There are still many ruined places in Berlin. Indeed the German capital hasn’t yet gotten rid of all the decaying relics that tell part of its story. A lot of them are famous among people tracking the wild side of this city and chasing its past through sites that were abandoned after German Reunification. Here are some of the most fascinating, in chronological order of their original creation: the Sanatorium for tuberculosis patients in Beelitz, the 1936 Olympic Village, the NSA spy station at the top of Teufelsberg and the East German amusement park at Spreepark.
About ninety minutes south of Berlin on public transportation, the Beelitz Sanatorium (Beelitz Heilstätten) is a gorgeous place to enjoy on a sunny day. This site is pleasant for two reasons: visiting the ruins of the sanatorium on guided tours and the canopy walk above the trees and the derelict buildings.
From the elevated promenade, one captures the entire Brandenburg landscape: miles and miles of flat terrain covered by a pine forest, which looks like an ocean of greenery. Various shades of green and blue sky surround visitors. Below the platform, several 19th-century buildings, covered with red-tiled roofs, rise from the sandy forest floor.
One of these buildings, the women’s TB clinic, also called Alpenhaus, was destroyed by a fire during the Battle of Berlin in 1945. The others remained untouched. After the war, the Soviet Army used them as its main military hospital in Germany until 1994.
There are several organized tours of the Beelitz sanatorium. One of them focuses on Alpenhaus and during the visit, the guides tell the history of the hospital. At the end of the 19th century, Emperor William II decided to help poor Berliners suffering from tuberculosis. Patients came here to breathe pure air and bathe in the sun. They could rest and stroll in a landscaped park, surrounded by a beautiful forest. They usually spent 2 or 3 months here, away from Berlin’s polluted atmosphere, and hoped for a cure.
Nowadays, after more than 70 years of neglect, trees grow in Alpenhaus. Guides take groups through a few patients’ rooms, bathrooms and the restaurant hall. Everywhere, the paint slowly peels away from the walls, and rusted furniture lays on the decaying floor. Tours are extremely informative and interesting, but also chilling and sinister.
In the small town of Elstal, the Olympic village used by athletes in 1936 is slowly crumbling away. After the Olympic Games, the Wehrmacht, and later the Red Army, both used the dorms to house their soldiers. The village has been abandoned since 1994. Nowadays, grass grows in the paths and the remaining buildings stand completely empty. Many others have been destroyed in recent months. A new housing project is in fact slowly rising from the deserted village and property developers hope that families will move here within the next few years.
The swimming pool, the tracks and the basketball gym are the better-preserved buildings. The light softly passes through the windows of the gym, where one easily imagines athletes training. In the pool building, there is a small exhibit about the most famous athlete of these Olympic Games: Jesse Owens. The story told in the Village is that of Hitler, using sport for his own propaganda purposes. Other sites in Berlin recalls the 1936 Olympics: the soccer stadium – Olympiastadion – and the Olympic swimming pool – Sommerbad Olympiastadion. Both have been renovated and are still in use: you can catch a soccer game at the stadium and go for a swim in the pool – during the summer months.
Visiting the 1936 Olympic Village isn’t easy, but an association organizes group tours by appointment. If you decide to go, be warned: there aren’t many restaurants near the Olympic Village.
The highest hill in Berlin is completely artificial and fairly recent. The Devil’s Mountain (394 feet above sea-level) is a woman-made hill: after WWII, Berlin women were the main force behind the cleaning up and rebuilding of their city. They were called the Trümmerfrauen, or rubble women. East-Berlin soon refused to take any more debris from West-Berlin. Thus West-Berliners had to find a new location to put the remnants of the thousands of buildings that had been destroyed during the Battle of Berlin. They chose the northern part of Grunewald forest, which was fairly close to the center of the city. While walking around the Teufelsberg today, you will notice broken bricks and pieces of walls sticking out of the ground.
Once Berlin’s cleaning up had been completed, workers covered the rubble with dirt. And nature took over, once again. A word of caution if you plan on visiting at night: boars live here, so be ready to climb the nearest tree!
During the Cold War, the Americans set up an intelligence-gathering station at the top of the Teufelsberg. Three enormous white globes soared well above the tree line; they used to contain listening devices. According to a legend, one could hear Brezhnev brushing his teeth.
The spying station lost its raison d’être after Reunification; the Americans and British left the site. During the decades that followed, street artists came to tag walls in the abandoned station. Others came here for thrills. Nowadays, the owners of the site have made it safe for tourists to visit and organize historical tours in English and German.
East Berlin used to have its own amusement park within the city limits: Spreepark. People came here to enjoy the Ferris wheel, water rides and rollercoasters. After Reunification, the park managed to stay open for about 10 years before it had to shut down, due to financial constraints. The owners dismantled and sold some of the rides, and then abandoned the park. Similarly to the previous three sites, people came here to tag, to take pictures and to hunt for memorabilia. Nowadays, an organization is offering guided tours on weekends and there are grandiose plans to convert this decaying park into a landscaped garden, enhanced by some of the few remaining rides.
When touring Spreepark today, it is rather difficult to imagine what it looked like 30 years ago. The Ferris wheel is still standing, rising tall among the trees. However, the other structures are more difficult to interpret. A few surprises await around a bend or at a turn in the path: some train tracks over a pond, a fake mountain still covered in “snow,” and the colorful face of a giant monster. At the entrance of a water ride, the log carriages are ready for passengers. But the water doesn’t flow anymore in the pipes. Instead, the entire structure is covered in dead leaves, branches grow through the buildings and the pipes are completely clogged.
I visited this ruined amusement park during a warm and sunny summer afternoon. It was quite fun to try to decipher the landscape and imagine what had been here, and what the buildings could have been used for. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help envisioning this place under the rain, at twilight or in the dark: creepy! The graceful swans and the cheerful dinosaurs wouldn’t be so welcoming anymore. Wouldn’t they look terrifying instead?
Freischwimmer is a quaint restaurant by a small canal, in Alt-Treptow. It is north of Teltower Park, about 20 minutes by bus from Spreepark. This small restaurant looks like the French guinguettes that one sees in impressionist paintings. Here, they serve hearty German food, made of local and seasonal ingredients. The salsify soup is delicious, delicately flavored with spices and served with slivers of smoked salmon. A perfect winter treat!
On the edge of the Grunewald Forest, near the Grunewald train station, Restaurant Scheune also serves fresh and seasonal dishes. At the end of the summer, this is a great place for chanterelles: choose from the chanterelle soup, or pasta with chanterelles, or chanterelles with eggs and bread.
Berlin has managed to keep decaying sites within its city limits until now. Anyone leaving the touristy part of town around the Brandenburger Tor will notice them. Old water towers, gazometers, and factories with broken windows are part of Berlin’s landscape. While wandering in parks, one stumbles upon train tracks partially hidden by grasses and trees. Traces of the past are everywhere. Nevertheless, Berlin is slowly cleaning itself up and changing.