Unless you know where to look you’d struggle to spot them in Berlin’s modern-day cityscape but, just over a century ago when Greater Berlin was created during the Weimar Republic, the city absorbed what up until then were independent villages on the periphery of the German capital. That means there are around a dozen old villages sitting within the city limits.
They tend to be remote from the centre, but remain there to be discovered. One moment you’ll be wandering along passing row after row of irretrievably ugly housing estates from the 1960s and 70s, when suddenly an ancient church will magically appear. Nearby will be the still identifiable original village centre. The 13th century Dorfkirche in Alt-Mariendorf is just one example.
The former village of Alt-Tegel is even more relaxed now that Tegel Airport has closed down, and a couple of minutes walk from the U-Bahn you could be in the countryside. There’s nothing left from when the village was founded 800 years ago, but there’s still a collection of lovely buildings leading to the Tegeler See, from where you can walk along the lake shore to Spandau.
Each ‘village’ is a unique oasis within the city, offering a pleasant glimpse into a different Berlin. In some cases modern life has imposed itself a bit too brutally on the former rural idyll. Dorfkirche sits at the junction of two busy roads. Alt-Britz, on the other hand, is a tranquil spot that dates from 1237, and comes with a lovely church overlooking a pond a short walk from Schloss Britz.
We were on our way to the Britzer Garten, a delightful but not free expanse of landscaped gardens dotted with sculptures and otherworldly buildings left over from when the Federal Garden Show was held there in 1985. First though, we wandered into the grounds of Schloss Britz, a once grand Prussian aristocratic estate with wooded grounds and rose garden.
We’d walked from Mitte through some of the (much) less visually pleasing areas of Neukölln along a busy and polluted road. Schloss Britz, tucked away across the former Alt-Britz village pond, felt light years away from its neighbouring districts. A few people wandered through the grounds, but it was a peaceful spot to grab a bench and listen to the birdsong.
The modern Schloss is a pretty 1880 Neo-Renaissance reworking of a Baroque palace built over a century earlier, itself an upgrade from the original 1699 half-timbered home of the Britzke family. Its most famous resident was Count Ewald Friedrich von Hertzberg, a man who served as a minister to both King Frederick the Great and Frederick William II.
So sleepy is it today, it’s hard to imagine this was once the home of the man considered to be the second most powerful person in Prussia after the king. The whole of 18th century Berlin society would have wanted to visit this place. Needless to say, nothing was open, so we walked the grounds and then set off for the Britzer Garten a couple of kilometers away.
One of the benefits of not researching where you’re going is that it’s mostly a surprise when you get there. At Britzer Garten our first surprise was that we had to pay to get in. Once inside we realised that this was much more than a city park. Interesting sculptures were scattered throughout the grounds, which incorporate a lake, meddows, and flower gardens.
Another surprise awaited us in the Kalenderplatz, where Europe’s largest sundial stands. It’s next to a beer garden, leaving the recreational drinker no excuse for being late home. We walked around the lake to where a group of older gentlemen navigated remote-controlled model boats from a special model boat harbour. Simply wonderful.