The colours of Treptower Park were the most magnificent that first Berlin Autumn.
Like a first kiss, the intensity of the hues were seared into our subconsciousness. And nothing thereafter would compare to that experience.
Treptower Park was pointed out to us when we moved into our temporary apartment by the River Spree in October.
From there, we saw the tops of trees in the park start to change colour. When we finally made it to the grounds, the brilliance of the yellows, oranges and reds took our breath away.
Spread over 88 hectares, the Spree-side park became one of our favourite green areas. Over the years, we trod its paths hundreds of times. A mere three S-Bahnhof stops from our home, we kept being drawn by its compelling combination of greenery, water and open meadows.
Each season would bring something different.
Autumn would be a technicolour dream as the trees divested their leaves. This would leave the boughs naked come Winter, which is when the Spree would be frozen and, if there was snowfall, the whole park would be decked in white.
Spring would see tight buds just waiting to unfurl at the magic moment. Much like the human bodies just waiting for the first hint of warm weather to unfold on the meadows and banks.
Then also would the Spree waterfowl have to play dodge-the-watercraft, every shape and size of which would take over the river.
It was only in researching this story that I discovered that the park was a Gartendenkmal (garden monument), one that was over a century old, whose notable features were its ruler-straight rows of sycamore trees (Plantanenallee) that go back to that period.
According to the website of the Bürgerinitiative Treptower Park (Treptower Park Citizens’ Initiative), the park was established in 1876–1888 as part of a park expansion programme to serve an increasingly prosperous city.
A key element of the recreational area was to create a pruned continuous ‘Mediterranean dome’ over the straight avenues cutting through and bordering the park.
The sycamore (Platanen), a North American native, was selected. Able to achieve heights of 40 metres, it also thrives in wetlands, which made sense, since part of the park was a former heath forest which had previously been cleared.
That the trees survived WWII bombs was remarkable considering the park both served as troop training ground during the war and was one of the places where SS units dug themselves in to fight furiously right up to the war’s last month.
Post-war, the park fell into the section of the city controlled by the USSR.
The authorities decided the park would be ideal to host a grandiose war memorial for the 5,000 Red Army soldiers who died in Berlin.
The memorial was built on an oval leisure area in the middle of the park that was, at the time it was built, a novelty for its period, as were the winding paths and water features.
It was not until 1994 that work began to return the park to its original design, excepting of course, the Soviet War Memorial.
Whenever we visited the park, we tended to gyrate towards the riverside path. This would bring us past refreshment kiosks on one side and sight-seeing boats at anchor on the Spree side. Past that would be anglers and regular feeders of the resident swans and ducks.
Then would come boat restaurants and on the right, the Eierschale Zenner, which claims to be the oldest traditional Berlin tavern (rebuilt after the war).
Its beer garden has a wonderful view of the Spree and is listed as a special feature of the Gartendenkmal.
The Spree-side pathway would reach the edge of the park before conjoining another park. Turning left would bring us to a tiny island, Insel der Jugend (Youth Island), formerly known as the Abteiinsel (Abbey Island, after a now-destroyed restaurant styled after a Scottish monastery).
The island is always a lovely place to stop, rest and ruminate by the surrounding water.
The Abteibrücke which links it to the mainland is one of Germany’s oldest arch bridges made of reinforced concrete and is a listed monument.
Parallel to the riverside walk are paths that go through large flower beds that in the warmer months are a profusion of colour.
Then comes one of the two famous sycamore-lined avenues that make the park special, Puschkinallee (the other avenue, Am Treptower Park, forms the outer park boundary). The avenues really are a remarkable sight, bestowing upon the whole landscape, a graceful, grandiose feel, even when the trees are Winter-bare.
Across the busy Puschkinallee is the bigger section of the park, home to the Soviet War Memorial, lots more meadows, clumps of vegetation and the Karpfenteich (Carp Pond).
The irregularly-shaped 1.6-hectare pond offers plenty of brush and reed-curtained nooks and crannies in which to sit privately and read a book or relax.
The earth from the excavation of the original pond was used to build the terraces around the oval, now the Soviet War Memorial.
The pond is also home to another special feature of the Gartendenkmal, a 1907 sculpture titled Meeresgrund (Seabed). This is one of 20 sculptures dotting the park.
Occupying another corner of the park is Germany’s biggest and oldest observatory, the Archenhold Sternwarte. A historical monument, it was built in 1896 to house what was a temporary exhibit at the Berlin Industrial Show, which the park hosted: a 21-metre long refracting telescope that is still the longest in the world.
Since its establishment, Treptower Park has drawn not just leisure visitors, but large-scale shows and festivals. It has also been the site of seminal demonstrations.
The first, in 1910, was a suffrage walk. The park subsequently became a centre for social democracy, with anti-war activities and strikes as well as rallies related to the 1918 November Revolution, the event which eventually saw Germany become a republic.
When the Nazis came into power over a decade later, the park became a resistance base. For instance, passports were falsified at the observatory.
Today, the Bürgerinitiative Treptower Park works with the local authorities to ensure that the park is kept clear of “littering and commercialisation but conversely, posits safe and careful development of its green areas”.
A key concern is the precious century-old Plantanenallee which is actually under threat. Having grown to this age, the trees have become too close to each other and are not doing well. The hope is that rehabilitation will save most. Meanwhile, the park is expected to be completely renovated in 2015/16. ω
The story draws from the comprehensive history section of the Bürgerinitiative Treptower Park (Treptower Park Citizens’ Initiative) (German) based on ‘Die verhinderte Weltausstellung. Beiträge zur Berliner Gewerbeausstellung 1896’ (‘The Impeded World Fair, Articles on the 1896 Berlin Industrial Exposition’), by Daniela Reaper (1996), published by the Berlin Treptow District Office. Details of Treptower Park’s heritage listing are in the city-state’s Monuments in Berlin website (German).