Tam Eastley takes a leisurely stroll around one of Berlin’s most fascinating parks…
In the immortal words of a close friend: “Treptower Park is full of treasures.”
But the first time I visited, five years ago, I didn’t venture more than a couple hundred metres past the S Bahn exit.
I lay on the grass among the cement ping pong tables, the 20-somethings chilling on blankets Berlin-style with their cases of beer, far, far away from the grills spewing their grey meat-scented smoke.
I was happy with my little spot near the canal, and had no idea that on either side of me, stretching for four kilometres in one direction (depending on whether or not you count Plänterwald) and a full kilometre in the other, was (I now realise) Berlin’s best and most entertaining park.
Depending on which entrance is used, one’s initial impression of Treptower Park will be vastly different. The southern-most side is outside of the ring, covered in leafy, overgrown forest, and actually has no obvious entrance. Busses shuttle Berliners living out near Schöneweide and Baumschulenweg directly up through the middle of the park along Pushkinallee (named after the famous Russian poet), to S Bahn Treptower Park, at the northern end.
Emerging from the S Bahn is how most people first experience former East Berlin’s weekend playground, which is part of the larger borough of Treptow-Köpenick and dates back to the end of the 18th century, when the area it now stands on was partially cleared of a forest. In 1896, the Berlin Industrial Expo took place on the land, which spurred industry and development and heavily influenced the surrounding areas.
The park today runs freely alongside the Spree, though during the time of Berlin’s division, parts of the river were border areas instead – and like everything else in Berlin, there’s a memorial to this side of the city’s dark history.
Just past the Elsenbrücke, the bridge beside the park that the S Bahn so picturesquely runs along, stands the “Molecule Man,” which commemorates the reunification of Berlin’s neighbourhoods along this formerly dangerous strip of river. The 30-meter-high aluminium statue, which features three triangulated men facing each other with hands joined in the middle, is by American artist Jonathan Borofsky, and has been standing in the middle of the river since 1997.
According to Borofsky, the statues, which are each spotted with holes, represent “the molecules of all human beings coming together to create our existence.”
Continuing along the Spree, the quirkiness and ingenuity of Berliners emerges. Parked along the river, opposite the french fry stands, the Thai Imbiss and the beer garden are rows and rows of boats.
At first glance, they look perfectly normal: the usual bobbing collection of tourist river cruises and yachts. But closer inspection reveals potted plants, dining tables – and in one case even a mobile home.
These are Berlin’s Wohn-Schiffe (House Boats), and they have a long tradition in Berlin. The boats range from 20-100 years old, and have been reincarnated to accomodate Berlin’s creative river-dwellers. Many were old GDR barges that, following the fall of the wall, were sold off and renovated.
Most don’t have engines, so are completely stationary. There are about 100 of these boats in Berlin, and many can be found in the docks of Treptower Park, each with an interesting history. The bright blue Risiko, for example, overflowing with foliage trailing down from it’s roof was used from the 1950s onwards to house up to 14 dockyard workers.
Keep following the path and manoeuvring past the joggers, bikers, in-line skaters and strollers, and you’ll come to a stretch of open green space, dotted with bushes and trees and manicured flower beds. Here lies Haus Zenner, one of Berlin’s largest beer gardens and also one of its best kept secrets.
The traditional restaurant (which now, unfortunately, also partially houses a Burger King), is named after Rudolf Zenner, who bought the already established building in 1874. Over the years, it has served as a bowling alley, coffee house, brewery, bakery, guesthouse, and restaurant. Today the beer garden is mostly visited by older Germans – the kind who seem to have been going there every weekend for the last 60 years. At last visit, in the middle of the day, a DJ was pumping awful German pop music and schlager tunes to a dance floor frequented by a handful of septuagenarians.
Across the Spree, visible from Haus Zenner, is the Insel Berlin (also sometimes referred to as the Insel der Jugend). The island can be reached using the beautiful Abbey Bridge, named after a Scottish Monastery which was located on the island before it burnt down. The bridge, built in 1916, was Germany’s first steel composite bridge, and it stretches over the Spree, ending on the island with a flourish with a three story tower in typical – and compelling – half-timbered style.
The island, like much of the park, is mostly used for lounging, frisbee throwing and general relaxing. In the GDR days, some of the big music names of the East would come and perform on the island, and today concerts still sometimes take place. A variety of boats can also be rented from beside the small cafe and beer garden, an approach that’s delightfully reminiscent of Spreewald.
Just past Abbey Bridge is the large forest known as Plänterwald. Here you’ll find Spreepark, East Berlin’s famed abandoned amusement park and a must-see for any urban explorer, GDR fanatic, or living and breathing human being.
There’s no obvious entrance to the park, just a big gaping hole in the trees, a muddy pathway, and some rickety fences that beg to be broken through.
Spreepark is overgrown, falling down, and decaying from its former glory as the East Germany’s extremely popular amusement park called the Kulturpark Plänterwald, built in 1969. With the fall of the wall, it was privatized, renamed Spreepark, and run into the ground, accruing numerous troubles reminiscent of a soap opera. (For the whole story, watch Achterbahn).
In 2001 the park was shut down and left to the encroaching forest, angry security guards and curious adventurers. For better or for worse, the park is becoming slightly revitalized. Since 2009 there’s been scheduled tours, theatre performances, a cafe, and the park’s little train is running once again, giving visitors a sneak peek into the park’s former glory, zooming alongside toppled dinosaurs, past Groucho Marx rail cars and a vibrantly coloured teacup ride, and around the famed 45 meter ferris wheel which turns in the wind, giving the park an even eerier feel.
Over on the other side of Pushkinallee, away from the canal and the boats, is the Archenhold Sternwarte (observatory) and dating back to 1896 it is Germany’s oldest and largest observatory. It stands in the middle of a grassy field, perfectly solitary: a beacon for the astronomical world.
The observatory holds within it the “large refractor”, the world’s largest lens telescope, which was originally built for the Industrial Expo. It can be seen emerging heroically from the roof of the building, or from the windows inside the museum which circle it on every side. But that’s not the only thing the observatory is famous for.
Directly in the museum and to the right, is the Einstein Hall. Inside these double white doors, Albert Einstein gave his first talk in Berlin about the theory of relativity. Knowing the great minds who have been in the building makes walking down the quiet halls, with the soft ticking of astronomical clocks in the background, feel immense.
Walking back up along Pushkinallee towards S Bahn Treptower Park, you’ll find the epic Soviet Memorial, a tribute to that regime’s greatness, achievement and victory.
Stretching over 10 hectares of the park, the memorial consists of two enormous triangular red granite flags which flank a walkway down the middle.
At one end, a statue of mother Russia weeps; at the other, a 70-ton bronze statue of a Soviet soldier stands upon a burial mound, holding a German child in one hand and a sword in the other, thrust powerfully into a swastika under his feet.
The memorial is home to the bodies of 7,000 soviet soldiers, and commemorates the death of the 20,000 who lost their lives in the Battle of Berlin. The enormity of the structure alone is breathtaking. It’s one of three memorials to Soviet victory over the Nazis which were built between 1946-1949 (the other two are in Tiergarten and in Pankow).
While the memorial is impressive, the glories it aims to represent are of course tainted by the systematic raping and pillaging of the Red Army during the Battle of Berlin (for more on that, read the anonymously written book A Woman in Berlin).
Continue up the boulevard, among the perfectly landscaped trees, and you’ll return once again to S Bahn Treptower Park and the bustle of the city. If your stroll has been leisurely – which we’d naturally recommend – you may well find that it’s now the end of the day.
About The Author
Tam Eastley is from Calgary, Alberta, Canada. She moved to Berlin almost four years ago and completed a Master’s Degree at the Freie Universität Berlin in English Literature and Cultural Studies. Never content staying in one place, she recently cured a bout of wanderlust with a trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway. She is currently a freelance travel blogger and podcaster with Mädels With a Microphone, a monthly podcast series about the quirky side of Berlin. Her interests include culture, literature, travel and roller derby.