Everything You Never Knew You Wanted to Know About Berlin


In November 1872 Theodor Fontane – journalist, author, glorious hypochondriac and Berlin´s most famous ex-apothecary (he worked, among others, in the hospital pharmacy at the Bethanien Hospital in Kreuzberg) – took a stroll in the gardens of Schloß Charlottenburg.

Theodor Fontane

It was a cold and rainy day and his journey from Brandenburger Tor to Charlottenburg could hardly be described as pleasant: “It is raining. Half a dozen freezing creatures, all sullen or indifferent, are sat inside the Charlottenburger Omnibus, each with a big dripping umbrella in the hand. No-one speaks. Damp, similar to that issued by drying washing, is billowing around us like fog and the rubber-coat next to me does nothing to improve the climate.”

Funnily enough, despite his widely-known fear of infections and diseases (he never left the house without a shawl and made his physician’s life one of dreary anticipation), Fontane had no problem spending time outdoors even in bad weather: “What counts for men, also counts for days: you have to take them as they come.”

“Schloßgarten Charlottenburg seen fron the Hohe Brücke” by Florian Grospietsch, around 1815.

Once in Charlottenburg – then still an independent city – Theodor Fontane entered the palace gardens, becoming one of the few visitors who ventured into their territory that day. His impressions of it were later included in the third volume of Wanderungen durch die Mark Brandenburg (Ramblings through the March of Brandenburg) – a masterpiece by far and the best travelogue ever written.

The chapter “Belvedere in the Charlottenburg Palace Gardens” is a perfect example for why it pays to read historical personal travelogues: they often tell things you would hardly find out about otherwise. Take, for instance, the fish.

View of Schloß Charlottenburg across Luiseninsel, 1920s postcard.

On his way to the said Belvedere – the actual goal of his visit – Theodor Fontane stops on a bridge, on the “Klingelbrücke” (Bell Bridge), spanning a ditch near a large palace pond. Sounds far from exciting but this, dear reader, is when we learn another fascinating yet by now pretty obscure Berlin fact.

Namely, that the common name given to that bridge was inspired by a tradition practised in the park for decades: a bell installed there was used to summon 36 giant carps living in the pond. According to Fontane, each of the nearly 1.5-metre long creatures (they measured over four Prussian feet, with a Prussian foot being equal to 31.385 cm) was over 150 years old. The author speculates that the carps could have been put into the pond by King Friedrich Wilhelm I (aka Soldatenkönig, even though the only military thing about him was his curious passion for extremely tall soldiers or Langen Kerls).

The fish, summoned by the bell for feeding, were of truly monstrous size and when they arrived, both children and grown-ups threw them large pieces of bread and cake: “For those carps a bread-bun was what a bread-roll was for an elephant [at the Zoological Garden in Charlottenburg].

Unfortunately, their size did not help them when in winter 1864 deep frost  hit Brandenburg and the pond in which they lived began to offer less and less space. In the end, the layer of ice reached so deep that the Moosköpfe (moss-heads) suffocated one by one. Their massive bodies did not resurface until April 1865. Next summer the pond was populated by a new school of carp but by Fontane´s November stroll seven years later they were each “the size of a tiddler”.

It was not the first such death-by-frost incident for Berlin fish, by the way. In 1849 all goldfish of the Tiergarten ponds met with the same fate: a whole generation of the basins’ limbless inhabitants had to be replaced. However, the lesson was learnt and conclusions drawn: the following winter all goldfish had been removed from the ponds and brought indoors. As a result the size of their population exploded and the excess fish could be sold to private owners. Not surprisingly perhaps, the aquarium business and aquaristics boomed in Berlin – something the owner of a popular, mid-nineteenth century aquarium and pet fish shop in Markgrafenstraße (“Best glass Fish-bowls and other necessary Paraphernalia”) knew to appreciate.

Unfortunately, as we now know thanks to the inimitable Theodor Fontane, that boom did not help the Charlottenburg carps.

Translation of Fontane´s text by Yours Truly.


  1. pethan35
    Nov 15, 2017

    What a great story. I hope your followers will want to know more about Theodor Fontane. Wouldn’t it be good if ever they rename the American Memorial Library it should get his name as he lived there once and it is now part of the Berlin Library.

    • notmsparker
      Nov 15, 2017

      I would love to see his name honoured this way, Peter! He is definitely someone whose texts should be read more, too: they are so wonderfully witty. My current favourite quote: (Fontane looking at the Belvedere in Schloßpark Charlottenburg) “Rokoko. Durch und durch.”

  2. Dr. Gabriele Radecke
    Nov 16, 2017

    More Information about Fontane you will find here (Website Theodor Fontane-Arbeitsstelle, University of Göttingen):

    In Fontanes Notebooks you can find a lot of notes about his “Wanderungen durch die Mark Brandenburg” and places in Berlin. The digital edition ist not finished yet, but some notebooks are available online in a beta-version:

    • notmsparker
      Nov 20, 2017

      Thank you so much for this! I appreciate it a lot. I find Fontane fascinating both as an author and as a person.

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