There’s a heatwave in Berlin this week, with temperatures well over 30 degrees every day. But even in the city centre, there are some cool areas where you can escape the crowds, the glare and the traffic. Head for ‘Monbijou Park’ and you will discover an urban summer paradise with a fascinating history.
Monbijou Park – from Oranienburgerstrasse
In Berlin the past is always present. This city has endured and lost so much and acknowledges the pain. Yet it remains buoyant, buzzing and forward-looking. It picks up the past and runs with it. Monbijou Park is a case in point. Situated between Oranienburger Strasse and the River Spree, it was once the site of a beautiful royal palace, ‘Schloss Monbijou’.
Schloss Monbijou in 1740
The name ‘Monbijou’ was first used to describe the palace by Sophie Dorothea, mother of Frederick the Great. She lived there from 1712 until her death in 1757 and enjoyed entertaining guests with lavish dinners, balls and concerts. The palace continued to house members of the Prussian royal family until the beginning of the 19th century when it became a store for the royal collections of paintings, jewelry and porcelain. In 1877 Kaiser Wilhelm opened the collections to the public as the Hohenzollern Museum. This is how an American visitor in the 1880s captures the atmosphere:
It was a bright sunny afternoon, and the golden light came in long slanting lines through windows opening on Monbijou gardens, beautiful even in winter, and lay upon the tessellated floors of the corridors in patterns of shining glory. (‘In and Around Berlin’)
By 1885 St George’s church had been built in the palace grounds, for use by Berlin’s Anglican congregation. Even after the fall of the monarchy, Schloss Monbijou continued to function as a museum until the Second World War broke out. Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect, intended to have the palace relocated to the gardens of Schloss Charlottenburg as part of his grand design for the monumental new city of Germania. But his plans were never realised. In 1940 the palace windows were walled up and the museum contents were removed for safe-keeping. The building was gutted in an air raid in 1943 and Schloss Monbijou eventually met the same cruel fate as the main Stadtschloss (City Palace); the communist government of the GDR wanted to remove all traces of Berlin’s imperial past and demolished its remains in 1959.
The ‘Tanzsaal’ (ballroom) in 1932
Over the past few years the wasteland, where Schloss Monbijou with its fabulous gardens once stood, has been transformed into a public recreation area. Now there are lawns with plenty of shade and benches, a children’s swimming pool and ball-game courts. Down by the Spree, you can stroll along the promenade or just sit in a deckchair gazing at the water.
A handball game in Monbijou Park
On moonlit evenings the dance floor at the wonderful Strandbar is irresistible (see blog ‘Let’s get into Mitte’, July 2014) and the open-air ‘Hexenkessel’ theatre lights up with colourful performance of Tartüff or Hamlet (subtitles in English on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Sundays). On Sunday evenings at 8.30pm there are also free concerts outside the Bode Museum when the Monbijou Brücke (a bridge only for pedestrians and cyclists) is packed with classical music fans. Check out all the details at the Monbijou Theater website.
Inside the Hexenkessel (‘Witches’ Cauldron’) Theater
There is so much more to the history of Monbijou Park. In medieval times it was a large farmstead which was destroyed in the Thirty Years War. Then in 1649, under the Great Elector, it became a rural estate, where the first potatoes in Brandenburg were grown. There is a large information board at the entrance of the park but it is mainly in German. You you can visit the Wikipedia page ‘Monbijou Palace’ for a detailed history in English.
Tourist information board – in German
Adjoining Monbijou Park is Monbijou Platz, an unassuming square with some interesting small shops and bars and a cheerful Italian restaurant, ‘Il Posto’. Surveying the scene is the impassive bust of Adalbert von Chamisso, whose aristocratic parents were driven out of France during the Revolution. Chamisso once worked as a page in the royal palace and later became a renowned poet and botanist.
Chamisso’s benign countenance
On the opposite side of the street you will find the Monbijou Hotel, a rather different kind of jewel from the ornate palace of the same name. Despite being so close to all the action in Berlin-Mitte, it provides a peaceful haven from the hot city streets. The rooms are muted and cool and the high-walled courtyard is a great setting for summer breakfast or lunch. Best of all, the magical Dachterrasse on the 5th floor is perfect for sundowners and candlelit chilling. But more about Berlin rooftop bars in the next blog …..
Breakfast in the courtyard of the Monbijou Hotel