Beata Gontarczyk-Krampe profiles Kreuzberg’s best loved park…
At a somewhat meagre – by Berlin standards – 12.8 hectares, Viktoriapark, which is named after Crown Princess Victoria, daughter of Queen Victoria and the wife of the unlucky Kaiser Friedrich III who died after only 99 days in reign, might be the smallest park in Berlin-Kreuzberg.
But at the same time it’s almost certainly the prettiest and most challenging. While cycling through the 26-hectares of the user-friendly flatlands of Gleisdreieckpark – or the even vaster, and equally planar, Tempelhofer Feld – won’t even give you a flush (unless of course you start speeding and cutting through the gently meandering crowds), trying to perform the same trick in Viktoriapark will leave your face the colour of a hot blast furnace. This park has hills.
Stretching between Kreuzbergstrasse in the north, Methfesselstrasse in the east and Katzbachstrasse at its western end, the park is in fact built on the highest natural elevation in Berlin. Subsequently, the view from the top of the old 66-metre high Tempelhofer Berg – or Weinberg as it used to be called in the days when it was covered with vineyards – has always been one of the city’s best, and still is.
Climb to the top of the Nationaldenkmal (National Memorial for the Wars of Liberation or the wars against Napoleon) and you’ll find a breathtaking panorama stretching from Schöneberg through Mitte down to Neukölln and Tempelhof. On clear and sunny days, your eyes will scan the Rathaus Schöneberg, West Berlin’s Funkturm, Tiergarten’s golden Siegessäule, the skyscrapers of Potsdamer Platz and the handsome roofs of Mitte’s Gendarmenmarkt and Berliner Dom – all without as much as turning your head.
Turn and look behind you, and you’ll find the magnificent 19th-century brewery complex of Berliner Brauerei-Gesellschaft “Tivoli”, now the “Viktoria Quartier” residential district – a brilliant example of urban regeneration and re-development. Behind it and to the left, the tall yellow-greyish walls and the large white water tank towering above the neighbouring houses mark the position of Berlin’s old inner city airport – the afore-mentioned Flughafen Tempelhof.
Built in 1927 and heavily re-designed and extended by the Nazis in the mid-1930s it became Berlin’s newest park in May 2010. Next to Viktoriapark, Tempelhofer Freiheit (its official name) is a colossus – 350 hectares versus 12.8 hectares – but it still doesn’t have one thing that the small Kreuzberg park has: the views.
It was this view, or rather the possibility of it, that inspired King Friedrich Wilhelm III to order Karl Schinkel to design the Neo-Gothic war memorial that still towers above the rest of the city, and which was once visible from the Stadtschloss (Royal Castle) in Berlin-Mitte.
In fact, according to some sources, Wilhelm III initially ordered a full-on cathedral to be built, until some sober soul pointed out it might not be advisable to build such a colossal structure on top of a sandy hill. So they went for the 200-tonnes of rock and cast iron instead – which was raised another 8 meters in 1879, adding an extra 40 tonnes of weight – to make it taller than the houses and trees that were steadily growing around the monument.
If Viktoriapark is anything it is precisely this: a wonderful man-made wilderness created on a hill of sand. Kreuzberg or “Cross Hill” – the name given to it after the cross-shaped memorial was installed – is in fact the northern edge of a large ground moraine known as Teltow Plateau. The sand pushed by the glacier created a series of gentle hills stretching from Schöneberg through Kreuzberg to Neukölln (Rollberge) which around the 13th century turned out to be perfect for growing grape vines and producing wine – a task eagerly taken up by the order of Tempelherren, the Knights Templar, the land’s owners at the time.
Long after the park’s vineyards were destroyed by wars and frost, but still long before architect Hermann Mächtig and his crew began the construction of the park in 1888, Tempelhofer Berg – as it was then called – was one of the most popular locations for leisurely Sunday family trips for all social classes. The fact that it was basically nothing but sand only added to the place’s charm; the otherwise barren stretch of land was bustling with life. In summer, families played with kites, rolled down the hill, dug tunnels and built sand-castles; in winter they dashed down towards Kreuzbergstrasse on sledges – or their prototypes, large kitchen trays.
Today, Viktoriapark still attracts crowds of kids and grown-ups eager to try their luck on the very same slopes during winter, using all sorts of sledging equipment from state-of-art carbon-fibre sledges that could easily pass for a Star Wars prop, to good old fashioned cardboard boxes and disused rubber car tires. By wrapping the park’s rubbish bins and the bottoms of the street-lamps with thick layers of hay, the authorities help facilitate safe landings. The slopes are also steep enough to draw occasional ski-jumpers and snow-boarders too.
But it’s of course in summer that the park sweeps visitors off their feet – literally so, as blankets are spread out on the grass and punters lay down and soak up the rays. For sun-shunners, the eastern end of the park is cool and shady and also has the advantage of the park’s waterfall (built in 1894), whose cool waters tumble down from the top of Kreuzberg and end in a decorative pool at the bottom of the park. Here, you can indulge in the age-old practice of sitting on a stone, taking off your shoes and letting your feet dangle idly in the water.
The contrast between the western and the eastern part of Viktoriapark has always been fairly stark, and for good reason: there are actually two separate parks. The eastern one – wilder, darker, steeper and more craggy – was built by Hermann Mächtig, less as a public leisure space and more as a dramatic ‘mountain landscape’ setting for the Nationaldenkmal. Full of towering trees, rocks and paths snaking their way up mossy, rocky slopes, it was modelled on the original landscapes of the Riesengebirge (Karkonosze in today’s Poland and Czech Republic) – which were also the inspiration for the waterfall, which was even built using the stone from the very same mountains.
In contrast to Mächtig’s park (which opened in 1894), the western part, built on the former army exercise grounds in Katzbachstrasse between 1913-1916, is a far more gentle, “English” type of city gardens. Conceived by Albert Brodersen, the then Stadtgartendirektor and its designer, and a fan of the English art of garden design, this park aimed to offer both leisure options and provide refuge to the people of Berlin, who with WW1 raging around them might have had enough of “manly”, “craggy” and “wild”.
The two large playgrounds added at the time are still as much of a magnet for families as they were when they opened; following a recent renovation, they’re actually among the best in Berlin (there is even a passably clean children’s toilet there). Perhaps the only thing missing from Viktoriapark on a hot summer day is a swimming pool – a large water tank you could dive into would be the cherry on top of that delicious green dessert. Sadly, the one that actually used to be there – just a stone’s throw from the playground and where a smaller sports field is today – was filled in during the 1960s.
But the former pool is not the park’s only buried secret. Below the crags and green areas, the waterfall and the memorial, lies a hidden system of bunkers and underground shelters built in the 1940s by Hitler’s military engineering troops, Organisation Todt, under the direction of infamous Nazi architect Albert Speer. The presence of the bunkers, never finished but operational, partly explain the strangely uneven surface of the park’s best-known sun-bathing area.
Small but tall, and full of overt pleasures as well as covert secrets, it’s no surprise that Viktoriapark holds a special place in many a Berliner’s heart. It also provides for the stomach too – hidden behind the Nationaldenkmal’s is the tiny “Xberger Hütte”, a former park toilet redeveloped into a cosy little kiosk offering drinks and snacks to weary visitors.
The real destination for food and drink though is “Golgatha” – a classic German biergarten, where the beer is always cold, benches are long and welcoming and there are fresh Pretzels, baked potatoes, steaks, salmon and an array of soups and vegetarian dishes on offer. (Insider tip for parents: you can send the kids to the nearby playground and keep a watchful eye on them from the right hand side of the pub’s elevated terrace).
Beata Gontarczyk-Krampe offers guided tours of Viktoria Park and the surrounding area of West Kreuberg. Click here to find out the date of the next tour.