continued along quiet suburban streets and turned up at Schloss Tegel just as the guide was dispatching the previous group of about 20 visitors. I couldn’t believe my luck when I discovered that I was the sole visitor for the final tour.
The front of Schloss Tegel
The brilliant von Humboldt brothers are famed throughout Germany. Wilhelm (1767-1835) was a Prussian minister, philosopher and linguist who founded the first University in Berlin and Alexander (1769-1859) was a geographer, naturalist, explorer and influential proponent of Romantic philosophy and science. In September 2019 the Humboldt Forum is due to opens its doors to the public. This exciting, large-scale museum project, named after Alexander von Humboldt, will be a world centre for culture. It is currently under construction on the site of the Berliner Stadtschloss, the former Prussian and Imperial royal palace, demolished in 1950 after being damaged by bombing in World War II, and later the East German Palast der Republik, demolished in 2008. The inaugural Artistic Director of the Humboldt Forum is Neil Macgregor, formerly Director of the British Museum in London. For current webcam progress on the construction of the Humboldtforum follow this link.
Statue of Alexander von Humboldt in front of the University
To get the full impact of a visit to Schloss Tegel, I would recommend first reading ‘The Invention of Nature’, a recent illustrated biography of Alexander von Humboldt by Andrea Wulf and winner of many awards. It is a treasury of information and takes you into the universe of Alexander’s mind which connected all aspects of nature. Alexander von Humboldt was the first proponent of ‘environmentalism’ and was a huge influence on Darwin. This book also gives you details of Wilhelm’s life and both brothers’ relationship with Schloss Tegel, surrounded by ancient forests and meadows.
Schloss Tegel has been in the Humboldt family since the mid-18th Century. It was originally a country manor for the Elector of Brandenburg and was given its present appearance in the early-1820s when Wilhelm had it enlarged on classical lines by the famous Prussian architect, Friedrich Schinkel. Wilhelm had been Prussian Ambassador in Rome and developed a taste for all things classical, so the building is not only classical in style but the rooms open to the public are full of Roman and Greek statues and reliefs. The entrance is designed as an old Roman atrium complete with a central fountain that Wilhelm and his cultured wife Caroline brought back with them from Rome.
Although all the paintings from Schloss Tegel were removed for safe keeping during the war, they were confiscated by the Soviets and have never been returned. Much of the furniture is still original though and most of the statues, together with the building’s inventory, found their way back to the GDR in the late-1950s so that the family has been able to recreate the building essentially as it was when Wilhelm and Caroline lived there.
When Wilhelm died, Schloss Tegel was passed on to their two daughters and their sons inherited larger von Humboldt properties elsewhere. The elder daughter, Adelheid, died childless and the family name is now von Bülow, after the husband of Gabriele, the younger daughter. The von Bülows who currently live in Schloss Tegel often give guided tours of their home themselves. However, as they were away from Berlin this week, my tour guide was an art historian whose knowledge of the building’s history and its contents was remarkable. Knowing I was especially interested in the adventures of Alexander, he took down one of Alexander von Humboldt’s large original atlases from the library shelves and showed me some of the beautifully illustrated pages. It is not permitted to take photographs of the interior of Schloss Tegel, but I have included some pictures from the booklet giving the history of the house and was able to take a shot out of a first floor window which captures the Arcadian setting.
The library, the staircase and the blue salon
After the tour, I explored the grounds in the late afternoon sunshine. It is only a ten-minute stroll down to the peaceful family cemetery on the edge of the forest. Here is the memorial Wilhelm erected to his wife and the graves of both brothers and many of Wilhelm’s descendants – Alexander never married.
View from the first floor window
The cemetery in the forest
From the cemetery, it’s worth continuing a little further into the forest to see the 900-year old oak tree, ‘DIcke Marie’, reputedly the oldest tree in Berlin. It was given its name of ‘fat Mary’ by the Humboldt brothers as children, comparing it to their well-loved cook at the Schloss.
There are some spectacularly tall trees in the forests of Tegel. If it’s too cold to be on the water, try the walk described in Berlin Unwrapped (Page 101) which takes you through the forest from Alt-Heiligensee to Alt-Tegel. My latest discovery for excellent Kaffee und Kuchen at the end of the day is Café Wetterstein in Alt-Tegel with its wooden rafters and candlelight.
Stations at the end of the line always have a magnetic attraction.Traveling westwards on the Berlin underground (U- Bahn- Linie 7), trains have ‘Rathaus Spandau’ (Spandau Town Hall) as their destination. If you haven’t yet ventured to the end of this line, I can promise it will be worth the journey. Spandau is the furthest west and the fourth largest of the twelve Berlin boroughs. It is steeped in history and swathes of river, lakes and forest account for 40% of its area.
Aerial view of Spandau’s historic town centre
This blog concentrates on the Altstadt (Old Town), clustered around the imposing Rathaus (Town Hall) and the 14th Century St Nikolai church. From here, Spandau spreads out into many newer neighbourhoods and surburbs, some of them on the edge of the forest. But the borough’s real gem is the Spandauer Zitadelle (Citadel), one of the best-preserved Renaissance forts in Europe. Parts of it go back to the 13th Century and its ancient tower, the ‘Juliusturm’ has wonderful views across the River Havel.
When I lived in Spandau in the mid-1980s, there was some bold white graffiti painted across the railway bridge connecting Spandau to West Berlin, ‘Es war schon immer etwas Besonderes, ein Spandauer zu sein’, which translated into English means, ‘It has always been something special to be a Spandauer’. The pride of Spandauers in their birthplace is well-known in Berlin and has even been compared to the nationalistic fervour of the Bavarians, who see themselves as separate from the rest of Germany.In the latter part of the 19th Century, large industrial concerns, including Siemens, brought wealth to Spandau. By 1913, when the new Rathaus was built, Spandau was an extremely prosperous town.
Spandau Rathaus in 1913
Then, at the end of the First World War, there were boundary changes in Prussia and – against the will of many of its citizens – Spandau voted to become the eighth borough of the newly-formed Greater Berlin. Even now, despite being an integral part of Berlin since 1920, people still talk of ‘going to Berlin’ if they visit the city centre, and going ‘into town’ if they are referring to Spandau. Ernst Reuter, the first Mayor of post-war West Berlin, once said that his city had 11 boroughs and one republic, called Spandau.
The Berlin boroughs today
So what makes Spandau so special? First, it has ancient roots. In fact, it’s five years older than Berlin to which it eventually lost its independence. Officially founded in 1232, archaeological finds have proved that it was an important settlement on the route from the west towards Prussia and Poland long before then. The town grew up around the points where the River Havel meets the River Spree and was a military stronghold, often referred to as the ‘Soldiers’ Town’ and it still retains these associations. People used to connect Spandau with its military prison, built in 1876 and demolished in 1987 after the death of its last inmate, Hitler’s Deputy, Rudolf Hess, who was incarcerated there for 45 years. And ‘Spandau Ballet’, the English band, was accidentally named after the ghoulish slang used by Allied troops in the trenches in the First World War, which referred to the Spandau machine gun fire from the German lines.
Changing the guard at Spandau Prison, 1951
But today, these grim memories of war have largely faded and the pretty Altstadt of Spandau attracts large numbers of visitors. It covers an area bounded by the Rivel Havel and the Mühlengraben (Millrace) and still contains the original criss-cross formation of cobbled streets with a large open market place (where the Spandau Christmas market is held) and pretty timbered houses, such as the ‘Wendenschloß’ in Jüdenstraße which dates back to 1700. The stone-built ‘Gotisches Haus’ in Breite Straße was constructed at the end of the 15th Century and houses the Spandau Tourist Information Centre and a small museum. It’s well worth strolling around the old streets and along Lindenufer, on the banks of the River Havel.
The main Church of St Nikolai on the Reformationsplatz was built in the 14th Century. The first Protestant communion service in Brandenburg was apparently held here after the Reformation in 1539. Inside the church are a Renaissance altar and the vault of the family of the Duke of Lynar, one of the master masons who built the Zitadelle. Outside is a statue of Archduke Joachim II and a war memorial designed by the illustrious Prussian architect, Friedrich Schinkel, dedicated to Spandauers who died in the Wars of Liberation. The St Nikolai Church has had a significant role to play in recent history too. During the Third Reich, it was one of the centres of the ‘Bekennende Kirche’ (Confessing Church), which offered resistance to the Nazi reign of terror.
St Nikolai Kirche
But historically speaking, it is the Zitadelle which takes price of place in the Spandauer’s hearts and makes Spandau such a special part of Berlin. I went back there twice recently, for the first time in many years; once on a rainy April day and then again in glorious June sunshine. There is a U-Bahn station called ‘Spandauer Zitadelle’ but I would recommend continuing to Rathaus Spandau and then walking through the Altstadt to the Zitadelle to get a feel for the town. The U-Bahn only takes 30 minutes from the city centre or you can take the S-Bahn which is even faster. These links didn’t exist when I first moved to Spandau. The Spandau underground stations weren’t built until1984 and the S-Bahn station reopened after the fall of the Berlin Wall when the city rail network was reunified.
Map of Spandau, showing the stations
On our April visit, we headed straight for the Rathaus and looked around its imperious entrance hall, for old times’ sake. Then we walked through pedestrianised area of the Altstadt, where very little seemed to have changed. This is in stark contrast to the new shopping malls that have sprung up on the other side of the railway lines. We stopped for coffee at the well-named ‘Satt und Selig’ (‘well-fed and blessed’) opposite the church, and noticed that the locals had already moved on to beer and schnapps with their breakfast. The Spandauers have always known how to enjoy themselves.
‘Satt und Selig’ on Reformationsplatz
Continuing across the main road ‘Am Juliusturm’, into the cobbled streets of Kolk, we walked down to the Spandau lock, below the Zitadelle across the Havel. There are more pretty timbered houses in this small enclave, which is the oldest part of the Altstadt and you can see the remains of the original 14th Century town wall in Viktoria Ufer and Hoher Steinweg. There are a couple of good traditional German restaurants here too; the Spandauer Zollhaus restaurant on Möllentordamm and the Brauhaus on Neuendorfer Straße which has large beer gardens and boasts 13 different house beers.
Images of ancient Kolk
From Kolk, it was only a short walk along the road bridge to the Zitadelle and its impressive entrance across the moat. We were immediately greeted by scenes of a wedding group enjoying the photo opportunity of the stunning surroundings and saw no fewer than four wedding parties that morning in the Zitadelle grounds.
One of the happy couples..
Once inside the Zitadelle, there are plenty of attractions on offer. You can wander around the ramparts and climb the 32-metre high Juliusturm, with great views of the moat and Spandau town, as well as the forests to the west, once divided by the Wall between West Berlin and the GDR.
View of the moat from the Juliusturm
There are also two large exhibition halls; one with armaments including cannons from the early days to the large field guns used until recent times, and the other displaying the various trades and businesses from around Spandau. But for me, it was the museum in the former Commander’s House which held most interest. It tells the story of the Zitadelle from its 13th Century beginnings to the present day and has a wealth of fascinating models and exhibits. The large information boards are in English as well as German and each chapter is absorbing.
Model of the original fort
An impressive display of military helmets
During the Second World War, Spandau was heavily bombed because of its military and industrial importance. It also suffered terribly during the Russian attack with fierce fighting around the Rathaus and the Charlottenbrücke. A small group of leading Spandauers, including civilians, managed to defend the Zitadelle for a few days and hold out against the besieging Russian tanks. Then, in the years that followed, when Spandau had to rebuild so much of its infrastructure, it became part of the British Sector of West Berlin and contained the main British garrison. Relations between the British and Spandauers were always very friendly – another reason that makes Spandau so special. It has also had close links with its partner towns of Luton, England and Asnière-sur-Seine, France, since 1959.
We rounded off our April visit to Spandau with lunch in the ‘Zitadelle Schänke’ located in the cellars of the fortress. The rain had started to fall quite heavily, so we were very happy to be under the medieval vaulted ceiling and ordered some Alt-Spandau fare of Boulette (meatballs), Kartoffelsalat (potato salad) and mead. The Spandau service was as friendly as ever and, as added entertainment, we were treated to the arrival of a wedding party, led by a lute-playing court jester.
A medieval meal
Outside the Zitadelle Schänke
More about Spandau follows in the next blog. It will feature the must-see new exhibition, ‘Unveiled. Berlin and its monuments’, which opened in the Old Barracks of the Zitadelle on 29th April and runs until the end of 2019.
Some restaurant experiences are simply perfect. If you love Japanese food and fancy a real treat, it’s well worth taking a trip out to ‘Kumami’ in Köpenick. This small restaurant with creative flair only opened a few months ago, and remains an insider tip. A Japanese friend took a party of us there last week and we enjoyed a fabulous four-course meal that will linger long in the memory.
Creative cuisine – by Kuma Kenta
All the food was prepared and served by the charming owner, Kuma Kenta, who was also responsible for the slick design of the surroundings. An architect and restaurant designer, he came to Berlin from Kyoto five years ago with his wife Kumi. Together they later founded ‘Kumami’, a fusion of their names. We sat on bar stools at a long chunky wooden table with a rivulet of walnuts and corks curving down the centre. High above us hung a myriad of small plastic bags of water resembling crystals, dancing in the twilight. The walls were raw brick or plaster – unadorned, except for one grouping of line drawings in the entrance. Elemental would best describe the ambience. One sprig of cherry blossom was enough to symbolise the fleeting nature of life.
Bearing this in mind, we ordered the set menu at 45 Euros but you can also eat à la carte. The menu changes daily and, on this evening, our four courses were preceded by an amuse-bouche featuring home-made bread as light as air. Then followed crabmeat with saffron, salmon sashimi on rice topped with trout caviar, fillets of sea bass in a salt crush and finally a pyramid of rare sliced duck smoked and served in a glass bell. Gluten-free alternatives were also provided. Desserts were a choice of a light green tea crème brûlée or liqueur chocolate mousse. It all tasted heavenly and each dish was a work of art – you can find photos to whet your appetite on the Kumami website and Kuma Kenta’s instagram pages here.
Delicate Wolfbarsch (sea bass)
The wine list at ‘Kumami’ is entirely German; consisting of dry white wines by the glass or by the bottle. Most regions are represented in the generous selection, but there’s a marked preference for the ‘Pfalz’, where the vineyards and orchards spread across an idyllic, gentle landscape bordering on the French wine-growing region of Alsace. I have great affection for this area of Germany and imagine that it is somehow reminiscent of the fields of cherry trees in Japan. Once you have been transported to the land of the rising sun by the ‘Kumami’ experience, you may like to finish the evening with a Japanese whiskey.
To ensure a seat at the magical ‘Kumami’ table, make your reservation in advance by email or by telephone. Contact details can be found on the restaurant’s website by following this link. ‘Kumami’ is a very unassuming little place from the outside, down a pretty side street of Alt-Köpenick. It’s less than 30 minutes from Alexanderplatz to Köpenick by S-Bahn (change at Ostkreuz) and then a short tram ride to the Rathaus where Kietzer Straße is just around the corner. Kumami is open in the evenings only from 6pm until 10pm and closed on Monday and Tuesday. I would recommend combining a visit with a stroll around beautiful Köpenick first. My book ‘Berlin Unwrapped’ has all the details in the Outer Edges chapter, pages 103-104.
An aerial view of Alt-Köpenick
If you have an urge to eat Japanese food in Berlin and can’t make the trip to Köpenick, there are plenty of Japanese restaurants in the city centre – you only have to check the internet. At the high end, both the Adlon and the Hyatt hotels are famed for their Asian cuisine. But there are smaller sushi places on nearly every corner. Look out for signs that say ‘Frittiertes Sushi’ (fried Sushi). So unauthentic, so Berlin and sometimes surprisingly good. ‘Genki Sushi’ is a great place to give it a go. You can find it at 22, Wilmersdorfer Straße, Charlottenburg.
Sushi platters at Genki Sushi
To close on a seasonal Japanese note, now is the time to see the cherry trees in blossom in the Berlin Botanischer Garten. They are a wondrous sight.
It’s surprising how few tourists venture on to the waterways of East Berlin and beyond. And yet they are so easily accessible. Last week I took a boat trip from Köpenick to Woltersdorf and escaped from the unbearable heat of the city centre to paradise. It was a Monday, so probably quieter than usual, but on such a hot day when most museums are closed, I expected far more activity. Instead the lakes, the forests and pretty backwaters seemed exclusively ours.
Planning the boat trip
It was a 30 minute journey on the S-Bahn from Alexanderplatz to Köpenick (including changing at Ostkreuz) and then 5 minutes on the tram to the waiting boat. There are several companies operating tours on and around the Müggelsee, which is Berlin’s largest lake and measures four and a half kilometres by two and a half kilometres. We chose the Reederei Kutzker and boarded a boat which left the Lindenstrasse pier in Köpenick at 10 in the morning. At this point we were actually on the River Spree (here called the ‘Müggelspree’) which flows into the Müggelsee and out the other side.
Aerial view of the Müggelsee
There are some wonderful walks all around the Müggelsee, but we were feeling lazy and simply wanted to be out on the water in the breeze. We spent over two hours on board, just watching the world go by. There was plenty to see and hear about en route, including some interesting buildings. At the beginning of our tour we had good views of Köpenick and Friedrichshagen, both historic towns worthy of a day trip in their own right. They are described in some detail in ‘The Outer Edges’ of Berlin Unwrapped.
The ‘White Villa’ by the brewery in Friedrichshagen
We stopped in Friedrichshagen to pick up a few more passengers and then headed out across the open waters of the lake towards Rahnsdorf. On the northern bank is the Museum im Wasserwerk (Waterworks Museum). This building dates back to 1893 and still supplies water to Berlin today. Visitors can tour the original preserved plant floor with its piston steam engines. There are three official ‘bathing stations’ around the lake, the largest being the Strandbad Müggelsee and the ‘east’s counterpart’ to the Wannsee Strandbad. But there are good lakeside picnic spots as well and places where you can hire all manner of small boats.
The historic waterworks
The southern bank of the Müggelsee is more densely forested and among the Müggelbergen, the hills which boast the highest point in Berlin, we could just catch a glimpse of the Müggelturm. This viewing tower, a construction dating back to GDR days and due for a facelift, affords panoramic views towards Berlin and across Brandenburg.
The Müggelturm viewing tower
Once across the lake we had reached Rahnsdorf, originally a small fishing settlement with cobblestone streets and old chestnut trees, which wraps itself in a horseshoe shape around the village church. Not far from the ferry landing stage is the home of the last professional fisherman in Köpenick. Every morning, Andreas Thamm sets out for Lake Müggelsee at about 5am. And on summer weekends he lights his smokehouse and sells his freshly-caught fish to the day-trippers.
Herr Thamm’s fish stall
Gliding along the Müggelspree past Rahnsdorf we had now reached the area of Neu Venedig (New Venice) a housing settlement of pretty waterside homes set amongst weeping willows on a maze of small artificial canals. No wonder Berlin can boast more bridges than Venice.
The good life in ‘New Venice’
All too soon we left the backwaters and found ourselves out on another lake – the Dämeritzsee where Berlin ends and Brandenburg begins. Its diameter is about one kilometre and at its south-eastern end is the Brandenburg town of Erkner, famous for its links with the German playwright Gerhard Hauptmann and the first town in East Germany to be granted ‘borough rights’ after Reunification. It is also the final destination of S-bahn line S3 and a starting point for several ‘Spreeland’ cycle and walking tours. Our boat trip led us along the ‘Falkenfließ’ a waterway which flows through Erkner and links the Dämeritzsee with the Falkensee. One of its downsides is the lingering smell of abandoned chemical works by the waters’ edge – but it made for some interesting industrial sights.
The approach by water to Erkner
Now we were on the open waters of lake Falkensee, towards our final destination of Woltersdorf. It was difficult to believe we were anywhere near a city – it felt a million miles away from concrete and clay, pavements and partying. In fact, I could have sat on the boat forever and continued into the deepest reaches of Spreeland. But we had booked a table for lunch and instead lingered a while in Woltersdorf. We meant to climb the observation tower above the town for a view of the Fernsehturm in Berlin, but it was too hot. Inside the tower there is even an exhibition “When Woltersdorf still was Hollywood“ which recalls the 1920s. Instead, we stood by the lock originally built in 1550, and contemplated the changes that had taken place over the past decades.
Lunch at the ‘Flakenseeterrassen’
It was time to return to Berlin and urban reality. We picked up the historic tram (dating back to 1913) in Woltersdorf and trundled through the woods to Rahnsdorf S Bahn station where the S3 whisked us back to Ostkreuz and then to Alexanderplatz. So close to civilisation and yet so far.
As if it were some kind of magic castle, Berlin is encircled by lakes and forests. Its outer edges offer endless possibilities for easy day trips. Just jump on the S-Bahn and in a matter of minutes you can be whisked out to sparkling waters and blankets of green. One of the most popular ways to escape the hustle and hype of the city centre is a day out in Wannsee. This lake-side area of south-west Berlin was once a small village with an inn where the king changed horses en route his palace in Potsdam. In 1870 Wilhelm Conrad, the director of the Berliner Handelsgesellschaft, bought the inn and the building land by the lake, then sold the plots to wealthy Berliners. Their grand villas formed the “Alsen Colony” (named after a battle against the Danes in 1864) and in 1872, the new Wannsee Railway opened as the first suburban route in Germany.
Map of Wannsee
Today this exclusive residential area remains sought-after by the rich and famous. In 2008 Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie rented the entire Palais Schlosspark while filming ‘Inglorious Bastards’. But there are two Wannsee lakeside villas which are open to the public. They are only a 30 minute train ride from central Berlin on the S1 or S7 S-Bahn to Wannsee Station, then ten minutes on bus 114. This leaves every 20 minutes opposite the station and takes you along ‘Am Großen Wannsee’ on the opposite side of the lake where both these villas are situated. The first is the Liebermann-Villa, the former summer residence of Impressionist painter Max Liebermann (1847-1935), President of the Prussian Academy of Arts until 1932 and one of the most influential public figures of his day. Liebermann spent every summer here from 1910 until 1935, surrounded by beautiful gardens which became the subject of many of his paintings. There is a permanent exhibition which features 154 of Liebermann’s works, the story of Liebermann’s life and the history of the villa and its gardens. The current temporary exhibition (until 15th August) brings together ‘Max Liebermann and Vincent Van Gogh’ and draws parallels between the work they produced in the Netherlands between 1882 and 1885.
The cottage garden at the front of the Liebermann-Villa
The Liebermann-Villa is a wonderfully light building and it is a sheer delight to walk around the grounds. There is an English-style cottage garden at the front of the villa and broad lawns, ornamental flower-beds and mature trees at the back, leading down to the waters of the Wannsee. In warm weather Café Max sets out tables outside on the terrace. Entrance to the Liebermann-Villa costs €8 in the summer and €6 in the winter months. It is closed on Tuesdays, so it is a perfect place to visit on a Monday when many Berlin museums are closed.
The view from the terrace
Max Liebermann died in 1935 at his house on Pariser Platz next to the Brandenburg Gate, ‘embittered and ostracized’ by the Nazis. He watched the Nazis marching past his window to celebrate their victory in 1933 and was reported to have commented: “Ich kann gar nicht soviel fressen, wie ich kotzen möchte.” (“I cannot eat as much, as I would like to puke”). After his death, the Nazis forced Liebermann’s widow, Martha, to leave the house on Pariser Platz and to sell the Wannsee Villa. In 1943 she committed suicide at age of 85 to avoid deportation.
A portrait of Martha Liebermann by her husband
Only a few minutes’ walk from the Liebermann-Villa, past a series of other impressive lakeside mansions, is the notorious ‘Haus der Wannsee Konferenz’ (House of the Wannsee Conference). This imposing home was originally built in 1914-15 for factory owner Ernst Marlier and then sold to an industrialist, Friedrich Minoux, in 1921. The SS Foundation set up by the leading Nazi, Obergruppenführer Reinhard von Heydrich then bought the villa in 1940 for ‘official functions and as a holiday resort’. It was here on 20th January 1942 that high-ranking members of the SS, the police force, the government administration and the Nazi party met to discuss the “final solution of the Jewish question”. Since 1992 the building has been a Holocaust Memorial and educational site with a permanent exhibition in the Wannsee Conference’s historical rooms and a specialised library.
‘Haus der Wannsee Konferenz’
It is open daily and entrance is free, although a donation is requested. A visit to the ‘Haus der Wannsee Konferenz’ remains in the memory for ever. As you walk past the security gates down the imposing driveway towards the austere stone façade there is already a sense of foreboding, echoed by the high hedges and dark trees. But nothing can really prepare you for the information you about to assimilate.
The room where the conference was held
After such a draining but essential experience, the waters of the Wannsee can provide a peaceful environment for contemplation. When you leave the ‘Haus der Wannsee Konferenz’ turn right out of the gates and then left down Heckeshorn. Here the huge statue of the ‘Lion of Flensburg’ sits looking impassively out across the lake.
The ‘Lion in Winter’…
Down by the water there is a sailing club and a couple of restaurants with decking outside. I can recommend the ‘Bootshaus Bolle’. You can sit outside and enjoy the views and the wildlife on the water, then have a pleasant stroll along the Uferpromenade before catching the bus back to Wannsee Station.
The water’s edge at ‘Bootshaus Bolle’
For most Berliners, the Wannsee area is synonymous with swimming and sailing. Here the river Havel widens into two lakes, the Großer Wannsee and the Kleiner Wannsee. The yacht club, ‘VSW – Verein Seglerhaus am Wannsee’ was established as far back as 1867 and is the second oldest in Germany. Nowadays, there are many more yacht clubs dotted along the Havel and on a fine summer weekends the Berlin sailing fraternity is out in force, vying for water space.
On the eastern side of the Großer Wannsee is an open-air lido with one of the longest inland beaches in Europe. ‘Strandbad Wannsee’ is an impressive 1,275 metres long and 80 metres wide, with fine pale yellow sand. The lyrics of a cheesy 1951 German hit song capture its appeal: “Pack up the swimwear, grab your little sister and get out to the Wannsee. Yes, we’re cycling like the wind, through the Grunewald swiftly and then soon we’ll be at the Wannsee”
The Wannsee lido was first established in 1907 as the ‘Freibad Wannsee’ with separate beaches for men and women and guests changed into their swimwear in tents. By 1924 there were thatched pavilions, improved sanitary facilities and the beach was open all year round for winter bathers and ice-skaters. Its current appearance was designed by architects Martin Wagner and Richard Ermisch, whose ‘New Objectivity’ (Neue Bauen) buildings were installed by 1930. When the Nazis came to power three years later they disapproved of this rather glamorous and international lakeside beach complex. All the non-Nazi staff were replaced with party members and Jews were eventually banned. In 1933 the director of the lido committed suicide in his office and Wagner emigrated to Turkey in 1935.
Strandbad Wannsee, 1930s
During the war the beach remained popular with the Berliners who were still allowed to use it – a total of 425,000 in 1944. Today, there are up to 230,000 visitors per year and the Strandbad Wannsee has been designated a Cultural Heritage site. Between 2004 and 2007, it underwent a 12.5 million euro refurbishment in time for its centenary celebrations. Facilities now include giant chess sets, sun decks and landscaped walkways that give panoramic views across the lake. The historic 1930s buildings have changing rooms, toilets, a restaurant and kiosks selling everything from sausages and icecream to buckets and spades. On the beach itself there are waterslides and a playground for children and rowing boats for hire. You can relax in a traditional German wicker beach chair (Strandkorb) or go for a swim in the still waters of the lake. Part of the beach is separated for nudist bathers in case you fancy getting an all-over tan.
A day at the beach
The Strandbad Wannsee can get very crowded on hot summer weekend, so to really appreciate its retro charm a mid-week visit is advisable. To get there take the S1 or S7 S-Bahn to Nikolassee and then it’s a short stroll to the beach. Or you could take the advice of the 1951 song, hire a bike and cycle through the Grunewald. Entrance to the beach costs €5.50 for adults.