'Ur­ban ex­plor­ers' time-travel through Ber­lin's lost places

To many the nerve-tin­gling trips have a fla­vor of post-apoc­a­lyp­tic tourism'

Kuwait Times - - LIFESTYLE -

With its de­serted bunkers, aban­doned bar­racks and ghostly hos­pi­tal ru­ins, Ber­lin is a mag­net for ur­ban ex­plor­ers who seek out aban­doned places and time-travel through the Ger­man cap­i­tal's Cold War past. "It's amaz­ing, I've never seen so many peo­ple," said 'Ur­bex' vet­eran Ciaran Fa­hey dur­ing a visit to an over­grown and graf­fiti-cov­ered for­mer chil­dren's hos­pi­tal in what was once com­mu­nist East Ber­lin. Two dozen thrill-seek­ing vis­i­torsGer­mans, Rus­sians, Lat­vians-were gin­gerly step­ping over shat­tered glass, bricks and piles of rub­ble in the di­lap­i­dated, par­tially burnt and slightly haunt­ing com­plex.

Aban­doned in 1991, it is nick­named the "zom­bie hos­pi­tal" af­ter one of the hun­dreds of mu­rals on its cob-webbed cor­ri­dors and dank for­mer pa­tient wards, now oc­ca­sion­ally used by par­ty­ing youths and home­less peo­ple. Like other "lost places", it is po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous and of­fi­cially off lim­its, mean­ing vis­i­tors tres­pass as they en­ter through a hole in the chain link fence while they keep a ner­vous eye out for au­thor­i­ties. Ber­lin city of­fi­cial Eva Henkel said po­lice take a dim view of such ur­ban ad­ven­tures, that vis­i­tors en­ter il­le­gally and at their own risk. "If you have any brains at all, you don't go in there," she said. To Ur­bex­ers, this is as en­tic­ing as a hol­i­day brochure, and the hos­pi­tal is firmly on their Ber­lin sight­see­ing map.

Rav­ages of time

Fa­hey, an Ir­ish-born long­time Ber­lin res­i­dent, knows such lost places bet­ter than most, hav­ing lov­ingly pho­tographed and de­scribed them in his blog and photo book, both called "Aban­doned Ber­lin". The trend took off af­ter the 1989 fall of the Ber­lin Wall opened up a vast hin­ter­land, re­plete with for­mer Nazi bunkers, Soviet army bar­racks, shut­tered red-brick fac­to­ries and even an old fun-fair with rides and replica di­nosaurs. As the East Ger­man econ­omy col­lapsed and the coun­try re­uni­fied, these places were left to the rav­ages of weather and time.

Over a quar­ter-cen­tury on, as a prop­erty boom has re­made the face of the city, the Ur­bex fash­ion has caught fire, with ever more ex­plor­ers search­ing out ever fewer aban­doned places. The move­ment is global, with hotspots from Mel­bourne to Detroit, and some­times dubbed "roof-and-tun­nel hack­ing". A Google search for "ur­bex" nets more than seven mil­lion hits. "In­ter­est has ex­ploded in re­cent years, it is be­com­ing more and more pop­u­lar," said Fa­hey. The move­ment's un­spo­ken code is: take noth­ing but pic­tures, leave noth­ing but foot­prints. In­side the "zom­bie hos­pi­tal", Max and Mila, two young Lat­vians, were walk­ing un­der caved-in ceil­ings, dead lamp fit­tings dan­gling pre­car­i­ously from over­head wires, and ad­mir­ing a vast gallery of ur­ban street art. To many the nerve-tin­gling trips have a fla­vor of post-apoc­a­lyp­tic tourism. Max said it was fas­ci­nat­ing to wit­ness "how na­ture has taken over".

'Keep the se­cret'

Where there is a trend, pri­vate busi­ness is quick to fol­low, and sev­eral Ber­lin op­er­a­tors now of­fer tours for pay­ing guests. One takes the cu­ri­ous up a wooded hill in the for­mer West Ber­lin, to a graf­fiti-cov­ered Cold War-era lis­ten­ing post of the US Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency (NSA). For years, rave par­ties were held un­der its tat­tered ge­o­desic domes, which loom like gi­ant golf balls atop Teufels­berg (Devil's Hill), a mound made of World War II rub­ble. Such tours of­fer "au­tho­rized and se­cure" ac­cess and al­low ev­ery­one "to feel the fas­ci­na­tion of these places", said An­dreas Boettger, co-founder of op­er­a­tor Go2­know.

As early Ur­bex pi­o­neers, he said the com­pany could un­der­stand that purists ob­ject to such for­profit tours. But he said these also helped pre­serve old sites, "an ide­ol­ogy shared by many hobby pho­tog­ra­phers, his­tory buffs and other in­ter­ested peo­ple". Fa­hey said com­mer­cial vis­its are "not some­thing I like... Peo­ple are bring­ing peo­ple to places that they can see for them­selves for free. But if peo­ple want to pay tour com­pa­nies, it's up to them." The vet­eran has him­self drawn fire from the com­mu­nity for what some con­sider a no-no-de­scrib­ing in de­tail how to get to, and around, the hid­den mar­vels he has dis­cov­ered. "I pub­lish the ad­dresses, it's con­tro­ver­sial," he ad­mit­ted. "Some peo­ple want to 'keep the se­cret'." "But these places have a very short life ex­pectancy... I think they should be open to ev­ery­one."— AFP

A jour­nal­ist takes notes as he ex­plores an aban­doned build­ing in Ber­lin.

Graf­fiti adorns an aban­doned build­ing in Ber­lin.

Graf­fiti adorns a room in an aban­doned build­ing in Ber­lin.

Ur­ban ex­plo­ration spe­cial­ist Ciaran Fa­hey walks through an aban­doned build­ing in Ber­lin. — AFP pho­tos

Graf­fiti adorns an aban­doned build­ing in Ber­lin.

Youths ex­plore an aban­doned build­ing in Ber­lin.

Graf­fiti adorns a room in an aban­doned build­ing.

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