Urban and Suburban Berlin


Every month Choix Magazine will include a European travel feature to support and raise awareness of the wonderful things that exist on our doorstep and just how cheap and easy travel within the European Union really is. This month; exploring two very different sides of the German capital. Urban and suburban Berlin, the lakes of Wannsee, Weissensee, Potsdam and boyond. On the other side the Concrete Jungle and living, breathing art of East Berlin.

Caroline Schmitt is a photographer, blogger and journalist from Germany studying

journalism at the London University of the Arts.

See more of her work at www.iwilltellyouthewholestory.com

or www.carolineschmitt.carbonmade.com


There is a long list of expectations Berlin has to live up to: Europe’s most buzzing club metropolitan, the place that represents 20th century history like no other, a vibrant hipster scene that sprouts with ideas, start-ups and art and, a spot of utmost political relevance within today’s Euro crisis.

What you wouldn’t hear quite as often though is the fact that Germany’s capital is an extensive heaven for retreatment, spa and rural pleasures, especially in terms of numerous parks and lakes. You would hardly get a Berliner to say “Wannsee or Plötzensee is my favourite lake,” simply because the vastness of them makes it so hard to chose the perfect one.

There’s Weißer See in the North-East. Due to its location it probably best pictures the discrepancy of Berlin’s former divide. Located in the midst of typically Eastern GDR Plattenbauten (huge grey buildings made with precast concrete slabs) and having one restaurant with a menu card that offers a strictly traditional cuisine, you get a slight idea of what it meant to live in a country that didn’t tolerate pluralism or different living concepts. The lake itself itself is beautiful, it’s clean and especially qualified for swimming. Further down towards the Western part of Berlin, you’ll find a beautiful lake that’s hidden away from the industrial buzz: Plötzensee. Just like Weißer See, it also has an outdoor pool but the truly fun part is at the opposite side of the water. Don’t get confused, the little bays do have fences but a neat jump will quickly get you closer to Plötzensee. Take a seat on one of the large trees and dip your toes in water. This lake is not only surrounded by marvellous parks but does also guarantee a whole lot of secret spots with no crowds of kids or tourists to prevent you from getting that well-deserved rest!

Schlachtensee in the South-West is what might be the young generation’s favourite: It’s the best place to soak up the Berlin spirit with a Currywurst from the snack bar and a few pints. You’ll get everything from a boat trip to a great view on the woods except from tranquillity. There are whole lot of runners and families constantly circling around the lake but hey, a hot summer’s day is nothing without a bit of life. If you’re lucky you’ll spot some young musicians nearby the lake – here’s to Berlin’s great hipster scene again! The best know lake though is Wannsee. Located just between Berlin and Potsdam, it’s been subject of many songs and clichés. So, what is it really like? It’s beautiful. The small and big sailing boats are a reliable eye and photo catcher while the layout of the whole area is also complimenting the lake. However, it’s beautiful until you actually jump in and swim. The water is very dirty and you won’t be able to spot any arms or legs through the dirt. Once you’ve swam further out it gets slightly cleaner though, but somehow the excitement wouldn’t come back…

Having failed to come to a definite number of lakes earlier, it is completely up to you to find new lakes in different parks such as Treptower Park or Weinbergspark. Berlin is what you make of it and that will come down to whether you want to discover the city for yourself.

One of the things that has always been praised about Berlin is its rural character. Lakes, forests and the like are extremely accessible and it often doesn’t even take you significantly longer to get to a peaceful oasis than to some hotspots in Mitte (which is covered in ugly road works nowadays anyway.) The first lake I checked out a few days after I arrived in July was Wannsee. It’s in the South-West, between Berlin and Potsdam. Going there was quite a spontaneous decision so I only had my small Lumix camera with me. That’s good and bad – good because I could fearlessly take it into the water to get some “closer” water shots (Yes, people were observing me with that certain irritated look…) and bad because these photos sometimes lack the depth of focus I’d like them to have.


Exploring the art scene in the Canvas City, East Berlin

“Tacheles” is a Yiddish term that can be taken to mean speaking out- an appropriate name for the crumbling artist’s commune on the Oranienburger Straße and an even more appropriate dictum for East Berlin itself.

A waiter plonks himself down next to us on the bench at our table and momentarily lays his head on his folded arms and closes his eyes. “I’m hungover” he declares- “I’ll get your orders in a minute” – he continues to nap for a couple of minutes before lifting his head from the table and asking “beers then? or are you French”? We glance at each other “we’re not French…” I start “Good! then beers it is” he replies, and with that he clumsily gets to his feet and strides off ruffling his frowzy mane. Sitting on the terrace of a cafe in East Berlin that 20 years ago served as a cellar where underground social gatherings and discussions took place in strictest secrecy we drink Berliner Kindl and watch the world go by. It really is the perfect position for people watching, theatre unfolds in front of your eyes. A trio of punks on unicycles cruise by, a homeless looking man without shoes walks on with the most preened, puffy and proud poodle you have ever seen, then a lama- seemingly without an owner trots along, hesitates to nibble at something in the gutter and continues on his merry way. You can visit Munich, or Münster or Köln and see some typical German similarities and sights, traces of a class system, evidence of either a Catholic or Protestant identity, examples of clockwork German efficiency. Berlin still feels like an independent state, and ever since the 1991 reunification of Germany, Berlin has become something of a magnet for contemporary artists. They have flocked, the talented, the eccentric, the electric, the alternative, the avant-garde, those who wanted to be part of the revolution all turned up on the doorstep of East Berlin, ready for the party to start. Berlin’s children of the revolution have grown now, communist repression is still well within living memory; today they’re dedicated to the celebration of liberty, individualism and of freedom of expression This colourful zest for life erupted out of the concrete blocks and today still manifests itself creatively all throughout East Berlin.

Think London Shoreditch hipsters, now, don’t think about them ever again for the duration of your reading of this article. The original concrete jungle has undoubtedly been tamed to some extent, but not in any negative repressive way- no longer a jungle exclusive to the wildest party animals, a new type of openness has emerged. Take the squatting culture, relatively characteristic of Berlin that took off in the early 90’s. Squats appear essentially as you would imagine them, unkempt abandoned buildings, The Canvas CityExploring the art scene in the orriginal concrete jungle; urban East Berlin coloured in with posters and graffiti, music blasting from glassless windows, not entirely inviting at first glance. What you might be surprised to hear is that infact the case is quite the opposite, many squats doors are open to guests, they host pop up restaurants on a regular basis, using their open spaces for theatre performances, cinema screenings and club nights. Kunsthaus Tacheles is such a place- instantly visible from a distance, you’ll stumble upon it as soon as you get off the U bahn at Oranienburger Tor. Dominating the street is a looming black and white image of a face and the words “How Long is Now” emblazoned upon one side of the building. Upon approach the old stone department store appears dilapidated and crippled, the sculpture garden and back yard is disguised by a towering corrugated iron perimeter topped with coils of rusty razor wire makes it look like a sinister scrap yard with something to hide. In reality, Tacheles is a hive of life, a hub of action and energy.

Home to a fusion of artists, musicians and performers of all ages, genders and nationalities who keep their studio doors open for visitors. Inside, every surface is plastered with two decades of acid coloured graffiti, not a square inch left untouched. The individual studios in which people work vary between artists most have a cosy feel, you’re likely to find the artist sitting cross legged with a mouthful of paint brushes engrossed in their work but with the ability to snap back to earth and engage in conversation when addressed. There’s no “moody misunderstood artiste” quality to those who live and work at Tacheles, snobbery is nonexistent- the attitude of the artists to the visitors is nothing other than open, hospitable and welcoming. A recurring theme runs through the house, posters are plastered everywhere printed with a black letter T and the words “We support Tacheles”. If you can find a common language, ask the artists they’ll be happy to explain. Developers have plans to buy over the building, evict the artists, scrub away the graffiti and create a bourgeois block of luxury apartments. A poster bluntly states that “The art house and its artists are not for sale! Tacheles is here and produces more. We work like we have done in the last 21 years and resistance is the programme” Tacheles artists are now in a position where they have something to fight for, something that arouses their passions; this inspiration is reflected valiantly in their works. Now is a good time to explore Tacheles; forever changing, with artists only staying between 6 months and a year it’s impossible to tell how much longer you will be able to experience Tacheles in all its vibrant glory.

Beyond Tacheles much of the East is a display of art in itself, an area once so broken and lifeless has been revived, built up by human hands. By S Bahn station at the Hackescher Markt the old war damaged, industrial buildings have been stripped down and painstakingly repaired, today the buildings glow, dazzling above the parasols of restaurant terraces and lively bars. The market itself has returned; the slash of colour from the fresh fruit, Turkish baklava, rainbow posies of flowers and the rest of the produce is stingingly overwhelming in the surrounding gray. Hackesche Höfe is the labyrinth of beautifully renovated interconnected courtyards. The area doesn’t quite escape the gritty, rawness of its past, there’s still graffiti plastered over the walls and cafes with their outer terraces are far from Paris perfect, but it’s all in the charm. For galleries Auguststraße (running between Tacheles and Hackesche Höfe) is packed with so many galleries that navigating and choosing is no simple task. Taking the banana trail provides you with something of a long established gallery guide. A recurring motif on the walls of East Berlin is the Andy Warholesque banana stencil stamped around town by German artist Thomas Baumgärtel post unification. (the banana being symbolic of the exotic luxuries that East Berliners were deprived of) These banana images were only painted alongside what was considered the cream of the crop in hip collections and stand as a reliable gallery guide even today. One gallery that will not be found on the banana trail is one of the most unique on earth. The East side gallery stands as the largest permanent open air gallery in the world- a 1.3 kilometre stretch of the Berlin wall adorned with the work of some 46 artists who have transformed an old symbol of repression and fear into a bright and empowering salute to freedom. The canvas city is not for any art lover. Those seeking out old masters, classical and baroque will find satisfaction elsewhere. It’s raw, rough and touchably real, it’s living, breathing and pulsating in amongst the multicolour concrete. Just make sure to buy a paint pen, and leave your mark before you go.

Urban Berlin Canvas City by Catherine Smyth

For more pictures of Berlin Street art by Caroline Schmitt http://iwilltellyouthewholestory.com/2012/09/21/street-art-in-berlin/


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