Berlin Zoo is the oldest zoo in Germany, with a unique history. It is also the most species-rich in the world and the most-visited zoo in Europe. The 86-acre site next to the Tiergarten park has an abundance of trees and greenery; the animal houses are architectural gems and the enclosures are generous and well-kept. Famous inmates like Knut, the polar bear and Bao Bao the giant panda have contributed to the zoo’s international profile. In the 1980s, my children loved going to the Berlin Zoo and even had the opportunity to meet two baby tigers.
Cuddly baby tigers
The Antelope House
The Berlin Zoologischer Garten, to give it its full name, owes its existence to King Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia who was a passionate animal-lover. Together with his first wife, Louise, he established an impressive menagerie on the romantic Pfaueninsel (Peacock Island) on the Havel river and opened it to the public. After he died in 1840, his son, Friedrich Wilhelm IV, was happy to gift this private zoo to the people of Berlin and in 1844, after three years of construction, the Berlin Zoo opened on its current site. Two great Berliners, the naturalist Alexander von Humboldt and landscape gardener Peter Joseph Lenné were key players in the realisation of this project.
Zoo entrance in 1960
In 1869, Dr Heinrich Bodinus, director of the Cologne Zoological Garden, took on the management of the Berlin Zoo and until his death in 1884, he added many more species and built new exotic animal houses. Ludwig Heck, also from the Cologne Zoo, took over from 1881 when he was only 28 years old and was Director of the Berlin Zoo until 1931. These were golden years which saw the construction of the beautiful Elephant Gate entrance on Budapester Strasse and many more animal houses, including the stunning aquarium in 1913. In 1932 Heck passed the baton to his son, Dr Lutz Heck, and the zoo park was modernised again, with outdoor enclosures using natural stone. However, Heck Junior was a Nazi sympathiser who used forced labour as workers.
A memorial bust to Dr Lutz Heck and explanation of his political leanings
The fabulous Aquarium
By 1939, the Berlin Zoo boasted over 4,000 animals, belonging to 1,400 species. Only 91 animals survived the war, including the popular hippo, Knautschke, the elephant bull Siam and the chimpanzee, Suse. The bombing in 1943 and 1944 more or less destroyed the entire zoo and there are many apocryphal stories about what happened to the thousands of animals during the bombing. Elephants and Tigers were said be roaming the streets, with snakes and crocodiles hiding in dark corners. In fact, most of the animals died, but it is true that some of their meat was used to feed the starving Berliners. If you follow this link, you can read more about the zoo’s wartime story.
Elephant gate after bombing
Elephant Gate today
As the first female zoo director in Germany, Dr Katharina Heinroth took on the task of the rebuilding the destroyed zoo from the rubble and was able to build something better out of its tragedy. There was much reconstruction, but innovation was also born out of devastation. The zoo that emerged from the chaos was more progressive and mirrored the real habitats of the animals.
Berlin Zoo’s full name is the Berlin Zoologischer Garten – the same as the station opposite its ‘Lion’ entrance gates (Löwentor). During the city’s division from 1949 until 1989, the Zoo was stranded in West Berlin and its eponymous station served as the main transportation hub of West Berlin. At this point several U-Bahn and S-Bahn lines of city public transport intersected. The station also served as a starting point of long distance trains, and the city’s biggest bus terminal is still there. Its pop-culture prominence started in the 1970s when the area around the station became a sordid gathering place for teenage drug addicts and prostitutes. These days it is well-known for its Currywurst stand.
Curry 36 at Bahnhof Zoo
In 1955, the GDR opened its ‘own zoo’, the ‘Tierpark’ (Animal Park), in Friedrichsfelde, East Berlin, which at 400 acres is the largest landscaped zoo in Europe. This means that since the fall of the Berlin Wall, there is a choice of two excellent zoos in the German capital. But there is something extra special about the Zoologischer Garten in the city centre. My recent visit was in glorious autumn weather. The zoo park couldn’t have looked better. There were no pacing animals in small spaces and Giant Pandas, Jiao Qing and Meng Meng looked very content exploring the undergrowth. The environment is as natural as possible with plenty of vegetation, rock, stone and water in evidence. We mainly stayed outside in the sunshine and a favourite enclosure was an aviary for sea birds where visitors can sit in a typical North German beach chair by the lapping water. The café facilities were excellent too, although they were not being tested to full capacity early on a Sunday morning.
Panda at play
Sitting at the seaside
‘Forest Hut’ café
Berlin Zoo’s website has all the details of opening times, ticket prices. feeding times and special events. There are opportunities to see into the zoo from outside as well. The path from Zoo Station into the Tiergarten runs alongside the camel and bison enclosure and the Bikini Berlin shopping centre has a terrace with great views of the monkey enclosures. To get a panoramic view of the whole site, take the lift to the Monkey Bar on the tenth floor of the Bikini Berlin Hotel or book a penthouse room in the Waldorf Astoria Hotel with its ‘Zoofenster’ (zoo window) tower.
Elephants and Zoofenster tower
Deutsche Bank has opened a new exhibition and event space on Unter den Linden in a seriously prime location next to the Staatsoper and opposite the Neue Wache. According to its creators, it is a ‘new and innovative concept intended to give as many people as possible access to art, culture and sport’. I went along to the PalaisPopulaire last week to find out the exact meaning of this bold statement.
First, some background history is needed. The PalaisPopulaire’s home is the former Prinzessinnenpalais, a rococo palace built at the beginning of the 18th Century and owned by the Hohenzollern dynasty until 1918. Designed by Prussia’s most renowned architect, Karl Friedrich Schinkel, it was the residence of the daughters of Prussian King Frederick William III, three princesses, one of whom married Russian Czar, Nicholas I. After the fall of the German monarchy after World War I, it enjoyed a brief spell in the 1930s as the Schinkel Museum until it was badly damaged by the bombing in World War II.
Photo taken in 1881
After the bombing
The historic exterior of the palace was restored by the Bauhaus-trained GDR architect Richard Paulick in the 1960s, but he insisted on a modernist interior and after reunification in 1990 there were further historic renovations to the inside of the palace. Now, Deutsche Bank architects Kühn & Malvezzi have stripped its interior to the precast concrete of its 1960s design in contrast with the historical pastiche reconstruction of the Stadtschloss (City Palace), due to open at the end of 2019 as the Humboldt Forum.
During GDR days, the palace was known as the Opernpalais Unter den Linden. It housed a disco and a restaurant, both popular meeting places for East Berliners. After the Berlin Wall came down, the Operncafé became famous throughout Berlin for its huge selection of cakes and gateaux; the Queen of Sweden, Sophia Loren, Alain Delon and Placido Domigno were among star guests. On sunny summer days the outside terrace would be packed full, and in the evenings, the restaurant was frequented by audiences from the neighbouring Staatsoper. I had great affection for the place.
Photo from 2009
At the end 2011, the Operncafé had to close its doors because the rent had become too expensive. There was a great deal of consternation about what would become of the building. Berliners hoped it would be accessible to the public and continue to be part of the Unter den Linden café scene and it looks as if their wish has been granted. Deutsche Bank has renovated the historic exterior, completely transformed its interior to accommodate 750 square metres of exhibition and event space, and also included a good-sized café. The name PalaisPopulaire suggests that is a palace for the people – the fact that its name is in French entirely befits this area of Mitte and its historic French connections. Francophile Frederick the Great would be well pleased.
The neighbouring Staatsoper
After spending the afternoon at the PalaisPopulaire last week, I feel very positive about its impact on Berlin. The whole building has a light, bright feel with three generous floors of gallery space and a stunning spiral staircase. I am also confident that the café on the ground floor – and especially outside on the terrace in summer – will become quite a magnet for Berliners and for tourists alike. There may not be such a huge array of cakes as in the old days of the Operncafé, but the same confectioner is providing them and the dozen or so creations on offer were very tempting, including the specially-commissioned Prinzessin Luise Torte. The lunch and dinner menus and drinks list are equally imaginative, and the service was excellent, with efficient, cheerful staff. When the galleries close in the evening, the restaurant will remain open until 11pm.
The opening exhibition “The World on Paper” until 7th January is well worth a visit. It comprises 300 highlights and new discoveries from the Deutsche Bank Collection and shows the fascination that the medium of paper has exerted on artists since post-war Modernism, including famous names like Joseph Beuys and Gerhard Richter. There are various audio guides for adults and children with text, audio and video information on specific artworks and a . Below are a few photographs of exhibits that had personal appeal. This link will take you to a full description of the exhibition. https://www.museumsportal-berlin.de/en/exhibitions/the-world-on-paper/
It’s important to stress that the PalaisPopulaire intends not only to mount art exhibitions, but also to showcase the Deutsche Bank’s activities in other cultural areas and in sport. There will be parkour workshops in and around the building and during exhibitions there will be music and DJ sets, with promenade concerts moving through the building. Athletes will discuss issues with actors and artists and the aim is to decidedly break away from disciplines and categories. On one floor of the current exhibition there is an installation that works with ‘Tiltbrush software’ which translates physical movements into digital brushstrokes. I tried it out for myself and experienced how athletes can create artwork that represents their own sport. It was nothing short of amazing.
The Tiltbrush technology
For further details of the PalaisPopulaire, including future events and exhibitions and how to download their App, just follow this link to their website. The PalaisPopulaire is open daily except Tuesdays and admission is free on Mondays. https://www.db-palaispopulaire.com/index_en.html
The long, grand boulevard of the Kurfürstendamm, referred to by Berliners as the Ku’damm, dates back to 1542 and takes its name from the Kurfürsten (Prince Electors) of Brandenburg when it was a bridle-path to their Grunewald hunting lodge. Since the days of the Kaiser this avenue has been lined with shops, hotels, theatres, restaurants and street cafés. Tall, black wrought-iron street lamps bow elegantly above bold pavement display cases introduced by the Nazis and the buildings are set well back from the road to allow plenty of room for promenading. The street corners have quaint kiosks and the old-style ‘Litfaβsäule’, columns plastered with advertisements of all the current shows and concerts. In summer the four rows of magnificent plane trees hide the parked traffic in the central reservation and in winter their branches sparkle with white lights.
Pavement display cases
After the Prussians defeated the French in 1871, Bismarck wanted the Ku’damm to become Berlin’s version of the Champs-Élysées in Paris. It was widened to about 53 metres and construction started on some of the city’s most prestigious addresses. These buildings had ornate façades with columns, gables, towers, huge bay windows and grand entrances with equally impressive interiors. Over half these magnificent structures were destroyed during the bombing in the Second World War, but many have been lavishly restored.
Commerzbank at 59, Ku’damm
A good way to admire the Ku’damm architecture is to take a ride on the top deck of one of the buses that run up and down the boulevard. Haus Cumberland at 193-194, Ku’damm is among the finest buildings along the route. This listed building was originally constructed in 1911-12 and named after Ernst August of Hanover, Third Duke of Cumberland, who was stripped of his English title when he sided with the Germans in the First World War. Haus Cumberland has a colourful history. It covers 10,000 square metres and was conceived as a ‘Boarding Palast’ or apartment hotel, with three elaborate courtyards forming the heart of the complex. Unfortunately, the owner was declared bankrupt before the final opening. After this venture failed, the building was briefly used by the Imperial Arms and Ammunition Procurement Office and then converted into a grand hotel.
The original ‘Boarding Palace’ in 1912
One of the courtyards and the reading and writing room
In the years that followed the First World War, Haus Cumberland contained the main post office building and the Ministry of Economic Affairs, as well as theatres and cinemas. In the Nazi era it housed government finance offices that played a part in the expropriation and plundering of Jewish property. From 1966 to 2003, the Berlin Regional Tax Office was the new landlord and from 2003 it stood empty, apart from the shops on the ground floor, and the interior was sometimes rented out as a backdrop for Hollywood films.
Haus Cumberland in 1968
After new plans for a luxury hotel failed, the property was sold to a business consortium in 2010.The building was meticulously renovated for heritage status and the Ku’damm façade was returned to its original state. There are now 185 apartments at the rear of the complex and a number of shops at the front.
New apartments and courtyards
Behind the grand entrance to Haus Cumberland is the much-vaunted café-restaurant ‘Grosz’, named after Berlin artist George Grosz (1893-1959), best known for his socially critical paintings from the 1920s, who lived in nearby Savigny Platz during the Golden Twenties.
Entrance to ‘Grosz’
Berlin street scene by Georg Grosz
‘Grosz’ opened its doors to the public in 2012 – a century after Haus Cumberland was originally completed. At the time, the Berlin press proclaimed it as a great example of how the Ku’damm and West Berlin are on the road to being cool and hip again, although the truth of this statement is debatable. But ‘Grosz’ is definitely worth a visit, both for its atmosphere and for its food and drink. Run by the owner of ‘Borchardt’, the famous celebrity dining establishment in Berlin-Mitte, ‘Grosz’ exudes the same sophistication. The interior décor looks genuinely historic and expensive and the waiting staff are crisply-dressed in white and black.
As ‘Grosz’ is a coffee house, bar and restaurant all in one location, you don’t have to order food with your drink. But if you are calling in for coffee it’s hard to resist the display of exquisite cakes by the entrance. Beyond it is a bar area serving fine cocktails which opens into the actual restaurant rooms with the highest ceilings imaginable, ornate pillars and walls covered with antique mirrors and paintings.
Sweet treats ……
….. and the bar
The ambience of ‘Grosz’ is best described as a mixture between a Vienna café of the Art Nouveau era and a French Brasserie. I went there for dinner soon after it opened and had a memorable meal. The menu focuses around classics like oysters served on a silver pedestal, various steak cuts and seasonal dishes with a French twist. At lunchtime there is always a plat du jour. Five years ago, the food and the service were both excellent, but the place was rather empty and I felt that things had yet to get into their stride. Recently, I have returned to ‘Grosz’ both for an evening drink and for a Berlin-style Sunday breakfast. It seems to have a more laid-back feel to it now, without losing its elegance and wow factor and almost succeeds in capturing the elusive Berlin feeling of bygone days.
A ‘Grosz’ breakfast
A cool dog at the next table
‘Grosz’ is only a few bus stops from Zoo Station or a 20-minute can stroll up the Ku’damm. All the location details and menus can be found on the Grosz website at http://grosz-berlin.de/?lang=en For an interesting read about the Ku’damm’s history and buildings, I can highly recommend ‘A Walk Along The Ku’damm: Playground and Battlefield of Weimar Berlin’ by Brendan Nash.
Surrounded by waterways, Moabit is a diverse neighbourhood to the north of the Tiergarten and the Reichstag. Barely off the main tourist track, it has managed to keep below the radar and is a great place to be among Berliners without having to go too far afield. There are already two blogs about Moabit on the Berlin Unwrapped website. ‘The History Garden’ (History and Politics, September 4th, 2015) features a fascinating park on the site of Moabit’s infamous former prison and ‘Putting Moabit on the Map’ (Small Worlds, September 25th, 2015) has a wealth of information about Moabit’s history and some of its attractions. You can find them both by scrolling down the blogs in the relevant categories. Now, a sunny day strolling down Turmstraβe, stopping for lunch in the covered market and then meandering along the north bank of the River Spree has inspired me to write more about Moabit.
Outside the market in Moabit
We started our walk at the Hauptbahnhof, crossed the road into the Geschichtspark hidden behind its high prison walls and walked through to Seydlitzstraβe at the eastern end of Moabit’s busy Turmstraβe. Passing the imposing building of the Amtsgericht Tiergarten (District Court) on our left, we soon reached the Kleiner Tiergarten. These pretty public gardens provide shaded paths through the tall trees; quintessential Berlin. Before the fall of the Wall, Moabit was part of the West Berlin district of Tiergarten but now it belongs to the central borough of Mitte.
The Arminius Markthalle is on the other side of Turmstraβe, opposite the U-Bahn station. It may not be as big and hip as the Markthalle Neun in Kreuzberg, but it’s still a great place for street food. The historic building dating back to 1891, with its elaborate cast-iron archways. pillars and Gothic proportions has a cool and colourful interior.
Inside the market
As well as the market stalls, there are plenty of places to eat. We headed for the ‘Hofladen’ at the back of the hall and opted for the fish set lunch menu, a Friday favourite and great value. The Markthalle is open in the evenings until 10pm, so it’s a fun place to go for supper too. For more foodie tips follow this link.
Seating inside the Markthalle
The ‘mother of all tables’!
The mandatory coffee post-prandial coffee stop was at ‘Antjes Café natürlicher Lebensraum’ on Jonasstraβe just outside the market. Its long name suggests a homely parlour and with its home-made cakes, tea and coffee served on pretty china this is an apt description. There are a couple of intimate rooms at the back, as well as seating on the pavement outside and I have it on good authority that breakfast here is delicious too.
Sitting in the window at Antje’s
One of the back rooms
Now heading towards the River Spree, we crossed the square in front of the tall, red-brick Lutheran church of ‘Heilandskirche’ competing with the height of the trees in the parkland between Turmstraβe and Alt-Moabit.
Photo montage by Gruss aus Berlin)
Then we meandered our way through the network of streets south of Turmstraβe, named after cities in Westphalia, North-West Germany. In this part of Moabit, there are several interesting-looking shops and restaurants dotted amongst the patrician apartment blocks. On Krefelder Straβe there was ‘Berlin Edition’ wine in the window of the ‘Weinschmiede’ and in the ‘Buchkantine’ a contemporary bookshop and café on the corner of Bochumer and Dortmunder Straβe, we noticed bottles of ‘Moabit London Dry Gin’ with 14 botanicals.
Weinschmiede and Buchkantine
By now we had reached the Bundesratufer (Upper Parliament House Bank) which runs along the north bank of the River Spree. There were plenty of families about, enjoying the afternoon sunshine and the playpark on the green area between the path and the river. After Lessingbrücke (Lessing Bridge) we were confronted with the massive glass and steel towers of the Spree-Bogen business and residential complex.
The word ‘Spreebogen’ simply means any large bend in the River Spree. In Berlin it can denote the whole meander between Museum Island in the east and the junction with the Landwehrkanal in the west, or different sections of this meander. The Spree-Bogen in Moabit refers to the redevelopment of the huge site once owned by the famous Berlin dairy, opened in 1879 by Carl Bolle. From 1933 until 2011 there was a large chain of Bolle supermarkets in Berlin and today Bolle still runs a spectacular event venue in the former factory chapel and ballroom of the Bolle dairy.
The original Bolle Meierei
Bolle milk deliveries
The Bolle ballroom today
Today, between the massive glass and steel buildings of the Spree-Bogen complex and the River Spree, the Ernst Freiberger Foundation has created a memorial called the ‘Straβe der Erinnerung’ (Street of Remembrance). It consists of a wide path lined with ‘Helden ohne Degen’ (Heroes without daggers) – bronze busts of German heroes who “achieved extraordinary things and behaved in an exemplary way in the most difficult of times”. Among the most famous names are resistance fighter Georg Elser, Nobel prize-winning author Thomas Mann, architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, industrialist and politician Walther Rathenau, politician Ludwig Erhard, philosopher and nun Edith Stein, physicist Albert Einstein and artist Käthe Kollwitz.
Käthe Kollwitz on the Straβe der Erinnerung
At the end of the Straβe der Erinnerung is a sculpture depicting a figure breaking through the Berlin Wall. It’s called ‘Wir sind das Volk’ (We are the people) and commemorates the citizens of East Germany whose peaceful revolution led to the fall of the Berlin Wall. They, too, are moral heroes and have a place in Berlin’s deep memory. In the photograph below you can see a section of the Berlin Wall – also part of the Straβe der Erinnerung.
‘Wir sind das Volk’
The river bank in Moabit now winds its way back to the Hauptbahnhof, with wonderful views of the Tiergarten across the Spree. But on this particular Friday afternoon, we stopped at the Moabiter Brücke, admired the restaurant ship ‘Patio’, and turned left up Kirchstrasse towards Alt-Moabit.
‘Patio’ restaurant ship
On the pavement outside 22 Kirchstraβe, we looked down at two Stolpersteine (Stumbling Stones) to mark the homes of Betty and Frieda Brasch who were deported by the Nazis in 1943. There are over 357 of these small brass commemorative plaques embedded in the streets of Moabit alone and we had already seen several on our walk. On 8th May this year they were cleaned and polished as part of an initiative started by the SPD in Berlin (Social Democrat Party of Germany) to mark the day the German capital was liberated from the grip of the Nazis in 1945.
Stolpersteine on Kirchstraβe
On our circular tour we had enjoyed Moabit in the spring sunshine, but we had been reminded of darker days. Despite its liberal and laid-back atmosphere, Berlin never lets us forget the fragility of our freedom.
The emergence of Prussia as the dominant power in the new nation of Germany had a profound effect on 20th Century Europe. This first blog of 2018 is dedicated to Theodor Fontane (1819-1898), one of my all-time favourite authors and widely recognised as Germany’s most important 19th Century realist novelist. It was in his writing that the golden age of Prussian civilisation found its greatest chronicler – and formidable critic. Fontane also loved Berlin and Berliners – with all their faults. The title image for this blog, a well-known Fontane quote, translates as: ‘Before God, all people are actually Berliners’. .
Fontane’s parents were both from French Huguenot immigrant families and he was born in the small Prussian town of Neuruppin, about 30 miles north of Berlin where his father ran a pharmacy. In 1834, Fontane moved to the capital and, having trained as a pharmacist himself, he then spent most of his working life in Berlin as a journalist, travel writer, poet and novelist. He also worked in London for three years and was a notable Anglophile. Theodor Fontane pioneered the German social novel and wrote 17 novels after the age of 60, all set in Berlin and Brandenburg. The most well-known is ‘Effi Briest’ (1894), which was translated into English in 1964 and made into a film in 1974 by Rainer Werner Fassbinder and in 2009 by Hermine Huntgeburth.
Fontane’s work depicts the lives of people across all classes in a society increasingly dominated by the militarism and materialism of Bismarck’s Second Reich. His novels are often compared to those of Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens or Jane Austen for their poetic realism, social criticism and subtle irony. His characters are closely-observed and often revealed through their conversations, drawing the reader into a world where individuals – often women – struggle against social codes. Fontane’s travel writing is equally skilful and well ahead of its time for combining narrative adventure with literary style and historical insight. His five-volume ‘Wanderungen durch die Mark Brandenburg’ (‘Travels in the Province of Brandenburg’), describe the landscape and the people in the countryside around Berlin. Their rich, human detail prove that it isn’t only exotic locations that can capture the imagination. And that is precisely what it so appealing about Fontane; his ability to ‘transfigure’ everyday life into something magical and universal.
Fontane’s bicentenary in the year 2019 is fast approaching. In Berlin and Brandenburg, especially his birthplace of Neuruppin, a variety of cultural projects are being planned. It will be interesting to see how many of them will be accessible to English speakers. Fontane’s work is not as well-known in the English-speaking world as on the continent and it would be wonderful if his bicentenary provides an opportunity to showcase his work to a wider public. In the meantime, I offer you a stroll through streets in the old centre of Berlin where you can still find traces of Fontane. Many of the places where he lived and worked, or which are mentioned in his literary works, no longer exist, so this walk concentrates on sites which at least bear the same name or have been restored.
Plan of the ‘Fontane walk’
From Hackescher Markt bear left into Oranienburger Straβe. After 100 metres turn right into Groβe Hamburger Straβe and walk past the old Jewish cemetery and Jewish memorial. A little further on, set back between two buildings, is the Sophienkirche, a baroque church dating back to 1712. Building number 30/30a, where Fontane moved to in 1834 to live with his Uncle August and Aunt Pinchen, was demolished in 1904/05 but was replaced by the building which still stands on the same site. Fontane described the original tenement block as “half-crumbling, ugly and ordinary, like its inhabitants”. Yet one of his neighbours included the family of his future wife, Emilie Rouanet-Kummer!
Before they were married in 1850, Emilie moved with Theodor into 33, Oranienburger Straβe, “a rather pretty house, opposite the large post yard”. From Groβe Hamburger Straβe turn left into Krausnickstraβe, then turn right into Oranienburger Straβe past the Golden Dome of the Neue Synagoge (built in 1866) and opposite the grand Imperial post office building is where Emilie used to live.
Now head towards the River Spree down Tucholsky Straβe. On your left is the imposing Bodemuseum at the end of Museum Island. Turn right along the river bank until you reach the Weidendammer Bridge with a fine view of the Berliner Ensemble theatre, whose founder Bertolt Brecht was born eight months before Fontane’s death. The Weidendammer Bridge had a special meaning for Fontane, who “had the happiest thought of his life”, when he proposed to Emilie on this bridge in 1845.
Weidammer Brücke in 1881
Turn left into Friedrichstraβe, past the station to the ‘Dorotheenstädtische Apotheke’ on the corner of Mittlestraβe. This pharmacy used to be called the ‘Polnische Apotheke’ where Fontane worked in 1845/6. The current building was erected in 1898-1902. When you reach Unter den Linden, turn left again and you will pass the ‘Staatsbibliothek’ (State Library) which in Fontane’s time used to house the Academy of Arts and Sciences. Fontane briefly worked there as Secretary in 1876, but as a free thinker, he found the job too stifling. A little further on, past the Humboldt University, is the Neue Wache, once a guardhouse and now the main war memorial in Berlin. Thirty-two years previously, in 1844, Fontane had performed guard duty here when he volunteered for one year as a Grenadier Guard.
Staatsbibliothek, Unter den Linden
Neue Wache around 1900
Diagonally opposite the Neue Wache is the newly-restored Staatsoper (State Opera House), dating back to 1741/43. Cross Bebelplatz to the right of the Staatsoper and head for Behrenstraβe, behind St Hedwigskathedrale (1747). Fontane’s great friend Mathilde von Rohr lived at 70, Behrenstraβe. Continue towards Marktgrafenstraβe and turn left into the Gendarmenmarkt with its twin churches flanking the Konzerthaus. This concert hall was originally built in 1821 as the Schauspielhaus (theatre) where Fontane was a passionate theatregoer; for 20 years, from 1870 onwards, he worked as theatre critic for the Vossische Zeitung (newspaper).
Schinkel’s Schauspielhaus in 1820
On the southern edge of Gendarmenplatz is Stadmitte underground station. Take the U2 for two stops to Potsdamer Platz and when you emerge, you will be very near the spot where Theodor Fontane lived from 1872 until 1898 and wrote most of his novels. The Fontane home was on 134, Potsdamer Straβe, about 85 metres south-west of Weinhaus Huth, the only building on this section of Potsdamer Straβe that survived the bombing and the construction of Berlin Wall. The family lived ‘three floors up’ in four rooms with a kitchen and larder. Fontane thought Potsdamer Platz was full of life and that “activity is the best thing that a city has to offer”.
Haus Huth on Potsdamer Platz
I can recommend three other fairly central ‘Fontane sites’ in Berlin. A visit to the pretty Französischer Friedhof II (French cemetery) in Liesenstraβe is a must. The great man is buried here, together with his wife Emilie. Take the U6 from Friedrichstraβe station to Schwartzkopffstraβe. Walk northwards up Chausseestraβe as far as the junction with Liesenstraβe where the cemetery is on the right-hand side. The path to Fontane’s grave is clearly signposted.
In the Tiergarten, there is a fine statue of Fontane. From Zoo station take the Number 100 bus five stops to Nordische Botschaften/Adenauer Stiftung. Walk along Stülerstraβe to Thomas-Dehler-Straβe and on the right in the park stands the ‘Fontane-Denkmal’. This statue is a copy made in the 1980s – the original stands in the entrance hall of the Märkisches Museum. A curious fact to note: the buttons on his jacket are on the wrong side.
Fontane also left his mark on Kreuzberg. In 1848, he worked as an assistant in the apothecary of the Bethanien hospital on Mariannenplatz. The historic ‘Fontane Apotheke’ is on the ground floor of this fascinating building, now an arts centre, and is open to visitors on Tuesday afternoons.
The historic Fontane Apotheke in Bethanien
Finally, there are so many traces of Fontane outside Berlin in the surrounding countryside of Brandenburg, one of the German Federal States that was locked inside the German Democratic Republic for 40 years, from 1949 to 1989. The towns and villages have now been sensitively restored and are being rediscovered by 21st Century visitors. It is well worth making a day trip to Fontane’s beautiful home town of Neuruppin, often referred to as ‘Fontanestadt’, with its well-ordered Prussian streets and stunning lake.
Aerial view of Neuruppin
And a few days in the Spreewald, about an hour south of Berlin, is a revelation. This historic area of wetlands and pine forests is criss-crossed by over 200 small canals called ‘Flieβe’. Many of the inhabitants are descendants of the first settlers of the Spreewald region, the Slavic tribes of the Sorbs or ‘Wends’. In some villages, they have preserved many of their customs, as well as their language and traditional clothing. In 1991, the Spreewald, so wonderfully documented in Fontane’s travel writing, was designated a biosphere reserve by UNESCO.
Barge trip through the Spreewald
One of many famous Fontane quotes is: “Das ist ein weites Feld” (from ‘Effi Briest’). It translates into English as, “that is a broad subject”, and suggests that something is far too complicated to discuss in brief. Gunter Grass used it to excellent effect for the title of his 1995 novel set in Berlin between the fall of the Berlin Wall and reunification. This blog has only scratched the surface of Theodor Fontane and his Berlin/Brandenburg connections. If you are interested in learning more, I have listed a couple of websites below. And to finish, here is another favourite Fontane quotes, translated into English: