Berlin is best known for its 20th Century history and any mention of the word ‘crossing point’ summons up visions of Checkpoint Charlie, the Glienicke Bridge or the Soviets crossing the Elbe in World War II, prior to the Battle for Berlin. But there is a more significant crossing point in the history of Berlin, dating back almost 800 years when there was a settlement on each side of the River Spree – Berlin and Cölln.

Model of Berlin-Cölln in the Märkisches Museum

The first documented reference to these settlements was made in 1237 and it was around this time that the Margraves (military governors) of Brandenburg used Berlin and Cölln to secure the crossing point of the Spree at Mühlendamm (Mill Dam). Towards the end of the 13th Century, the twin towns Berlin-Cölln had outstripped the older towns of Köpenick and Spandau in importance and in 1280 the first Parliament of the Margravate of Brandenburg was established there.

View northwards from the Mühlendamm Bridge today

There are very few genuine traces of the original settlements of 13th Century Berlin. The ‘Nikolaiviertel’ occupies the area where Berlin was first founded and before it was devastated in the war, it contained some of the oldest buildings in the city centre. After the Berlin Wall was built in 1961, this district became part of East Berlin, but it wasn’t until 1979, in the run-up to the 750th Anniversary of the city, that reconstruction of the Nikolaiviertel started.

Aerial view of the Nikolaiviertel

During the eight-year project, the GDR authorities made an attempt to recreate this historic quarter, but since almost none of the buildings are located on their original sites, and many of them were built with prefabricated concrete slabs (a style referred to in German as ‘Plattenbau’), the Nikolaiviertel was often scornfully referred to as ‘Honecker’s Disneyland’. Yet despite its lack of authenticity, the Nikolaiviertel’s narrow, pedestrianised streets are popular with tourists and its cafés and restaurants alongside the Spree are particularly inviting in the summer months.

The Spree terraces in the Nikolaiviertel

In the heart of the Nikolaiviertel is the oldest church in Berlin, the Nikolaikirche, which gave the quarter its name. It was probably built shortly after Berlin was granted town privileges, but the building has undergone a great deal of reconstruction over the centuries. A presbytery was built in 1402 and the two towers were added in 1877. The Nikolaikirche was destroyed in 1945 by bombing and completely rebuilt in 1987.

The reconstructed Nikolaikirche

The Nikolaikirche is no longer a church, but now forms part of the Stadtmuseum (City Museum) with a permanent exhibition called ‘From the Base of the City to the Double Spire’, although only the stone floors date back to the 13th Century. From 1st April until 28th May 2017 there is also a special exhibition, ‘Saint Luther’, to celebrate the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation.

Inside the Nikolaikirche

In front of the church is a small square, Nikolaikirchplatz, with an octagonal fountain known as the Wappenbrunnen (coat-of-arms fountain), created in 1987, and based on a design from 1928. On each side of the fountain is a relief showing a coat-of-arms and in the centre is a column with a statue of a bear. The bear symbolizes the city of Berlin and the fountain commemorates the founding of the city and is therefore also known as the Gründungsbrunnen (foundation fountain). Set in the pavement outside the Nikolaikirche is another memorial to the birth of Berlin in the form of a two-metre wide copy of the original seal of the city.

The Wappenbrunnen and the Berlin city seal

The other building in the Nikolaiviertel which has links with the 13th Century, is the Gerichtslaube, a reconstruction of Berlin’s medieval courthouse. It was originally built in 1270 in Gothic style with arcades, and was integrated into Berlin’s medieval town hall. In 1871, the Gerichtslaube was demolished during the construction of the imposing Rotes Rathaus (the ‘Red Town Hall’). When the Nikolaiviertel was recreated in the 1980s, a replica of the Gerichtslaube was erected about 150 metres from its original location. It is now a restaurant serving traditional Brandenburg fare.

The Gerichtslaube – in 1860 and now

But you need to cross the main road of Grunerstraβe to find the most authentic witness to the medieval twin towns. On Littenstraβe, almost hidden between the Amtsgericht Mitte (district court of the borough of Mitte) and Berlin’s most historic restaurant, ‘Zur letzten Instanz’, is a small section of the ancient city wall, dating back to the 13th century.

The old city wall near Berlin’s oldest restaurant

Nearby are the ruins of the Franziskaner-Klosterkirche, a Franciscan monastery church dating back to 1250, devastated during allied bombing in 1945. The remnants of this ancient church are surrounded by trees and grass and make a picturesque setting for outdoor exhibitions, concerts and theatre performances. It is a wonderfully tranquil spot, with few tourists, and perfect for contemplating the vagaries of European history.

The monastery ruins

Just across the street is Klosterstraβe underground station, which has a nostalgic charm of its own. There is a historic train carriage at the end of the platform and beautiful ceramic tiling modelled on wall decorations in the Palace of King Nebuchadnezzar II in ancient Babylon. This station is usually very quiet and makes a good start and end point to a stroll through Berlin’s oldest streets – even if it is the modern vision of the Fernsehturm (TV tower) that greets you as you emerge up the stairs into the daylight. 

The palms of Babylon

Klosterstraße station