Paul Sullivan enjoys one of Berlin’s finest, most memorial-studded parks…
Even by Berlin’s high standards, the Volkspark Friedrichshain stands out as one of the city’s special green spaces. Established a century and a half ago to commemorate the centennial of Frederick the Great’s accession to the throne, it gives good history, swathes of Liegewiese (sunbathing areas), an abundance of leisure opportunities and more than its fair share of interesting landmarks.
Casually straddling the boroughs of Prenzlauer Berg and Friedrichshain, and within walking distance from Mitte, the park takes up an audacious fifty-two hectares, making it the second largest park in Berlin after the sprawling Tiergarten. It was actually the park that gave the Friedrichshain district its name—the oldest parts were laid out in 1846-1848, a good seventy years before the district came into being, constructed on the space of a former vineyard.
One of its most distinctive features – and a good place to begin an exploration – is the westernmost corner, where Am Friedrichshain collides with Friedenstraße. From here, a pleasant, narrow lane leads to the park’s splendorous showpiece, the Märchenbrunnen, a neo-baroque fountain built at the turn of the twentieth Century.
The structure features 106 stone sculptures including a set of limestone figures inspired by Grimm’s fairy tales, created as a gift for lower class children threatened by typhoid fever and rickets. The fountain, though refurbished several years ago, is one of the few elements of the park that survived World War Two.
Thanks to the installation of anti-aircraft towers and bunkers in 1941 by the Nazis, the park was a prime target during the war. Afterwards, the rubble from the park and surrounding areas was collected together into two large hills, known today as the Große Bunkerberg (seventy-eight metres tall—the highest elevation point of all Berlin’s parks) and the Kleine Bunkerberg (forty-eight metres).
These hills look for all the world like natural features today and they’re popular with joggers who enjoy a bit of an incline, and people looking for a more private spot to have a barbecue or sunbathe.
By the end of the war the Volkspark was located in the Soviet Sector of the newly divided city. The GDR reconstructed the park, but many earlier elements remain, the most striking being the city’s first public hospital. The Krankenhaus am Friedrichshain was built between 1868-1874 and takes up a vast area of the park. It still functions today and in fact gained a new building in 2002, complete with elegant brick façade to blend with the original structure.
Keep strolling the leafy pathways and you’ll encounter monuments and memorials galore. Next to the hospital is a garden of remembrance for the people killed during the 1848 German revolutions; a nearby cemetery hosts the graves of 183 revolutionaries shot by the Prussian military.
You’ll find memorials to Frederick the Great; to the German volunteers who died during the Spanish Civil War; to the 1918 Red Sailors’ Revolution; and to the Polish Soldiers and German Anti-Fascist groups of World War Two. A Japanese Pavilion, introduced in 1989, features a Peace Bell given to East Berlin from Japan as an anti nuclear war statement.
The Karl Friedrich Friesen swimming stadium built here during the GDR era has now gone—replaced during the 1995-2004 overhaul with a 4,000 square metre sports and leisure complex that boasts a three metre high climbing rock, skateboarding area with half-pipes, bike riding area and beach volleyball.
Further west you’ll also find three tennis courts, which lie close to the park’s main meeting hub, the Café Schönbrunn. Housed in a former GDR pavilion and located on an embankment above the pleasant Schwanenteich (swan pond), Schönbrunn is a great place to grab a Bratwurst from the outside grill, an ice cream from the kiosk or a proper meal at the stylishly retro indoor restaurant, whose menu is based entirely on organic products.
Even night owls can enjoy the park. Not only is it open twenty-four hours, but between July and September you can attend the Open Air Cinema, which hosts a range of films from classics, specials and box office hits. Since 2003 they have also been showing the most successful films of the latest Berlinale.