Prenzlauer Berg Wasserturm: history, wine, and Berlin’s underground
Come for the history, stay for the wine. Yup, that’s what the non-profit booster club for the Prenzlauer Berg vineyard and area history is about. Its motto: “Wine unites” (rather loosely translated from the German, “Wein verbindet”). Tours and accompanying wine tastings at the Prenzlauer Berg Wasserturm (water tower) only happen about six times a year, or once a month during the spring, summer and early fall, so a little planning is needed. A few other events happen during the warmer months too – including concerts and park walks — all organized and promoted by the “Berliner Riesling” club in cooperation with the quarter’s Museum Pankow across the street from the water tower.
Prenzlauer Berg Wasserturm: Berlin landmark for 150 years
The tower (nicknamed by locals, “Fat Herman” or “Dicker Hermann”) as seen today is striking in its architecture as well as its location at the top of a small rise to the north of Berlin’s Spree River. It can in fact be seen for miles – making it the perfect location for downhill water delivery to the formerly small but growing city. Berlin however grew very rapidly and the need for clean water expanded quickly, too, putting this tower completely out of the water business by 1952. Over the years, structures were added, torn down and changed. In fact, for a short time during the Nazi regime, there was a small concentration camp on-site to torture resistance fighters, whose screams could apparently be heard by passers-by.
If you are not part of a tour, you cannot get into the towers or underground cisterns, although a walk or picnic in the park with its vistas (and 20,000 rose bushes that have been carefully nurtured since tower and park renovation started in 2000) are still worth it. Plaques tell you about the tower, park and history. Locals love to hang out here, sip coffee, watch sunsets, play with their kids, or romp through a little soccer match on the grounds. A newly renovated playground also just opened in late spring 2018.
Today, the water tower has a number of rent-controlled apartments in it that are of course in high demand.
Getting underground at Prenzlauer Berg’s Wasserturm
If on a tour run by the non-profit Berliner Riesling group, you will spend two hours learning about the wine (yes, yes, I’ll get to the wine part, below), as well as discovering the long history of the tower and grounds. Then you get to walk down into the old cisterns. Today they are used for occasional art shows or concerts due to amazing acoustics– the echo and reverberations in the large one last 18 seconds.
The large cistern (you can see its cover above ground in the middle of the park’s field) is 7,000 cubic meters and was built in rings to withstand high water pressure. Today, passages have been cut into the walls between the rings for access. It can be 10 degrees Celsius colder (about 18-20 Fahrenheit) in the underground water tanks so take a sweater. In fact, it’s so cold that a fish shop stored its goods there for a while. The tank was also once an air raid shelter, and if you look closely you can see white paint on a wall that will glow once light strikes it from its shelter days.
Go to the club’s website to find out current dates, including other events taking place at the Prenzlauer Berg Wasserturm. Be forewarned: The website is only in German, so although dates will be clear, the descriptions may not be without the loose translation of your favorite translation tool. (The website says the per-person fee is 5 Euro, but it was 7 Euro in April 2018.)
What about the wine? Tell me about the wine!
Yum, German Riesling! Back in the day, Berlin had about 124 wine-producing vineyards, explained Leane Benjamin, district construction manager for streets and green spaces, at the tour. But no longer. Except those now in the Prenzlauer Berg People’s Park (Volkspark) run by the Berliner Riesling club. The park is 29 hectares while the club’s neighboring vineyard is about ¾ of an acre (0.3 hectares). Members have nurtured 600 vines there, of which 500 are Riesling which are pressed at the Prinz zur Lippe winery in Meissen, Saxony. The area was planted in 1999 by the Prenzlauer Berg district office and the first harvest came in 2003, producing 170 bottles. In 2003, the Berliner Riesling group took it over from the district administration, which apparently realized that the wine business was just too time-consuming for bureaucrats. Today, the Berliner Riesling group produces 500-1,000 bottles, the group’s vice-chairman Wolfgang Krause told us.
At every tour, there is a wine-tasting (and I can vouch for the YUM factor of the wine), and of course the opportunity to buy a bottle. Or more. Plus, guide books about parks and gardens are also usually for sale at discounts.
We were able to snag one of the last few bottles with the current rather lovely label. The group unfortunately discovered it could not state “Berlin,” “Prenzlauer Berg,” or even “Riesling” on the label. So henceforth the wine is simply called “Der Besondere,” which translates loosely as “The Special One.”