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Berlin’s watery west pt. 1: Wannsee

The church of the Redeemer ~Heilandskirche Sacrow, built in the 1840s by order of King Frederic-William IV. in the style of Italian Renaissance like so much else in Potsdam. In my humble opinion, the most beautiful church hereabout.

A slightly different style of sightseeing

While almost nothing in the world of tourism has seen as much abuse as the term “off the beaten path” we actually do try to find and create experiences for those of you, who have already done the checkbox style things every Berlin visitor does sooner or later. So, you start with a regular sightseeing thing, either by bus, or metro or bike and go see the essentials like Brandenburg Gate, and Museum’s Island and the like, than, maybe on your second, you go and try to find where the real Berlin is and you end up in Kreuzberg, Neukölln and Friedrichshain, the hip, international, streetarty neighbourhoods that is more or less equally overrun with visitors as Mitte is, but these are cool people, that go and buy a Späti Bier to drink in the park instead of spending 8 € for a beer in a Bavarian place at Alex (that’s where all the Asians go, they simply don’t have time to do Munich AND Berlin, so if they opt for the latter, operators usually gives them a dose of Lederhosen right here). After that, the real fun starts, the real exploring begins, because you can’t rely on the top 5 google search results  for “10 amazing things to do in Berlin” – never, really, never follow one of those lists – instead it usually pays of to just look at the map, find a neighbourhood that looks good, get on a bike and simply start riding. Google Maps knows so many strange and quirky places if you zoom in, that you’ll find exciting stuff almost by accident wherever you roam. Mind you, most of it, won’t be anything really famous, but very soon, maybe after two or three of those tours, you’ll start to feel the underlying fabric of the city, her distinctly shaped districts and how everything is connected to everything else.

The Steglitz marina - harbour seems a bit grandiose - is set on a green peninsula in the canal and it even has a memorial. Not sure what it was about, but I seem to remember something about an engineer for racing boats.

The Steglitz marina – harbour seems a bit grandiose – is set on a green peninsula in the canal and it even has a memorial. Not sure what it was about, but I seem to remember something about an engineer for racing boats.

Sorry, I digressed. This was a rather lengthy explanation of our choice of goal for two micro-vacations we did over the last weekend, that led us to Berlin’s western edge/suburbs, both with a lot of water involved. In the city itself, we treat our waterways like the unwanted uncle on family gatherings no-one really likes, no-one really talks to, but you know, he’s always been invited so what can you do. We don’t clean our rivers up, even though there has been a cheap and practical solution to do that in just 24 months for nearly a decade now. When it rains, both the Spree and the Landwehrkanal get flooded with untreated sewage and where other cities are turning streets along their rivers into pedestrian zones, we can’t even access ours in a lot of places. That all changes if you move to the outskirts of Berlin. If you look at the map, you’ll see that the Havel river forms an almost unbroken water world all along the city’s western edge. There are numerous canals, sometimes the river widens to a lake, Wannsee the most famous of them, pretty much from Tegel in the North to Potsdam in the South.

Took us a while to coax the motor to run, but once it was running, it just ran and subsequently started on the first try.

Took us a while to coax the motor to run, but once it was running, it just ran and subsequently started on the first try.

Boat ride around Wannsee

Wannsee is not only the name of the lake, but that of Berlin’s poshest and greenest district. Our first daytrip starts at the Steglitz harbour. This is a small private harbour on a peninsula in the Teltow canal and it only exists because some petrol heads need a place to store their racing boats. By now, though it’s mostly just a regular small marina with maybe a dozen boats. Among them the Claudia, my friend Olli’s 4m long skandinavian fun boat in bright blue, that was more than adequately powered by a 25 PS two-stroke outdoor motor. To get from there to anywhere interesting we needed to take a 10km ride along the canal. Problem is, you’re only allowed to go 10km/h, so it takes a rather lot of time sitting directly behind an engine that mostly produces loud sounds – and since we were going forward, probably a little thrust as well. But let me tell you; it’s a challenge to talk over that din. Interestingly it becomes a bit better when you go faster, or at least it feels like it, cause you’re actually having fun, once the boat starts to glide at around 15 km/h.

Cooling towers and chimneys of the heating plant Lichterfelde.

Not the most scenic start for our boat ride: the heating plant Lichterfelde.

Other than the distance, you have to pass the Kleinmachnow locks to actually get to Wannsee. With nearly 3 m of elevation differential it is high for a canal that’s less than 40 km in total. The lock itself is a fascinating combination of utalitarian and beauty and if you’ve never been in a small boat when 100s of cubic meters of water rush in to lift you 3 m in just under 3 minutes, it definitely is something you don’t want to miss. It even was a bit of an adventure because my mate is relatively new to this whole boating thing as well and it was his biggest lock yet. But in the end, it all went without a hitch and we were free to tackle the last little bit of canal before we could start our circumvention of Wannsee.

Kleinmachnow Lock

Kleinmachnow Lock

Getting around by boat as a visitor

So far, this post and tour have neither been very interesting nor very practical from a visitors point of view. But there’s an easier version that works well for non-local landlubbers. Just take the S-Bahn (or maybe a rental bike) to the Griebnitzsee station you have the choice of two places to rent a Kajak, stand-up paddling board or canoo. One of them is our Potsdam partner Potsdam per Pedales right in the station and Söhnel Werft right at the junction of where the canal leads into Griebnitzsee (in the end, it’s all the same Havel water).


Broken concrete bridge head showing a lot of bullet and shrapnel holes on Teltow canal, close to the border between Berlin and Brandenburg.

I wasn’t really able to find out anything about this broken bridge head close to the former border at Dreilinden. Since it has a lot of bullet-holes, it was probably destroyed in WWII and not rebuild because of its proximity to said border.

We took a right turn at the “intersection” but it really doesn’t makes any difference which way around you go. Boating through (how do you say that? Is it riding, driving, cruising, what’s the correct term to describe movement in a floating device?) Stölpchensee, Pohlesee and Kleiner Wannsee, I get one of my rare moments of envy, realizing no matter how hard I work, it’s very unlikely I’ll ever live in one of those villas here. Luckily taste and money are a rare combination, even more so in Berlin – we’re famously bad dressed and most of us don’t even own a proper suit. There were fake Roman ruins, eagle statues, giant golden amphorae, and I realized another thing; I’d rather stay middle class than having to compete with this impressive absence of even a hint of elegance. Before entering Wannsee proper you could fasten your boat and see the memorial and burial site of Heinrich von Kleist, right on the spot where he first shot Henriette von Vogel and then himself, a story that always touched me. Even though there were rumours about the two being romantically involved it was a platonic affair that nonetheless created a deep-felt love on both sides, so it was only naturally they ended their lives together. There are two more major destinations close by that are well worth to delay your boat ride. First there is the home of Max Liebermann, today a small museum with excellent exhibitions and a beautiful garden. A lot darker is what happened at the House of the Wannsee conference. The museum investigates the processes and decisions and people that led to the industrial murder of over six million Jews. Even as a German, who covered that topic in school at least 4 times, it is hard to grasp what happened at this conference, especially because the surroundings are so beautiful and tranquil. How detached do you have to be, to organize people like cattle, decide their deaths and than chit chat about the entrées for the lunch break, ask about the wife and the kids, just to get back planning mass murder on an unprecedented scale with typical German efficiency? Anyway, if you haven’t been and if you’re interested in the history of Nazi Germany at all, this place is a must-see. If you don’t find a good space to “park” your boat wild, you can almost always convice someone at one of the marinas to leave your boat there for an hour or two if you ask nicely.

Babelsberg palace (centre) and the steam engine house (left) that powered - among other things - the fountain on the right.

Babelsberg palace (centre) and the steam engine house (left) that powered – among other things – the fountain on the right.

Glienicker Brücke, the original bridge of spies, connecting Berlin and Brandenburg at the Wannsee lake.

Glienicker Brücke, the original bridge of spies, connecting Berlin and Brandenburg at the Wannsee lake.

See the little white thing there? That's the palais on peacock's island formerly known as rabbit's island, sadly my skipper wasn't up for a detour.

See the little white thing there? That’s the palais on peacock’s island formerly known as rabbit’s island, sadly my skipper wasn’t up for a detour.

Homes of the rich and famous in Wannsee.

Homes of the rich and famous in Wannsee.

Scooting along Teltow canal

Scooting along Teltow canal

We, on the other hand, decided it was time for a break and a swim and a bit of silence. By this point I already had a somewhat sore throat, from trying to have a meaningful conversation with a friend I haven’t seen in weeks. So for a while we just swam, had some food and enjoyed the wonderful feeling of being gently shook by the waves of passing boats.

After the next bend we finally could open the throttle a bit. It’s amazing how fast just 25km/h feel in such a small boat. We rounded Pfaueninsel (peacock’s island) and crossed under the famous Glienicke Bridge, immortalized by Steven Spielberg in his 2015 movie “Bridge of Spies”. Even though agents were only exchanged three times during the Cold War, it’s what the bridge is famous for today. The main reason these exchanges happenend here, was, that Glienicke Bridge was the only checkpoint controlled entirely by Soviet forces. The rest were in the hand of GDR border guards, but the Soviets didn’t trust their German counterparts enough to involve them in anything important to do with the Americans. For me personally it is not only a very beautiful classic steel bridge, but where I crossed Berlin’s border for my first trip to the country side, after the Fall of the Wallfor us Wessis this simply wasn’t possible before.

If you turned right for a bit there’s a lush park belonging to the Cecilienhof castle and other baroque structures built by the Prussian kings. Same behind the bridge: on the other side we find Babelsberg palace the royal summer cottage. The whole area is a prussian fairytale land, where even buildings like the one housing the steam engine, is an architectural delight. If you want to explore Potsdam properly I suggest at least two days – and that’t not counting your visit to Museum Barberini. We are happy to help you with an itinerary and will gladly take you on a bike tour in the capital of Brandenburg, or as we like to say, Berlin’s most beautiful suburb  😉

I hope, you found a bit of inspiration for your “off-the-beaten-path-berlin-activity”.

Go out, explore and stay tuned for part two 😉