A Canadian photographer, an Australian graphic designer, and an American journalist go exploring abandoned buildings, outshining even the most clichéd expectations of what Berliner expats enjoy on an early spring day. They’re searching for two sites under the guidance of a popular website with the tagline, “If it’s Verboten it’s got to be fun.”
Blub was a swim complex that eventually conceded defeat in an agonizing battle against colonies of rats. Beelitz Heilstätten was a tuberculosis clinic before turning into a military hospital that once treated Hitler. Both are low-hanging fruit for urban explorers; they’re easily accessible by public transportation and have few, if any, physical barriers to entry. Not to mention neither has much security to hustle curious wanderers off the premises.
The first stop is Blub, right in our backyard in the neighborhood Neukölln. It quickly becomes clear this place once housed a large and luxurious operation. Mosaic tiled benches and shattered stained glass windows evoke something out of Arabian nights. However the place isn’t in such nice shape anymore.
The steam rooms and pools are in ruins. Skaterboarders use what appears to be a former wave pool as a park. Groups of graffiti artists, delinquent school students, and an amateur film crew wearing alien masks while shooting a rap music video stalk the grounds, cautious not to commingle.
We visited on a rainy day, just in time to see the weather partially reclaim this outdoor pool. Inviting.
Dismantled pieces of water slides are scattered among the brush, but the towers that led swimmers up spiral staircases to the top still stand. This daredevil was pacing across a beam that once supported a slide.
Throughout the former changing rooms, cabanas, and bathing areas, we found a mix of testaments to Blub’s former and current use. Broken beer bottles, razor blades, and spray cans are discarded next to day-pass ticket stubs and swim toys. Stepping over deflated yellow pool tubes heightens the feeling that the proprietors left in a hurry.
The neighborhood gem was a rather sad state of affairs, but it whet our appetite for more. We planned a visit to Beelitz Heilstätten, a little over an hour by train out of central Berlin. Here we are on a platform in Wannsee on the way to the hospital that tended wounded soldiers in both world wars. “A” is for Angelique, “B” is for Barbara, and so on. (Flip through to find out!)
Nerves atremble, each of us steps into the role of explorer. The uncertainty of encountering aggressive dogs, territorial tramps, or members of the Polizei adds to the feeling of embarking on a conquest. Yanking on the laces of my boots and tugging my jacket collar above my ears, I take part in what is surely the universal experience of feeling the need to imitate the backside of a centaur. Giddy with the excitement of exploring, the imagination runs wild! (Photo by Angelique Hering.)
Finished with the tomfoolery, we take a regional train out to Beelitz-Heilstätten. The station itself is boarded up and covered in graffiti, but it is flanked on both sides by the former hospital complex. We see a small kiosk advertising guided tours, so clearly a professional company has taken interest in showing people around.
But that takes away half the fun. And in contrast to Blub, we are the only ones around.
It’s not really safe. We decide against ascending one rotting staircase only to find the ceiling of the room next door has collapsed onto the floor below it. Aside from the rat feces and shattered bottles, there’s probably a host of toxic chemicals wafting from the damaged walls. Judgment here is key, but it has probably lapsed after being here in the first place.
We leave the first house and wander down the main road toward another small cluster of buildings. This rabbit hole seems inviting, so Angelique squeezes through. Never mind that she finds an open door to the warehouse on the other side of the building.
The number of abandoned places in and around Berlin is overwhelming. They range from trains to bunkers to amusement parks. Yet many of them are approaching the end of the line. The Blub pool complex, for example, has been snapped up by a Munich-based development company. All of which serves to say: run, don’t walk, to a place where you can creep around a crumbling testament to recent German history before it’s gone.