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.