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.