Monday, October 28, 2013

Spreepark scrape

It’s harder to go back when you know the risks. But I had to go back, I had to go back. I was warned there was at least one guard inside and more on the perimeter, dogs too. I can deal with guards, but was apprehensive about the dogs. What if they were loose? Blood-thirsty Rottweilers or hungry Alsatians?
But I had to go back. I had to see for myself. I thought Spreepark might be unguarded because of the legal limbo it finds itself in as it awaits sale. It’s not. As I’d find out. Spreepark can only be described as a wonderland, as, indeed, you’d expect an abandoned amusement park to be. An increase in the number of visitors to levels not seen since it earned its living as an actual amusement park has hardened resolve to keep them out – unless they pay.
That in turn hardened my resolve to get in again. I hopped the fence, made my way through the foliage as I’d done before. This time however, I avoided the main paths, stayed among the trees.
Once I’d made my way through the dogs started barking. Fuck! But I thought to myself they couldn’t know if I was inside or out. They probably barked all the time. I had to go on. I went on, hoping to Jaysus they weren’t loose.
I heard weird sounds, weird sounds inside the goldmine. A grating, screeching noise, a siren, possibly an alarm. Had I triggered something by hopping the fence? I had to go on.
I made my way to the rollercoaster, greeted the colorful giant cat.
“Howya cat! Long time no see! I trust you’re not as lonely as you were before?”
He said business was brisk, no end to the visitors.
The dinosaurs were less chatty, possibly because their numbers had dwindled since before. Those remaining couldn’t even stand up anymore. They’d obviously turned to drink. Tragic. Thoughts of extinction can really get a dinosaur down.
I wandered on, up toward the giant Ferris wheel. The screeching grew louder as I drew near and it was then I realized – it was rusty, and turning in the wind! I gazed on in humble awe. Despite everything, the wheel was still turning. No matter what, the world keeps turning. It might screech, but it turns all the same.
Suddenly I knew I had to leave. I don’t know if I heard something, something strange(r). I turned around, cut back up through the grass on the hill.
Sure enough, a man’s voice called out. “HALT!”
I looked back, saw he was on bike. No dog. I can’t outrun a bike. I went over.
I refused to delete my photos as he demanded, despite the implicit threat of violence in his stance, despite his threat of ringing the police, a criminal record and €150 fine.
He rang someone, said something about five minutes, told me they were on their way, and I’d have to delete the photos anyway.
I won’t delete photos unless there’s gunpoint, with real guns and bullets. I dug my heels in as he asked again and again, braced myself. He gave up, asked for ID. I showed him my press pass, which he took photos of before telling me to expect the fine in the post and hop back out over the fence.
As I was leaving he called me back, asked if I’d pay €25 for photo rights. I’d already tried bribing the fucker, so said yeah, as long as it cancelled the €150 fine and criminal record. He said it would. I suppose I’ll find out.
On our way back to the guardhouse I asked him if Herr Witte, the chancer who used to run the amusement park, was still living onsite.
“Nein,” he replied.
Another guard came along during the ubiquitous form-filling, clearly in a better mood. I think he was drunk, probably from hanging out too long with the dinosaurs. He was very friendly.
I asked the original guard if they got many people hopping the fence.
“No comment,” he said.
“Eine Menge,” said the other. (Loads.)
I took a few more snaps of relocated dinosaurs on the way out. Their days are numbered it seems, and pending its sale to the city’s preferred bidder, Spreepark’s days are too.
I recommend a visit soon, either of the more exciting do-it-yourself variety (the worst that will happen is you get caught) or by doing a tour as others have suggested. Tours might be better for those of a nervous disposition.
I won’t be doing a tour but I will go back. I have to go back.

This post originally appeared on the Abandoned Berlin site, where it can be viewed again if you want to click on the images to see them in a fancy photo-viewer thing.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Ballhaus Grünau: When the music's over

When the music’s over turn out the lights. For the music is your special friend, dance on fire as it intends. Music is your only friend, until the end. Until the end.
Well, I’m sorry to report it is the end – the end of Grünau’s famous dance halls, the Ballhaus Riviera and Gesellschaftshaus Grünau. Every friend has left, music included, the lights have been smashed, and the last dance is but a distant fading memory.
Now the Dahme flows sadly by, lapping the “Riviera” as if prodding a carcass for signs of life. There are none. Only the corpse is left, and very soon, it seems, that will be gone too.
It’s been 22 years since the last dance. The first was in 1890. That’s when Ballhaus Riviera was built – a dance hall with several other rooms and a palm-lined outdoor restaurant on a terrace beside the river – at a time when Grünau was a happening place and hot destination for Berlin’s movers and shakers.
Grünau was renowned for its watersports, particularly after June 27, 1880, when three local rowing clubs came together to hold the first Grünau Regatta. It was such a success, that the second, called the Großen Grünauer Regatta, followed in September 1881, and they continued yearly after that, drawing crowds of up to 50,000 people on good days.
With all the festivities, of course there was call for dancing and merrymaking! The Ballhaus was immensely popular. Musicians were honored to come and play there.
The Gesellschaftshaus (social house) with 9-meter high ballroom and other rooms was built in 1897/98 and together with the Ballhaus, they turned Grünau into a magnet for partygoers and revelers from far and wide. Germans love their dancing. It was no different then.
The watersports continued, of course. The area received a massive boost with the Olympic Games in 1936, for which more facilities were built, but that’s a whole other story…
The Ballhaus and Gesellschaftshaus continued their important role in Grünau’s social fabric throughout the DDR and the buildings were even given protected status in 1977. However, the glory days were already part of a bygone era by the time the ‘80s rolled around, with discos rather than ballroom dances taking center stage.
German Reunification in 1990 spelled the end, killing the DJ, and both Ballhaus and Gesellschaftshaus were shut down the following year. Treuhand, the state company responsible for privatizing East German enterprises after Mauerfall, seized control and attempted to find a solution.
Various investors came with plans to build apartments but these were rejected by the city. Meanwhile, the “Kavaliershaus” was demolished in 1999.
The Ballhaus’ and Gesellschaftshaus’ fate was still unclear when another crowd opened a Biergarten on the land in August 2000. It didn’t last long, closing in October, though it did well to stay open that long, I suppose.
The buildings were already being vandalized and thrashed when Treuhand announced they’d be demolished but for the large ballroom and façade. In the end they sold the whole lot in 2006 to an investor from Ankara, Turkey, under the impression she wanted to build a hotel there.
More ideas followed, an old folks’ home for one, before your wan from Ankara came back with another plan to build apartments. This too was turned down.
Locals fear the owner is simply waiting for the whole lot to fall down or be burned to the ground so there’s nothing left to protect anymore and she can go ahead and build her lucrative apartments.
It’s in a sorry state now, seriously dilapidated, yet the former splendor still manages to shine through. Just. The stages, backstage, dressing rooms, floors and walls and all you’d expect to find in a ballroom are still there, but the chandeliers and fancy trimmings are all gone the way of the dancers.
Any dancing now would bring the place down. I was afraid to sneeze in case it all came crashing around me. Several floors and parts of the roof had collapsed in both buildings.
Nazi scumbags had also left their mark, scrawling their mottos on the walls, with Antifa leaving their retorts. I had a heart-in-mouth moment when a rolled-up carpet looked like a propped-up body. This is the place for props alright.
The ballrooms must have been quite something in their heyday.
Es war wunderschön!” said an old woman I met outside when I hopped back over the fence. She had learned to dance here in the ‘50s. She said Ballhaus Riviera was open to all, with dances ongoing on weekday afternoons too. She also said a Berlin school of ballet performed in the Gesellschaftshaus, though I couldn’t find any corroborating evidence.
But she talked and talked with genuine affection. Her love for the place had not deteriorated, even if its condition has.
Last month, concerned residents sent an open letter to the owner’s legal representative in Potsdam, demanding that steps be taken to protect the buildings from fire, vandalism and weather, and that they finally get up off their arses and do something with the premises. Apparently other investors are willing to build a hotel there, salvaging some use from what was once the pride of the area.
Campaigners have gathered 3,000 signatures in an effort to save it. Will there be one more dance?

Grünau’s twin dance halls Ballhaus Riviera and Gesellschaftshaus Grünau, collectively known by some as Ballhaus Grünau, though there were two. There still are two, albeit in nothing like anything approaching their former glory. Abandoned, left to rot, and abused – it’s a sorry end for what once drew crowds from far and wide.

Regattastraße 161 & 167, Grünau, 12527 Berlin. (The numbers might be one or two out, but if you aim for the numbers given, you’ll get there. I assume nobody wants the postal address at this stage.)

How to get there
The S8 and S46 go straight to Grünau S-Bahnhof. From there walk (or cycle) straight down the appropriately named Wassersportallee toward the river, turn right at Regattastraße (not left, like I did) and the dance hall buildings are up on the left. You can’t miss them. They’re the rusty, crumbling, overgrown, boarded up, suspiciously abandoned-looking buildings. Heres a map, to make it even easier.

Getting in
I walked past the buildings and hopped the fence on the far side, then walked to the back (by the river) and found it very easy to get into the Gesellschaftshaus building from there. The other building was similarly easy, though I had to hop in over a windowsill where part of the roof had already collapsed and the rest looked like it could fall any minute.

When to go
Go during daylight hours so you can see where you’re going and are less likely to be killed. These are not the safest buildings in Berlin.

Difficulty rating
4/10. It’s pretty easy to get to, and not to hard to hop over the fence outside. There’s no security and I guess the locals are more than used to people visiting. However, the buildings are in a very bad way, among the worst I’ve seen (though not the worst) and care is needed on weak floors and saggy roofs.

Who to bring
If you really, really want to dance, and you’re stone crazy, then by all means bring your partner along for a twirl. You’ll have to hum your own music, ignore the swastikas and smell of piss, but if you can do that it could be very romantic indeed.

What to bring
Camera, beer, good torch for exploring the basement, dancing partner.

As mentioned before, the biggest danger is the poor condition of the buildings. Great care is needed, especially if venturing upstairs in the Riviera building. Really, I wouldn’t recommend it, because when I was tiptoeing up the stairs, I was keenly aware they could collapse any second. I kept going despite my better judgment, but perhaps the stairs have collapsed since and it’s no longer an issue.
The owners seem happy for the whole place to fall to the ground, so I guess you should watch out for that. Do not take any stupid risks or you may live to regret them (if you’re lucky).
Watch out for Nazis too – they seem to like spraying their offensive signs around, marking their territory like dogs pissing on lampposts. If the dogs would piss on Nazis instead, the world would be a much better place.

This originally appeared on the Abandoned Berlin site a week or so ago. I neglected to post it here in my rush to publish on the snazzy newly designed site. Check it out if you haven’t already! In any case, I recommend checking out this post there, as you can click on the pictures and enlarge them for a proper gawk:

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Cologne's hidden charms

Once I realized I hated the place, Cologne decided to show me some of its charms. They become evident at night when the sun has set and darkness encourages the squalor out onto the streets. The streets are in a perpetual state of squalor but I refer to the night-folk who hide amid it during the day.
I’ve yet to come across a German city with more crack-heads, winos and generally fucked-up people than Cologne. Berlin probably has more but it’s a big city and they’re all conveniently spread out of visitors’ consciousness.
Not so in Cologne, where it seemed last night that everyone was wasted in one way or another by about 2am. One guy, either off his head or extremely blasé, was having a piss down the stairs in the U-Bahn station. He must have thought he’d found a quiet little corner without realizing all the passengers departing the train would naturally look up to see where the river of piss cascading down the steps was coming from.
He wasn’t the only one. There were bodies slumped on benches, drunkards stumbling around outside like zombies – there wasn’t anyone anywhere within their senses.
I also learned yesterday Cologne has the largest brothel in Germany, and just found out – on further investigation – that it is indeed the largest in Europe, with facilities in a 12-story 9,000-square meter building.
I wonder how many Irish ended up there. I assume they were well looked after. The locals seemed quite friendly and accommodating toward the Irish – probably in appreciation of our generosity.
Ireland lost of course, and Germany qualified for the World Cup. That was that, my work was done.
I very nearly didn’t get out. The walkway to the Hauptbahnhof was blocked off as they continue their never-ending work on the Kölner Dom. I had been thwarted by countless trains and trams before that.
The city’s public transport system can only be described as shit. There are no maps anywhere. The train/trams are all called U-Bahn regardless of whether the lines are underground or overground, and they all leave from different places.
Then there aren’t enough of them to get all the fans that want to go to a game to a game. I had to get a taxi to make sure I got there on time. The driver was friendly, but he didn’t give a shit either. He was explaining that most of the phone operators don’t work weekends “because they want to party too.”
No wonder they were all wasted.

UPDATE: Monday, October 14, 2013 – I forgot to mention the beers in Small Beer Country are so fucking small that even Philipp Lahm, the Germany team captain, had a go at them. Apparently they celebrated qualifying for the World Cup with a barrel of beer but as he said himself - «Das Fässchen Kölsch war so groß wie eine Maß auf der Wiesn» - or a Cologne barrel is only as big as a regular liter jug in Munich.

There was also some corroborating evidence from Cologne residents on Twitter tonight:

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Undercover assignment Köln

My latest foreign assignment promises to be a painful one. Bad enough that I’m going to Cologne – I didn’t think much of it on my last visit – but I’ll be watching Ireland get slaughtered as Germany book their place at the World Cup Friday night.
Speed is imperative for my work. Maybe I should write my match report now...

Ireland defended like lions to thwart Germany’s much-vaunted attack until conceding five goals in the last five minutes as the hosts qualified for Brazil 2014 with a 10-0 win. They scored another five goals in injury time.
The Irish were doing alright, having already repelled 1,278 German advances before the 85th minute, until Thomas Müller – taking a leaf from Thierry Henry’s book – grabbed the ball in midair and simply punched it to the net. The Germans scored another four goals as the Irish protested, and another five after the visitors stormed off the pitch in quiet dignity.
“They may have won but we didn’ fuckinlose,” said the heroic Irish captain, who ended the game with half a leg. “We wuz robbed.”

So I’m being optimistic about our chances. I’ll have to bite my tongue while watching through my fingers lest any of my working colleagues discover I’m Irish. I’ll be wearing a green top for entirely coincidental reasons. Likewise the green face-paint.
Cologne, Cologne, the previous visits were already painful enough. I suppose there’ll be consolation beers afterward. Small ones. This is Small Beer Country with only thimble-sized beers available. As if being Irish in Cologne wasn’t bad enough already.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Nor hell a fury...

Last winter was so long, cold and fucking unbearable that I started dreading the next as soon as it ended. I’m not sure when it ended. It feels like yesterday.
Summer came and went, and though there were days it was warm – not many – I couldn’t enjoy them. I kept thinking back to the fucking winter, knowing the days were numbered until the next one came.
Berlin should carry a health warning – Winters are dangerous for your health; Winters while living can harm your soul; Winters while dead are no escape; Winters can harm your baby’s babies and all their grandchildren too; Winters kill; Winters are shit, go home; Winters are so bloody godawful they don’t bear thinking about.
But of course there’s no warning. All the fools moving here will soon learn. Berlin takes pride in suffering. The city exists on Schadenfreude and winter is its playground.
Winters are insufferable here. Last year I was here for the whole damn thing. In previous years I escaped to South America, Central America, even Ireland is tropical in comparison.
Last night I had to turn the heating on. I couldn’t bear the cold anymore. I was inside, shaking. Already! The last day of September. Christ. It will be May before I can turn it off again, and that thermometer will plunge to frightening depths before then.
I should have left when I had the chance. So stupid. Now I’m stuck, a rabbit caught in the onrush of doom, knowing even if I do survive, the next one is around the corner.