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 ingenious river-dwellers.
Many were old GDR barges, and after the fall of the wall, were sold off and then renovated. Most of them don’t have engines, so are completely stationary atop the Spree. 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 dates back to the 1950′s and was used to house up to 14 dockyard workers.
Across the Spree and perfectly 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 wonderful 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, following the path and manoeuvring among the joggers, bikers, in-line skaters and slow-moving elderly Germans; alongside the stretching open green space, dotted with bushes and trees and manicured flower beds, one 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. Now, the beer garden is mostly visited by older Germans, the kinds who you’d imagine have been going there every weekend for the last 60 years. At last visit, in the middle of the day, a DJ was pumping bad German pop music and schlager tunes to a dance floor frequently visited by a handful of 50, 60, 70-something Germans. Everyone else was sitting at picnic tables, nodding their heads to the music, cradling freshly poured beer, and looking on without even a glint of embarrassment in their eyes.
Just past Abbey Bridge, is Plänterwald, a large forest which hides within it, perhaps one of Berlin’s greatest treasures. Plänterwald is home to Spreepark, East Berlin’s famed abandoned amusement park, 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, I suggest watching the film Achterbahn. In 2001 the park was shut down, and was left to the encroaching forest, angry security guards and curious adventurers. Now, however, 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.
The train zooms alongside toppled dinosaurs, past Groucho Marx rail cars, a vibrantly coloured teacup ride, and around the famed 45 meter ferris wheel which turns in the wind, giving the park and even eerier and ghostly feel. The buildings are falling apart, their doors smashed open, and one can spot hints of graffiti inside. The old park, is breathtaking.
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 enormous Soviet Memorial. It is, in a word, epic. It reminds me of Angkor Wat, purely because of its imposing nature, and local resident Johnny Adams, upon seeing the memorial for the first time, compared it to the Taj Mahal. Of course, it looks like neither of these two famous tourist destinations, but it evokes the same awe-inspiring feeling nonetheless.
The memorial, which stretches over 10 hectares of the park, 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 who lost their lives in the Battle of Berlin.
The enormity of the structure alone is breathtaking, and it’s obvious that the memorial is meant to be a tribute to Soviet greatness, achievement, and victory. It is 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. The memorial is at 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 imposing and perfectly alined trees, brings the park full circle back to S Bahn Treptower Park and once again onto the busy and bustling streets of Berlin. Wandering this enormous green space and exploring its sites can take all day, and during these long lazy summer months, 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, and perhaps the next time I’m there, I’ll discover even more treasures.