Pete Carvill visits Berlin’s most idiosyncratic viewing tower…
Brandenburg, the state that surrounds Berlin (itself a city-state), is famed for being incredibly flat and relatively featureless. No matter where you travel within it, you see the same repetitive combinations of trees, grass, mud, and water, with barely a concession to variety or a natural wonder such as, say, a hill.
Ultimately it’s the type of scenery one passes through on the way to somewhere more interesting. Even Jessica J. Lee, who managed to write her recent memoir (Turning), based on swimming in the lakes of Berlin and Brandenburg, struggled to wax too lyrical. “It’s a place marked by flatness,” she wrote, “by flat agricultural ground crowned with forest. Today, the highest points are wind turbines, scattered like seeds across the land.” Even the woodland, she adds in a later passage, is ‘the predictable, managed kind’.
Yet there is much to recommend about the region, especially for walkers, cyclists and nature lovers. I’ve been exploring it regularly since 2012, and it has never felt tiresome. Its flatness is, in fact, its strength in terms of planning day hikes: with no unexpected mountains or steep slopes to surprise and drain you, it feels as measured out and predictable as a familiar cooking recipe.
The landscape is also reassuringly tame; it would be some kind of achievement to find oneself in serious trouble out there. Many hiking partners have ventured out with me over the years, without carrying even basic essentials like raincoats, food, or water and—despite the best attempts of inclement weather—have survived. That’s not something you would get away with in the wilds of Canada, Australia, or the USA, where ‘nature’ can feel like it’s out to kill you.
Brandenburg is also highly accessible from Berlin. The train from Hauptbahnhof to the Grunewald takes about fifteen minutes—faster even than going by car—and you can get reach the woods of Wannsee, Buch, or Kladow in less than an hour. It’s also agreeably civilised—and by civilised, I means it’s practically impossible when in Brandenburg to be more than a kilometre from a Biergarten.
Brandenburg has also been something of a life-saver during the last year of the Coronavirus pandemic, as an inescapable urge to escape, travel, even just move has been coupled with the closure of nearly everything in the city. My increasingly regular day trips into its featureless but familiar embrace have been enhanced by the discovery of Komoot, an app that offers an almost endless array of walking, biking, and running routes, and functions as a journey planner and navigation system.
Within thirty miles of Berlin, I found 11,769 hiking routes, 3,716 mountain bike rides, and 4,945 paths to run along. For the active person who likes the outdoors, but is too lazy to plan their own original route (ahem), this is ideal.
The most recent route I followed was around five miles and took a couple of hours. It started at a bus stop at Chausseehaus, roughly in the middle of nowhere. It took half an hour on the S3 (Hauptbahnhof to Köpenick), followed by another fifteen minutes on the 169 bus, to get there. From the bus stop, the route led me into the woods of Treptow-Köpenick, heading south towards Langer See before turning back north again, looping and twisting back to Chauseehaus.
The woods around Berlin are neither dark nor deep. They’re not particularly verdant in the summer and vegetation is sparse in winter, but it still felt like they swallowed us up. We soon left the main road and, after a few twists and turns along gravel paths, we were deep into the trees.
A sign on the road warned of wild deer, prompting a conversation about wild animals and the world-famous incident, in the summer of 2020, when a wild boar stole someone’s laptop and was photographed running away from a completely naked German sunbather.
That was at Grunewald’s Teufelssee, but the boars can be found everywhere. Indeed, not long into our walk we heard a distant rumbling coming through the trees as if something large was heading in our direction. Being scientifically curious types, my walking partner and I looked at each other and enquired, more or less simultaneously: “What the fuck is that?”
The answer came in the shape of around twenty boars which, rather than running straight at us, crossed our paths a few metres ahead, moving swiftly from left to right. Most were small, practically babies, with some larger, gnarlier ones bringing up the rear. Within a few seconds, they had vanished into the thicket of trees without even looking our way.
The route continued, taking us down to the Langer See. It had been warm in the woods but the air here was gelid and we began to shiver and picked up our pace. Tucked into one side of Langer See, just before the route turned back into the woods, we found the Schmetterlingshorst: an incongruously large, fairly down-at-heel, grey-and-brown building with—you guessed it—a large Biergarten, which contained a giant chessboard, a scattering of children’s toys, and around thirty or so empty tables.
It would have been incredibly pleasant to sit there on a warm summer day. But today was not ideal for an outdoor gathering. Instead we ducked inside to take a look at the exhibition, which consisted of an impressive seventy-three cabinets and display cases with around four thousand specimens: butterflies, spiders, and insects from around the world. While many are beautiful to look at, some—like the Elefantenkäfer—might horrify anyone with a nervous disposition towards creepy-crawlies.
It was interesting to learn that although the exhibition opened in 2007, it actually dates back to at least 1952 when Herbert Jacobs, second chair of the local entomological association, left all the creatures as a bequest. Jacobs had built his personal collection up over half a century; on can imagine Frau Jacobs must have put her foot down after five decades of living with dead insects, and finally told her husband that it was the bugs or her.
Our next stop was the mighty Müggelturm. Living in a city where hills or even vague upward inclines are something that generally happen elsewhere, the towering steps in front of us, which rose up like the back of some ancient sea creature emerging from the ocean, did honestly seem a bit much. But there was no other way to reach the tower. A path that led off and upwards to the side would have only shaved off a few dozen feet, and would have meant getting wet and muddy.
So with grim determination we began the climb up to the Müggelturm. We counted 219 steps from the bottom to the top, and another twenty-five or so from there to the tower’s restaurants. On a normal (non-pandemic) day trip we would have been able to claim a reward in the shape of an ice cream, a cake or a sausage on one of the restaurant terraces. Today they were not only closed, but fenced off and protected by two large, forlorn looking dogs.
We stopped to get our breath back and inspect the current tower, which was built in 1960. Its thirty metres of dull, grey slotted-together plastic, glass, and concrete are reminiscent of the GDR Plattenbauten out in Berlin’s eastern districts that also dwarf everything around them. The design was actually the winning entry from a competition, prompting the question: how bad were the other designs?
This version of the Müggelturm is actually a replacement for the original tower built in 1880 by Carl Spindler, owner of the Köpenick laundry and dyeworks W. Spindler. Originally only ten metres tall, it was derided for its lack of views, and extended to twenty-seven metres a few years later and rebuilt in the shape of a charming pagoda.
In 1924 the tower was purchased by architect Walter Wichelhaus, who added a restaurant, kitchen, and an apartment for himself. Prehistoric relicts were found during the excavations for these new buildings, which Wichelhaus used to create a museum collection about the culture of the local inhabitants during the stone age, Bronze Age and Iron Age, as well as the Sprewanen, a Wendish tribe that lived in the Dahme-Spree region. One of the exhibits was a molar from a mammoth, which along with some other artefacts were moved to the Schmetterlingshorst restaurant. They were sadly destroyed during the war.
During World War Two, the tower was used as a radio transmission tower and observation post and would have been blown up by German troops were it not for Wichelhaus cutting the electrical cable leading to the explosives. Closed in 1957 due to its dilapidated state, it burned down a year after that, making way for the current building.
However, despite our uphill climb, we were not really at the very top. That would cost four euros (for adults) and would require another hundred or so steps to tackle the remaining nine storeys. It seemed like a big ask, and made us wonder whether those fees might have contributed to an elevator. But we managed it—and the views were very much worthwhile.
From this height and position, Berlin resembled a grey, bumpy smear. Some landmarks from the city centre, twenty miles to the west, are visible, including the familiar Fernsehturm and what we think is the Hauptbahnhof. To the south squats the distinctive zeppelin hangar that is now Tropical Islands. And below, at our feet, lay the vast, thick forest of Köpenick, pocked with shimmering lakes—including the expansive Grosser Müggelsee.
Our muscles were aching a little from the walk, so we ambled back down the steps on the other side of the hill. One of the disadvantages of Komoot is that, since the routes are created by regular users, they can be quite, erm, whimsical. Ours suddenly took some protracted, aimless loops around the lakes, but being the savvy, expert locals we were, we skipped that part for a more direct route.
And this being beautiful, easygoing Brandenburg, we arrived back at our starting point just fine. In fact, as we approached the Chausseehaus bus stop, a bus was approaching and I stuck out a hand to hail it. It pulled up beside us and stopped and opened its door. We didn’t even have to break stride to get on.