Touring Berlin history by canoe and kayak 

In a canoe on the Spree, by kayak on the Wannsee - a fresh way to explore Berlin's history from the water.

The Isle of Youth in Treptow
The Isle of Youth in Treptowdpa/Global Travel Images

Berlin/Potsdam-For the most recent issue of the our history magazine B History, we took to the water. Many historically significant places, well-known and lesser-known, lie along Berlin's beautiful waterways. Anne-Kattrin Palmer and Dominik Badow took two paddling tours.

For beginners: The Wind of Change Tour

Berlin is a city of waterways and offers many such jaunts. I chose the Wind of Change Tour offered by Backstagetourism. It takes you through East German history but there are plenty of stories from before and after. Paul Stresing and I sit in a three-person canoe, and have a a two-hour paddle ahead of us.

We are dressed according to the onion principle: several T-shirts, a sweater and a jacket, with a life jacket on top in case we capsize. No wind today, so the chances of suffering the latter is slim. Very few vessels are out on the Spree.

"During the week it's almost quiet here, but it's different at the weekend," says Stresing. During the corona period, however, everything on the water became quieter anyway, he says. His canoe rental shop is still open, though. Backstagetourism has been around for 10 years. "Back then, we thought about what we could offer besides simple canoe tours," says Stresing. "So we decided to add historical tours."

Klingenberg power station, once the largest in Europe

Apart from the beavers, the wildlife on the Spree includes cormorants that feed on zander and catfish. The canoe glides leisurely along. To starboard we see the Klingenberg cogeneration plant. Engineered by the pioneer of modern power plant construction Georg Klingenberg, it became the model for a new generation of large-scale power plants beyond the borders of Germany. With an output of 270,000 kW, it was hooked up to the grid in 1927. This made it the largest power plant in Europe. Until 2017 it mainly burned lignite (brown coal) from the Laussitz region in Brandenburg. Since then it has been generating energy from natural gas.

Stresing steers the canoe towards Liebesinsel, an island east of the southern tip of the Stralau peninsula which has many other names: Entenwerder, Seewall, Diebesinsel (thieve's isle). Around 1900, sailing clubs had their moorings here, and at that time there was also a restaurant, Ernst'sche Haus. To the right, on the shore of Lake Rummelsburg, stand listed brick buildings that now house condominiums.

Skipper Stresing points to a particular building on the riverbank. At the end of the 19th century this was the Rummelsburg Municipal Workhouse. In GDR times it housed the Rummelsburg Prison, a detention centre for the East German Volkspolizei (People's Police) that held up to 900 men. The prison was shuttered in 1990. Today it's a memorial site.

Fishing in Stralau around 1920.
Fishing in Stralau around 1920.dpa/ullstein bild

From Liebesinsel we round the southern tip of the Stralau peninsula and gradually the muscles in my arms begin to complain. Below us, at a depth of 12 metres, lies a tram tunnel: the Spree Tunnel Stralau-Treptow, which went into operation in 1899, served as an air raid shelter during the Second World War and was flooded in 1948 because of the danger of collapse.

Captain Stresing changes course once more. We catch sight of Gasthaus Zenner, whose history as a restaurant popular with daytrippers reaches back to 1822. It's been closed since October 2019, but is scheduled to reopen this year. The canoe glides towards the Island of Youth. The island has borne its name since 1949. In the 1950s, the East Berlin magistrate had a girls' dormitory built there; in the 1970s, a barge on the shore served as a dance hall. The Insel youth club has been here since 1984.

Spreepark and Eierhäuschen to reopen

Speaking of youth: I ask my guide whether canoeing is something for kids.
"Families have to decide that for themselves," says Stresing. "We've already had people with babies. But I would generally recommend that they should be at least two years old."

We pass beneath the Abteibrücke (Abbey Bridge), which leads to the Isle of Youth. The overpass was one of the first reinforced concrete bridges in Germany and is a listed building. To our right is the Plänterwald with the Spreepark  amusement park, which was known as Kulturpark Plänterwald before 1991 and has been closed since 2002. A culture and art park is supposed to opened here in the near future, if everything goes according to plan.

The Eierhäuschen (Little Egg House) comes into view on the right, another  former restaurant. The writer Theodor Fontane was a frequent guest here. He liked to order omelettes - and mentioned the house in his novel Der Stechlin. The restaurant was also a popular destination in GDR times. Parts of the Eierhäuschen were used for a time as a prop room for TV shows. The building has been empty since 1991 and is currently being renovated. A restaurant and beer garden are coming.

Every child in the GDR knew the Futuro House by Finnish architect Matti Suuronen.
Every child in the GDR knew the Futuro House by Finnish architect Matti Suuronen.Markus Wächter

Sharp turn too port! Stresing changes direction and sets course for the Funkhaus. Our tour ends where it began. To our right, we see a UFO on stilts parked on a boat. This is the Futuro House by the Finnish architect Matti Suuronen. "Almost everyone who grew up in the GDR knew that," says Stresing. At the time, the building stood in the Plänterwald amusement park and was used as a TV set, for example for Spuk unterm Riesenrad, a seven-part children's series that ran on East German TV in 1979.

We reach the dock. Beavers showed their heads. I console myself with the view of the Funkhaus Berlin, where East German radio was headquartered. The building's architecture and the studio's sound quality are unparalleled. These days, the building is a culture and event venue. We end our tour with a coffee at the Milchbar.

Anne-Kattrin Palmer

For advanced paddlers: The Seven Lake tour

But I hardly listen to him, I'm panicking inside, as if I were sitting in an airliner that has hit turbulence. The only difference is that planes don't stall if you shift your weight too much to one side. But a kayak does. A roll headfirst into the cold water wouldn't be the end of the world if I knew how to get back up again. The photographer laughs, he's sitting in a two-person boat that is comparatively stable on the water.

In itself, it is a wonderful thing to explore history from the water. Wannsee and the surrounding waters provide a picture-perfect backdrop. There are wonderful routes and one of the most beautiful - and challenging - is the Seven Lakes Tour: you cycle in a circle from the Großer Wannsee past Potsdam and back to the Kleiner Wannsee, seeing historically significant places such as Babelsberg Park, a Unesco World Heritage Site, which Peter Joseph Lenné and Prince Hermann von Pückler-Muskau designed for Prince Wilhelm (later: Kaiser Wilhelm I) in the 19th century.

You can also do the tour in a powerboat or you can hike or bike it. Or you can paddle the 17 kilometres. According to some tour guides, it takes three to four hours, others say five to six. It's a day trip, Fischer told me on the phone. After all, you want to leave time for sightseeing, picnicking and, in summer, swimming.

Heinrich Zille's depiction of "Berlin beach life" in 1912.
Heinrich Zille's depiction of "Berlin beach life" in 1912.dpa/akg-images

Sounds wonderful, I thought, when I arranged to meet the small canoe club that offers the tour two or three times a year at Wannseebrücke in the spring. You couldn't ask for a better companion than Klaus Fischer, the club's chairman. The wiry pensioner has been paddling for over 50 years. He studied history and has done some serious reading about the area. Before the tour begins, he plays a description of Wannsee by Theodor Fontane, read by Otto Sander: "The wide deep blue meets our eye like refreshment." Perfect for setting the mood!

But then Fischer shows me the boat: an extremely light, highly manoeuvrable kayak made of carbon. The tour would take too long with a canoe, he explains. The photographer rides in a two-man vessel with club member Sandra Volkmann. I've never been kayaking before, but how hard can it be, I think.

We're underway! I keep my chin up, but then Fischer says: "I wouldn't recommend this tour to beginners." You have to come to terms with the wind and the waves, he says. Then forges ahead of me.

A sunny day was forecast, but the weather is hazy and the water is freezing, despite my warm clothing. The water splashing on my hand is enough. I don't need to fall in. I balance anxiously, watching every movement of the waves. Meanwhile, Fischer talks about the landscape around us.

Max Liebermann's villa, built in 1910, is located on the Großer Wannsee.
Max Liebermann's villa, built in 1910, is located on the Großer Wannsee.imago/Jürgen Ritter

There really is a lot to see at the Großer Wannsee: on the left bank, for example, the villa that belonged to the painter Max Liebermann, built in 1910. Today it's a museum with beautiful gardens. Fischer says the neighbouring villa still belongs to the same family. On the right bank is the Wannsee lido, which opened in 1907 despite resistance from residents. The villa owners found the semi-naked hustle and bustle offensive, but the district administrator at the time was a supporter of the Körperkultur (body culture) movement.

The area has been popular during the pandemic, both on and off the water. "They are looking for wide open spaces," says Fischer.

"You can approach things at your own pace," he adds.

Unfortunately, my pace is very slow. Fischer pulls me with a tow rope to the House of the Wannsee Conference, where in January 1942 representatives of the Nazi government and the SS organised the Holocaust in painstaking detail. Fischer used to work with historical memorials. He knows as much about this seemingly placid, terrible place as he does about anywhere on the lakeshore.

Griebnitzsee, Schwanenwerder - so many stories

We stop at a designated rest area for a picnic. Of course, you can also do the tour in stages, says Fischer. The stretch from Kleiner Wannsee via Stölpchensee to Griebnitzsee is all about Heinrich von Kleist, Siemens, Ufa, Stalin and the Stasi. Wannsee and Schwanenwerder Island are bursting with stories from the 19th and 20th centuries. At Glienicker Lanke and Jungfernsee, the landscape feels almost Italian. 

Before we re-enter in the water, the photographer offers to swap boats. The sun's rays break through the clouds and fall on Pfaueninsel (Peacock Island) in front of us, where mooring is prohibited. We could now paddle towards Potsdam, to Glienicke Bridge, where spies were exchanged during the Cold War, then to the Heilandskirche and Schwanenwerder, but there's no time for that today.

I fear for my photographer, who has made a beeline for our starting point, perhaps to gain more stability with a higher speed. "This place is dripping with history," says Fischer, gazing across the expanse of water. You just shouldn't fall in.

Dominik Bardow

Wind of Change Tour
Seven Lakes Tour