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The great escape

Jefferson ChaseJuly 12, 2013

Luxurious, stately, relaxed... The environs around Lake Wannsee are a great place to escape from the hipster hustle and bustle of the German capital. DW's man of the people Jefferson Chase explores Berlin's "Gold Coast."

The Strandbad Wannsee in Berlin.
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

"Have no fear - I usually know who has right of way," my friend Michael says as we speed directly toward an innocent yawl. "Ready to turn?" Michael releases the left hawser, I pull and secure the right one, and the sail comes around.

I'm very lucky to know Michael. First of all because he's the head doctor at a pain clinic in southwestern Berlin, and a few years ago, he cured a nasty case of cluster headaches I'd developed. And secondly because he owns the thirty-foot sailboat upon which we're cruising around Berlin's Wannsee.

On weekends, when the weather is nice, Wannsee is like a gigantic fairground bumper-car attraction - only the object here is to avoid other people. Michael and I do that with the yawl, if not quite as convincingly as I might have liked.

Themenbild Kolumne Scene in Berlin

Berliners used to flock in en masse to the public bathing facility, Strandbad Wannsee, which by the early 1930s was attracting well over a million visitors annually. During the Cold War, Wannsee was the closest thing that the walled-in, island city of West Berlin had to an ocean, and the lake occupied a special place in the hearts of all those who lived through that time.

The halcyon days are long past for what is the largest public beach facility of this sort in Europe, but the Strandbad retains a slightly decrepit charm and still pulls in the crowds on hot summer afternoons. In any case, you won't die of loneliness.

Elegance with a chequered history

Splashing around with the masses isn't my thing, though, so once Michael has safely deposited me back on land, I set out for the opposite shore to have a look at where the rich folks live.

If you amble down the street called Am Großen Wannsee past a couple of sailing clubs, you'll find yourself amidst some of Berlin's most stately and historically important houses.

Sailboats on Wannsee in Berlin.
On the weekends, Wannsee is crowded with sailboatsImage: picture-alliance/dpa

One of them is the Liebermann Villa. Starting in 1909, the painter and leader of the Berlin Secession Max Liebermann spent his summers here. Over the course of the years, he made some 200 paintings of its immaculately landscaped garden.

It's now a museum, of course, and unfortunately by the time I get there, it's closed. The groundskeeper hands me a brochure and informs me that I wouldn't have been admitted with my dog anyway. I don't mind. It's enough to stroll down the street and inhale the peaceful, moneyed, self-satisfied atmosphere to feel a bit wealthy oneself.

Am Großen Wannsee is the main axis of a development called the Colonie Ahlsen. It was named after the decisive battle in Prussia's successful 1864 war against Denmark. Back then, its villas were conceived as summer homes. In the early years of the Wilhelmine Empire, people obviously didn't scrimp on vacation domiciles.

But the area was also witness to a far darker chapter of German history. In 1940, Nazi authorities confiscated the Liebermann Villa - the painter's widow would commit suicide three years later to avoid being sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp.

The Liebermann Villa garden.
The villa garden was one of Liebermann's favorite subjectsImage: cc by dalbera 2.0

And a few doors up the road is the Villa Marlier, better known as the site of the infamous 1942 Wannsee Conference where the "Final Solution to the Jewish Question" was agreed. It, too, is now a museum, but you don't need to go inside to feel a chill run up your spine.

Unexpected oasis on the 'shore promenade'

At the end of the street, I encounter a massive lion - it's a copy of a statue which the Prussians looted from Denmark in 1864 and which American occupiers returned to its rightful owners after World War II.

A bit further on, the street becomes an unpaved path through the Düppel forest. The trail extends for 7.5 kilometers along the lake, passing by Pfaueninsel (Peacock Island), where Prussia's King Friedrich Wilhelm II once held secret trysts with his 13-year-old lover. This "shore promenade," as it's rather grandly known, is as empty as the Strandbad on the other side of the lake is full.

The Flensburg Lion in Wannsee in Berlin.
The "Flensburg Lion" keeps watch over WannseeImage: Jefferson Chase

My dog and I wander for the better part of an hour without seeing a soul except for a single Muslim family. Where are the locals? At regular intervals there are little inlets that would be perfect for swimming. I don't feel like a dip, though. I'm getting hungry.

To judge by the frequency with which it appears on restaurant menus, the local specialty is pike-perch sautéed with bacon. You can get it everywhere from the humble outdoor restaurants in the sailing clubs to the dining rooms of the bigger hotels. But I haven't come all the way to Berlin's gold coast to eat pike-perch. I want something fancy.

Going gourmet in Berlin's antithesis

Fortunately I end up in Eselin von A - "The Donkey from A." It's a non-pretentious jewel of a gourmet restaurant hidden in an ordinary looking building on the main drag heading back into the city center. The three-course set menu features scallops with basil sorbet, breast of duck with pearl barley risotto and a selection of cheeses, and the bar has a nice Zweigelt to wash it down with. Money may not be everything, but rick folks sure do eat well.

After my meal, the owner tells me that she and her husband moved here from the inner-city district of Schöneberg. "The restaurant was getting too established, the rent was going up, and we needed a new challenge - plus it's beautiful out here," she says.

A view of the sailing clubhouse from across Wannsee, Berlin.
Wannsee is the antithesis of "normal" BerlinImage: picture alliance/Hans-Joachim Rech

"But the Wannsee natives are a tough clientele. They don't go out much. They're a bit…" "Small-mindedly conservative?" I suggest, and she nods, confirming my overall impression of the neighborhood that takes its name from Berlin's most famous lake.

Berlin's mayor Klaus Wowereit once famously summed up the city with the phrase "poor but sexy." If that's true, then Wannsee is the antithesis of Berlin, an oasis of solidity and pleasantly tedious luxury. But as a place to escape everyday Berlin routines and take a break from the city's many irritations, Wannsee is also perfectly pleasant the way it is.