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.