Time-trav­el­ling through Ber­lin

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Living - By DAMIEN STROKA

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,” says “Ur­bex” vet­eran Ciaran Fa­hey dur­ing a visit to a for­mer chil­dren’s hos­pi­tal in what was once com­mu­nist East Ber­lin.

Two dozen thrill-seek­ing vis­i­tors – Ger­mans, Rus­sians, Lat­vians – are 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 the walls of its cob­webbed 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 says 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 says.

To Ur­bex­ers, this is as en­tic­ing as a hol­i­day brochure, and the hos­pi­tal is firmly on their Ber­lin sight­see­ing map.

Fa­hey, an Ire­land-born long­time Ber­lin res­i­dent, knows such lost places bet­ter than most, hav­ing lov­ingly pho­tographed and de­scribed them in his blog (aban­doned­ber­lin.com) and photo book, both called Aban­doned Ber­lin (2015).

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,” says 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, are 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 flavour of postapoc­a­lyp­tic tourism. Max says it is fas­ci­nat­ing to wit­ness “how na­ture has taken over”.

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.

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 “au­tho­rised and se­cure” ac­cess and al­low ev­ery­one “to feel the fas­ci­na­tion of these places”, says An­dreas Boettger, co-founder of op­er­a­tor Go2­know.

As early Ur­bex pi­o­neers, he says the com­pany could un­der­stand that purists ob­ject to such for­profit tours.

But he says these also help pre­serve old sites, “an ide­ol­ogy shared by many hobby pho­tog­ra­phers, his­tory buffs and other in­ter­ested peo­ple”.

Fa­hey says com­mer­cial vis­its are “not some­thing I like”.

“Peo­ple are tak­ing peo­ple to places that they can see 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 ad­mits. “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

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