Kreuzberged on Berlin’s most popular open-air swimming pool…
Despite it being almost always abundantly full, rambunctiously loud and – let’s be honest – an occasional challenge to one’s nerves, it’s hard to imagine Berlin summers without its most popular man-made dipping spot.
Prinzenbad (Sommerbad Kreuzberg, its official name, is used by practically no-one) became the city’s Number 1 pool after reaching its seasonal quota of 700,000 visitors in 1992 – a position it has occupied ever since despite the slight decrease of the number of visitors caused by poor weather and several ticket price hikes.
Its popularity is pretty easy to explain. it’s spacious, centrally located (right next to U-Bahn Prinzenstrasse on the popular U1 line, hence its nickname) and full of water – lots and lots of water. But more than any of those things, perhaps, Prinzenbad offers a unique slice of local atmosphere, hence it has been featured in not one, but two films: the screen version of Sven Regener’s classic Herr Lehmann (aka Berlin Blues), and Bettina Blümner’s 2007 punchy documentary about three Kreuzberg girls, Prinzessinenbad: Pool of Princesses.
The baths are actually built on the site of the former English Gasworks – or the Imperial Continental Gas Association as it was officially known, a company that installed the very first gas lighting in Berlin during the 1820s – which were destroyed by Allied bombing in 1945.
They were ordered to be built by Kreuzberg’s first post-war mayor, the unforgettably thick-browed Willy Kressmann (“Texas-Willy”). While building a brand new recreational pool might not seem like the most urgent priority in a war-ravaged city, Kressmann knew what he was doing.
Around 80% of all households had no access to running water or a private bathroom, hence sanitation standards were poor and contagious diseases (typhus, paratyphus, diphtheria, shigellosis, polio) were widespread, killing thousands of people. Prinzenbad was therefore built for reasons of civic health, which explains why until 1975 it was run by the Health Department rather than the Sport-Verwaltung.
In fact, Kressmann’s plans came under fire by opponents who pointed to Kreuzberg’s existing (indoor) public pool, the turn-of-the century Baerwaldbad, built in 1901 around the same time as Prenzlauer Berg’s Stadtbad Oderbergerstrasse (1902). But as wonderfully-designed as Baerwaldbad was, it was not fully operational after WW2 and simply too small to cater for the ever-expanding borough.
Kressmann, a feisty and persistent campaigner, got his way and the pool opened in the summer of 1956, though he did overlook one thing: a note in the construction report detailing the site’s heavily contaminated soil. In 1976 the baths had to be re-excavated, decontaminated and the whole plot filled in with fresh soil at an estimated cost of 8-15 million German Marks.
Upon its second opening in 1984 an almost entirely new and expanded Prinzenbad (the name comes from its main entrance being on Prinzenstrasse by the way) could welcome up to 8,500 visitors daily. Being so large and so central also made it the most popular: by the time the Wall fell, it was drawing up to 20,000 a day, despite being the only one of West Berlin’s many other pools and lidos (Columbiabad in Neukölln, Freibad Humboldthain in Wedding, Westend-Bad in Charlottenburg to name a few).
Although the baths have been operating it has been forced to temporarily close once or twice. One shut-down occurred in 2002 when a group of punks and left-wing protagonists climbed over the fence and dived in fully-clothed to protest against a price hike. Another happened a couple of years later after a pack of skinny teenage machos decided to settle a dispute with the help of a knife.
The latter incident, unfortunately not the last of its kind, forced the administrator (Berliner Bäderbetriebe) to provide the establishment with a ‘mediation team’, whose low-key presence seems to have eradicated such testosterone-driven occurrences.
Today there are not one, but two 50-metre swimming pools (whose deepest ends run to around 3.5 metres), a 1,600 square metre non-swimmer pool (equipped with a slide and two energetically-spurting fountains), as well as a fantastic little paddling pool with a 3-metre-wide slide for smaller kids that winds its way down to yet another, slightly deeper (50cm rather than 5cm) kids’ pool.
A massive adventure playground for children, then – but also for parents, who often have to tear themselves away from the watery fun to watch over their offspring. Fortunately, small benches surround the pools from which parents can keep an eye on things. Plus there’s also a pleasant and surprisingly well-kept meadow whose trees, planted after the comprehensive 80s refurbishment, provide that other essential sunshine deterrent: shade.
At the opposite end of the meadow is a nice sandy playground and the FKK Bereich – the special area for fans of ‘textile-free’ natural sun-bathing that’s a feature of many public pools and beaches in Germany. A small kiosk serves up simple snacks and weather-beating ice-cream, which can also be enjoyed at the kiosk’s terrace or at the table conveniently placed in the shade of one of the small trees.
An adjacent shop offers a choice of swimming pool paraphernalia from flip-flops to inflatable swimming-rings, and there are clean toilets and showers (though do bring your own little padlock if you wish to leave your things in a locker).
The only grumpiness you might encounter is from the Kampfschwimmer (“battle-swimmers”) – the regulars who are in the pool as soon as it opens, practising their butterfly strokes and unapologetically hogging the lanes (tip: arrive after 8am to find space).
Otherwise the clientele are a generally peaceful and colourful lot – if high-volume on occasion – that still represent Kreuzberg’s famously broad demographic in microcosm: elderly ladies trying on their new bras at the edge of the pool, suave playboys showing off their taut torsos, Turkish anne’s (mums) in headscarves – plus the ever-growing army of international hipsters who have discovered Prinzenbad’s old-school charms for themselves.
Sommerbad Kreuzberg (Prinzenbad)
Prinzenstrasse 113-119, 10969 Berlin
Open 7am-8pm (until August 31) and 7am-7pm (from August 31 to September 14)
Admission: EUR 5.50 / 3.50 for a single ticket, EUR 3.50 for a final-call ticket (1h 15 min before closing time), EUR 11.50 for a family ticket (up to 2 grown-ups and 5 kids)