Tam Eastley explores 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 went 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 a case of beer, and away from the grills spewing their grey meat-scented smoke.
I was happy with my little spot near the canal, and I 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 one kilometre in the other, was, in my opinion, Berlin’s best and most entertaining park.
Depending on which end Treptower Park is entered, one’s impression of it will be vastly different. The southern most side is outside of the ring, covered in leafy, overgrown forest, and with 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.
Treptower Park is part of the larger borough of Treptow-Köpenick. The park dates back to the end of the 18th century, when the area it now stands on was partially cleared of a forest. Treptower Park was born, and in 1896, the Berlin Industrial Expo took place on the land, which spurred industry and development and heavily influenced the surrounding areas. The park runs along the Spree, Berlin’s famous and loveable river, however, back during the time of Berlin’s separation, parts of the Spree 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 metallic statue of three men who face each other with hands joined in the middle, is by the 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.”
Walking along the Spree, the quirkiness and ingenuity of Berliners is obvious. 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: just some more tourist river cruises and yachts. But among closer inspection, potted plants, dining tables, and in one case even a mobile home atop the boats can be spotted. 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 house Berlin’s adventurous river-dwellers.
Many were old GDR barges that, after the fall of the wall, were sold off and then renovated. Most of them don’t have engines, so are completely stationary. There are about 100 of these boats in Berlin, and many of them can be found in the docks of Treptower Park. Each has an interesting history; the bright blue Risiko, for example, overflowing with foliage trailing down from its roof, dates back to the 1950’s and was used to house up to 14 dockyard workers.
Across the Spree 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 that 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 an impressive three story tower built in half-timbered style.
The island, like much of the park, is used for lounging, frisbee throwing and general relaxing. Back during the GDR, big musical names of East Germany 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.
Further down the river, you can follow the path and manoeuvre among the joggers, bikers, in-line skaters and slow-moving elderly Germans. Alongside the stretch of open green space, dotted with bushes, trees and manicured flower beds, you’ll eventually finds the 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’s served as a bowling alley, coffee house, brewery, bakery, guesthouse, and restaurant. Nowadays its patronised mostly by older Germans – the kind you’d imagine have been going there every weekend for the last 60 years.
During my last visit, during the middle of the day, a DJ was pumping bad German pop music and Schlager tunes to a dance floor frequented by a handful of Germans aged 50 and up. Everyone else was sitting at picnic tables, nodding their heads to the music, cradling freshly poured beer, and looking on with a notable lack of embarrassment.
Just past Abbey Bridge, is Plänterwald, a large forest which hides within it perhaps one of Berlin’s greatest treasures: Spreepark. Formerly known as the Kulturpark Plänterwald, the park was built in 1969 and became one of the East Germany’s most glamorous fun-fairs. With the fall of the wall, it was privatised, renamed Spreepark, and run into the ground, accruing numerous troubles reminiscent of a soap opera, which you can discover for yourself in the film Achterbahn.
In 2001 the park was finally shut down, and for several years served as an illicit destination for urban explorers and GDR fanatics. More recently, for better or for worse, the park has started to be revitalised; 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.
The train zooms alongside toppled dinosaurs, past Groucho Marx rail cars, a vibrantly coloured teacup ride, and around the famed 45-meter ferris wheel that turns in the wind, giving the park an even eerier feel than it usually gas. The buildings are falling apart, their doors smashed open, and one can spot hints of graffiti inside.
Over on the other side of Pushkinallee, away from the canal and the boats, is the Archenhold Sternwarte (observatory) and dating back to 1896 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.
The telescope 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. A visit to its quiet halls, usually disturbed only by the soft ticking of the astronomical clocks in the background, is recommended.
Walking back up along Pushkinallee towards S Bahn Treptower Park, you’ll find the epic Soviet Memorial. Stretching over 10 hectares, the memorial consists of two enormous triangular red granite flags which flank a walkway down the middle. On one end, a statue of mother Russia weeps; on the other, a 70-ton bronze statue of a Soviet soldier stands upon a burial mound. He holds a German child in one hand, and a sword in the other, which he thrusts 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 Russians who lost their lives in the Battle of Berlin.
One of three memorials to Soviet victory over the Nazis built between 1946-1949 (the other two are in Tiergarten and Pankow respectively), the one in Treptower Park is at its best outstanding, and at worst, shameful. The painfully well-written book entitled A Woman in Berlin by Anonymous tells the rarely discussed side-story of the Battle of Berlin, when the Red Army entered the city and systematically raped an astounding number of German women, leaving behind a generation of shame and secrecy. Looking at the memorial, it’s sometimes hard not to shudder at these so-called victors.
Walking further up the boulevard, among the perfect rows of trees you arrive, full circle, at S Bahn Treptower Park, and the bustling streets of Berlin. Wandering this enormous green space and exploring its various sites can take all day. For me, it’s one of those activities that can be done piece by piece, all at once, and over and over again. It feels like there’s always something new to find in Treptower Park. Perhaps the next time I’m there, I’ll discover even more treasures.