04/26/2014 - 04/29/2014 70 °F
It is difficult to describe or characterize Berlin because it seems to be different for everyone. I had heard or read a number of opinions, and each seemed to strike a separate chord. To Lonely Planet, it is a constantly evolving city with a history unique throughout the world. To my tour guide in Munich, it is a city steeped in counter culture filled with a large number of free-loaders (He gave this opinion jokingly, but backed it up with statistics. Fun fact for the day - Berlin’s current unemployment rate of 17% is the best they’ve had since the Wall fell, while Munich is the economic powerhouse city in Europe’s economic powerhouse country). To the exchange students I met in Vienna, Berlin is an all night party town where clubs open Thursday night and don’t close until Monday morning. I was excited to visit for all of these reasons, but it wasn’t until my last night in Prague before moving onto Berlin that I heard what would turn out to be my favorite part of Berlin.
At my hostel’s free BBQ Friday night in Prague, I met an attractive redhead named Ally, who just so happened to work at a hostel in Berlin! She was actually in Prague on business, staying in the best hostels to learn what they do better than hers. As luck would have it, she actually created and leads a unique tour called Abandoned Berlin. I had heard mention of a few abandoned buildings. but I didn’t know the extent of it until I talked with Ally. Although I wasn’t in town for her Thursday tour, she turned me on to a website and FB group dedicated to exploring the many abandoned sites around Berlin.
And there are a LOT of them! I met up with Ally at her hostel’s bar and met her friend, the original creator of the website linked above. He was able to fill me in on how this very unique situation occurred, and it makes perfect sense. Many people my age (or maybe it’s just me) forget or never fully comprehend that the Berlin Wall and communism throughout much of Eastern Europe collapsed in our lifetime. So much of the history that you hear about in Europe is either centuries old, or occurred during the first half of the 20th centuries during the 2 world wars. The Berlin Wall, which also meant a divided Berlin, DID NOT FALL UNTIL 1989. The collapse of communism had many consequences for Berlin, some of which I’ll get to later, but for this part of the narrative, imagine what happened to all of these buildings and business run by the communistic government. When communism ended, all of these enterprises had to get converted back to private owners. There was a large sale of many of these buildings, but emerging from a communist economy is slow and arduous, and there wasn’t enough private money to operate all of the facilities that had existed before. Many were sold for a penny on the dollar to try and help the economy recover, but in many cases, the upkeep costs for a building exceeded what the new owners could do with it at the time, so they stayed abandoned until someone could figure out what to do next with it. I mean - REALLY interesting and unique stuff, right?
From talking to Ally and her friend, you could literally spend months venturing out to explore and document all of these sites, which is basically what they had been doing for a while. I only had a few days and a number of things on the Berlin Wish List, so I only made it to 2 of them. Barenquell Brauerie is an abandoned brewery a 15 minute train ride from the center, and unfortunately I don’t have any pictures due to phone charging trouble the previous night (worst thing EVER while traveling). This turned out being fine by me because there are times when I relish not having the ability for pictures. I love having pictures, but I don’t fully enjoy actually taking them. I feel like it takes you out of the moment, but that’s not a discussion for here. The brewery building itself is all closed up, but there’s a empty window a few feet off the ground that serves the recommended entrance point, with even a large crate there to allow anyone to climb in (no real climbing necessary). Inside the building you have to be careful of broken glass, but outside of that, it is a haven for artists looking for space or walls to work with, and it’s an easy climb up a fire escape to the roof. May I recommend bringing a few beers with you to enjoy the breeze and the views - sunset recommended.
The last full day I spent in Berlin, I convinced 2 great guys from my hostel, Steve - who I met in my hostel in Prague - and Marcus - an afro’ed guy from LA - to check out the creme de la creme - an abandoned amusement park (!!!!!!) called Spree Park.
Funny side story: Marcus joined our team of travelers when one of the girls in the group recognized him from when she saw him hitch-hiking around Ireland. They never spoke, and he probably never saw her, but when she saw him, she instantly went up and asked, “Strange question, but were you hitch-hiking around Ireland about a month ago?”
I naturally had high expectations for Spree Park, and was downright giddy as we walked thru the very forest-like city park that was the home and namesake for the amusement park. When we finally reached the outskirts of the park, there was a fence as we had expected. While I quickly climbed up and over, Marcus and Steve found a hole to climb thru not 15 feet away. This park was definitely not very large during any period of its existence, but it was a fantastic adult playground for the 3 of us. We had pirate ships, dinosaurs, ferris wheels, and roller coasters! Funhouses to climb thru and on top of. A water ride wide enough that the only way I found to get inside to scale the support beams to go up and over the water.
Marcus following me up and over some of the buildings!
We had been climbing or (safely) parkouring around the park for close to an hour when we were rudely interrupted by a surly security guard and his menacing dog. After apologizing and claiming the ignorant tourist shtick, he warned us that we had two minutes to leave before he released his dog. I’m pretty sure that was an idle threat, but we though it best to listen, and meandered our way out of the park. Marcus tried to sneakily snap a photo of the guard and dog, but missed which haunted him for the rest of the night. We had heard that there could be security, but they just make you leave as long as you’re not being destructive. A small note for my parents: we also weren’t the only ones exploring either of the 2 abandoned sites, so I’m still only somewhat of a hooligan.
After Spree Park, we were all on such a high that we decided we needed a beer before heading back to the hostel, and very conveniently just after we made it out of the park, a beautiful waterfront restaurant/beer garden appeared before us.
Bear Park Karaoke
Another activity that Ally had recommended to me was to make sure I stopped by Mauer Park on Sunday afternoon to check out the karaoke. Skeptical though I was (I’ve seen karaoke before), I’ve learned to trust the recommendations of fun locals and go in with an open mind. It also happened to be next to a large flea market, so I knew there’d be other interesting stuff to check out if the karaoke was lame. I should have known better.
I convinced an energetic French-Canadian named Rebecca from my hostel and my walking tour that morning to come along and join me, and we hit Mauer Park a little before 3, which was when the karaoke was set to start. Not really knowing what to expect, we figured it couldn’t hurt to grab a couple bottles of beer beforehand. Immediately when we hit the park, we could feel the energy in the air. Before we had spotted the amphitheater where we knew karaoke took place, we found a slew of entertaining things along the way. It being a gorgeous, sunny day, the park was filled with people BBQing, having spontaneous dance parties, and musicians performing all over the place.
Mauer Park before we found karaoke
After thinking that we don’t even need to find karaoke to enjoy this, we find the amphitheater and immediately agree that we are not leaving there for a couple hours at least. This place is huge and PACKED! Our best guess put the attendance somewhere between 800 and 1200 people
A totally free event run by 2 brothers, Patrick acts as MC and during songs picks his way thru the crowd with a can, collecting donations. Rebecca got him to sit down with us for a song to tell us about how this very simple idea grew into such a large event. This fantastic event has been going on for about 18 months - started with just a couple of speakers, a computer and a monitor. Fueled by a great setting in the outdoors, and the fun-loving atmosphere of Berlin, the word of the event spread quickly so that now it is common knowledge that if you show up at 3 (start time) you will not get a seat.
Simple setup - 2 large speakers and one central setup (with the umbrella) with computer and monitor
It was my type of karaoke, where enthusiasm and dance moves counts for far more than singing skill. The crowd is also super nice and cheers on everyone, no matter the skill level. We were treated to songs from a wide spectrum - Sinatra to Backstreet Boys, and had performers from 10 year-old-girls and boys to Darth Vadar IN THE FLESH!
Vadar brought the house down with “Happy” that got everyone on stage dancing. I'm having trouble uploading any videos, unfortunately. Look to my FB to see some of these videos. A young boy around 12 brought the evening to a close with the German version of "99 Red Balloons", a great song
The rest of Berlin
If you’re paying close attention, you might have noticed that I had a dry spell in terms of blog posting, going more than a week without a new post, and in the past few days I’ve been trying to catch up. I think this can be mostly attributed to how much fun I’ve had in Prague and especially Berlin, and how much there is to do. It is apparently my MO to schedule way too little time in Berlin, as this happened both this time and the last time with Nick. 4 years ago, we only passed thru Berlin in a day and a half, with a fun, gregarious group of Irish guys to blame - they convinced us to turn around in Munich and go back to Amsterdam with them. Nick and I never knew what we had in Berlin, but I will not make the same mistake the next time around.
The abandoned buildings are what truly made the Berlin visit special for me, but honestly even without that it may have been my favorite city. The history of the city is absolutely fascinating and unique, and I got lucky to score the TripAdvisor top rated tour guide for my free walking tour. While taking you around to all of the famous Berlin sites, we heard very in depth stories, most of which focused on the events in the past 100 years. I never knew how many underhanded or downright evil Hitler and the Nazi party committed to come into power in the first place. I feel like the biggest question surrounding this time period is: How did Germany every get to this point and put this man in power? While I always knew about the difficult economic times for the common German people that initially helped Hitler gain popularity, I was… not stunned or surprised, but just wasn’t aware of the ways in which the Nazis dealt with those that stood against them. The most infamous incident became known as “The Night of Long Daggers” when the Nazis murdered over 85 people - mostly powerful men in the German Communist party, others were opponents who threatened their need for absolute power, and still others who were allies of the Nazis right up until they no longer served a purpose. After that, there really weren’t many powerful people left to oppose them, and those who tried were either killed outright or sent to work camps.
The need to give such attention to those horrible times could allow some people to overlook details and stories regarding the Communistic times that followed WWII, with Berlin and truly all of Germany split in half by the USSR and the Berlin Wall. I know that I was fairly ignorant of this period that was such a phenomenally unique situation. I won’t go into the full details, but I had never thought about the fact that all of Germany was split up into occupations by US, UK, France, and Russia. Berlin was in Russia’s portion, but as the capital city, it was decided that that would also be split into 4 occupation zones. I had always imagined the Berlin Wall as one line going down the middle of Berlin, but in fact it was a full circle encasing the Allied sections of Berlin from the rest of the communist East German and East Berlin. Unlike walls at prisoner camps, however, this wall was not designed to keep people inside, but outside in the communist territory.
Sam, our tour guide, showed us a map of Berlin produced in Communist East Berlin that looked like a normal map with streets and everything, except that there was a thick line around West Berlin and empty space inside of it. For East Berliners, West Berlin was effectively just empty space.
Some pictures of the wall, now turned beautiful
All of this history, especially that which occurred in the last 100 years, makes Berlin a very unique and interesting place. One thing that Sam stressed other cultures can learn from is that Berliners try to confront their past, not avoid it or sweep it under the rug. Unlike in Munich, where many of the early acts of the Nazi party actually occurred, there are many memorials to the victims and the events of WWII, and they are very much out in the open. Berlin seems to know that not only that it would be disgraceful to try and forget about it, but it is also essential to remember it so that we do not repeat the same mistakes. We were reminded that there are many parallels between the early times of the Nazi party and what is currently happened in Greece with the Golden Dawn party (who ever adopted images from the Nazi party, included a modified swastika):
The final thing that Sam left us with is that while we cannot forget the horrible events of the 20th century, those events should also not let us forget the centuries of great cultures and contributions that Germany has provided us. He is British which I think allowed him to more openly express this deep admiration for Germany, while true Germans have trouble doing that because it is still somewhat “taboo” around the world to be shouting about how proud they are to be German. A terrible period, but something that the world should figure out how to learn and grow from.
Great pictures taken during the tour:
The Reichstag (Parliament building)
The Holocaust Memorial
Also some of Berlin's awesome street art!