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Spreepark – A tale of former glory and a long, long fall from grace.

On the Banks of the river Spree in Berlin sits a giant, overgrown, rusting amusement park.

It began back in the DDR times and was sold after the Wende (literally ‘the turning’, generally known as the fall of the Berlin Wall) to the Witte family – old Carnies wanting to own their own show. And own it they did – for a while it was very successful. Then the Berlin Senate decided to limit the parking spaces because of the Forest reservation all around the Park. And within 5 years they went broke. Not giving up, the family Witte decided to move to Peru- yes Peru – and start a new Park.

They shipped the most loved attractions, rented a house and tried to make it work. But it didn’t. Broke again, the father decided to play with the Devil and cooperate with the drug cartels, helping to ship cocaine back to Germany in his amusement machines. It didn’t work. He spent 4 years in prison in Germany, his son is still in prison – unfortunately for him in Peru where conditions are terrible.

When I arrived in Berlin people would simply jump the fence and brave the sporadic security to take photos of up-ended dinosaurs and the creaking Ferris wheel. For a short while you cou do a guided tour (unfortunately only in German)– on Saturdays with the daughter of the former owner who would show you where she left her footprints in the concrete path and talk about the glory days long gone.

An old train chugged it way around the outskirts revealing the overgrown landscape with glimpses of machinery through the undergrowth. It was a sad and somehow eerie experience. And like much of Berlin it no longer bears any resemblance to what it was 10 years ago.  The site was bought at auction by the city of Berlin who is now ripping everything out to re-develop the site.  Stay tuned for what will be the next phase of this extraordinary story!

Coming Home to a Cold Christmas

Christmas in Berlin

So, finally back from a mammoth 6 week trip to Australia – 4 cities in 6 weeks staying in 7 houses. Wow. Many dear old friends, some beach time and lots of great food. After 6 weeks on the road I was ready to come home to Berlin – to spread myself beyond a suitcase or a single room, to see dear friends here again, and – strangely enough – ready for some colder weather. We timed it beautifully coming back into the best bit of winter in Berlin – Christmas. The streets are aglow with thousands of fairy lights, Christmas markets pop up all over the place, and the smell of roasting chestnuts and glühwein fills the air.

There is something which just feels RIGHT about a cold Christmas. Growing up in Australia, Christmas day was always blindingly hot – these days most people spend it either on the beach, or inside with air-con, drinking a chilled sparking red and eating cold prawns and other seafood yummy-ness. But when I was a kid (and having a British mother) we did the whole English thing. We cranked up the air conditioning while Mum slaved for hours over an enormous roast Turkey and Grandma Nan made mince pies and spent – literally – weeks preparing the cake (rubbing with Brandy every week, re-wrap and store) which I would then gleefully decorate with marzipan, white fondant and gorgeous little Christmas decoartions which had survived moving countless times across two continents. We even bought spray snow to make the windows look foggy… All the cards had Santa in dressed in fur and we sang songs about Frosty the Snowman and Good King Wenceslas and drew pictures of melting candles.

So flip back to present day in Germany and I repeat: Christmas here makes SENSE. All those images and dreamings from my childhood have meaning here. Here it is cold, very cold and sometimes snowy. It is dark – really dark by 4pm. Candles make sense. Fur boots make sense (I have a pair now). Glühwein (warm, mulled wine) makes really sense to warm you up when you’re drifting through the markets when I’m guiding people on a winter Berlin tour.

I remember the first time I spent Christmas with my husband’s family. I was astonished when he told me they would have real candles on the Christmas tree. I thought – how does the house not burn down??? In Australia I thought the idea of the European Christmas on the 24th was bizarre – what do you mean you don’t wake up to Christmas morning and a stocking? But I have to say after nearly a decade in Germany I am now I am a complete convert to the traditional German Christmas. Or at least Christmas in my husband’s family. There is carol singing, candles, champagne, gifts and fabulous food.

Decorating the tree is serious business and something which I love. Simple clear glass balls, straw decorations that my mother in law made herself when she was a teenager, and red candles in brass candle holders which hang on the branches with a simple counter weight system. No gaudy tinsel. No electric lights. No glitz. Simple and elegant, the tree is the absolute centrepiece of our Christmas celebrations. The children are ushered out of the room while we light the candles and the presents are retrieved from their hiding places. Then, in silence, the door opens and the children stand there, eyes glowing with the same fire as the candles, mouths open with the wonder of this magnificent spectacle and to be honest – I’m a little in awe myself. Maybe we could have a Christmas tree every day of the year. Or at least every day of the winter. But then it wouldn’t be as special, would it?

Wishing you and yours a wonderful festive season.

My favourite winter memory of Berlin!

The last month it has finally begun to get cold here in Berlin. After the longest and hottest summer on record it somehow felt like winter would never come.  But now, finally winter is on it’s way.  It’s still relatively warn actually – about 10 degrees and rainy.  For those of you who live in warm climates that may sound cold, but trust me, every year Berlin usually has a cold snap where temperatures plummet to MINUS 10 degrees, and sometimes even lower.

And while these kinds of temperatures mean less people visit this wonderful city in winter, it is also a unique and special time to be here. Today, sitting at home on a rainy Sunday, writing this from my couch, I was reminded of a glorious winter memory from about 7 years ago.  It is one of my all time favourite memories of this city and was my first real introduction to the wonderful possibilities which winter brings.

It was a cold frozen Sunday, a glorious ‘big freeze’ day with pale clear sunlight and blue blue sky. My partner and I and our 2 yr old son wanted to get out the house, so decided to meet a friend and go for a walk in Treptower Park – a massive park in former East Berlin, right on the edge of the river Spree.

We rugged up in our thermals, waterproof boots, wool layers and down jackets, bundled my son into his lambswool lined pram, and took off on the (heated) train. After 15 minutes we were in a winter wonderland. Tramping through the snow, we watched ducks navigate their way through frozen ice slabs on the river, whole flocks of gulls launching themselves into the air as joggers puffed past with ice in their beards. We set a comfortable pace, but fast enough to keep ourselves warm in the low temperatures. We were heading for a cove, a part of the river hidden by a peninsular of land that you wouldn’t know existed if you didn’t know it was there. We knew by now it would be frozen over, and we would be able to do that special thing of walking on a frozen river. My son, snug as a bug in a rug, fell asleep in his pram.

When we rounded the corner, the scene was quite extraordinary. The Berliners had take to the ice in droves. People were iceskating, or even just clearing sections of the snow to have sliding competitions on the ice. People had cleared makeshift ice hockey rinks, people were playing football on the ice, or simply walking around on this massive, frozen landscape. A few enterprising people had set up little stands to sell warm mulled wine, sausages, and homemade cakes. (The mulled wine was a welcome addition at this point!). When my son awoke, we headed to a nearby restaurant for a light meal – which was buzzing with customers coming in to warm up from the ice). When we headed out again it was late in the afternoon and we were stopped by the sound of music drifting over the ice. Someone had brought out a set of decks, a small generator and speakers and was playing some really fabulous dance music. As we lingered more and more people started bobbing, then dancing to this great music on the ice. My son was entranced, as were we all. The scene was so beautiful – the sun clear and beginning to get low in the sky, blue skies, white snow on a frozen river and a spontaneous dance party on the ice. This was no organised event. There were no licenses required, no applications made or approvals given. This was a spontaneous gathering of Berliners who knew a glorious winters day like this deserves to be celebrated. This for me is part of the unique spirit of Berlin – this spontaneous creativity and ability to think outside the box combined with an active community spirit and a sense of immediacy that comes with living in a city which is reinventing itself every day.

Today, I look out at the grey sky which seems to be constantly crying today.  I never thought I would pray for colder weather, but after more than a decade in this northern city I would take muns ten and sunny over plus 10 and raining any day of the week.  Bring on the winter!

What is this thing called German identity?

So. The national holiday of re-unified Germany is October 3rd. A little shy of a year after the Berlin Wall ‘fell’, the country voted to ‘re-unify’. This year will mark 29 years since Germany became one country once more. This year, for the first time, the Berlin Wall has officially been down for longer than it was up.  But what does this really mean for a sense of German identity?

For tourists it is little more than an excuse to eat way too much sausage accompanied by truly dazzling amounts of beer in the company of many other clueless souls at the Brandenburg Gate.

But German (re)-unification is a much more complex thing than beer and sausages can really address. Many foreigners are unaware what a brand new country Germany is (147 years to be exact). Before that Berlin was the heart of the Prussian empire, and there were various other Germanic states competing for power in Europe.

It wasn’t until 1871 that they all decided to become one big family and invite the king of Prussia to become the first Kaiser (or Emperor) of Germany. This is the origin of the word ‘Re-unification’ as it wasn’t until 1871 that Germany became ‘unified’ in the first place. And let’s face it, it’s been a rather eventful 142 years. Encompassing WWI, the great Depression, the roaring twenties, the rise of Fascism, Hitler getting in to power, WWII and the Holocaust, the years of the Cold War, the Berlin Wall going up overnight, and coming down pretty much the same way 28 years later. So where are we 28 years after the ‘Re-Unification’?

What is this thing we call a German national identity? What are the differences (and similarities) between former East and former West? What about the so-called ‘Wall in the Head’? How do the new refugee inhabitants affect this city?  This ephemeral entity called ‘German National Identity’ has been created, morphed, torn asunder and stuck back together and challenged anew, all in the course of one hundred years. And Berlin’s streets have born witness to it all.

In my job as a guide I meet people from all over the world with all sorts of levels of knowledge when it comes to Berlin’s history. I try to make the massive moments of history personal by focusing on the lived experience of the people who have seen these events unfold. That includes the ongoing stories of how Berlin is dealing with its past in it03s vibrant and ever-changing present.

Modernising or ruining a counter culture city?

As defined by the Oxford Dictionary:

Gentrification: verb (gentrifies, gentrifying, gentrified)
[with object]
renovate and improve (a house or district) so that it conforms to middle-class taste.
(usually as adjective gentrified) make (someone or their way of life) more genteel:a gentrified Irish American
Gentrification is the word on everyone’s lips in Berlin. It’s in the media every week. It’s bandied around by politicians and locals alike. It’s present at almost every dinner and party I’ve been to in the last year. So why is it suddenly so omnipresent?

I first came to Berlin in 2004. I moved to live here in 2005. Admittedly that’s nothing compared to someone who’s lived here their whole life. But it’s been nearly a decade. Long enough to settle in, learn the language and to bear witness to some remarkable changes here in the city. I can’t imagine how the life-long Berliners feel when they look around their city and the changes they’ve seen in their lifetimes. Everyone is complaining about major rental increases, entire neighbourhoods are changing so fast it’s hard to keep track of it all, and the older Berliners are seriously worried about how they will manage on their pensions if their rent doubles (a real possibility in some cases).

20 years ago Prenzlauerberg was a dump full of junkies and alcoholics. 10 years ago Prenzlauerberg was a hub for artists and creative types – it was close to the centre but cheap enough for people without much money. I first stayed with a friend of mine in one of the oldest renovated squats in East Berlin on Kastanienallee. This suburb is now one of the most expensive in Berlin and the street is now locally referred to as ‘Casting Alley’ because of the young beautiful hip things sipping lattes in the trendy cafes.

Friedrichshain was full of punks and students and it still felt a bit ‘edgy’ to me. 5 years ago everyone who could no longer afford to live in Prenzlauerberg moved to Friedrichshain. Now even that is too pricey.
Kreuzberg was the old bastion of long term west Berlin artists, squatters, social renovators and immigrants. Now it hosts the best Berlin fashion design store (as voted by Berlin Fashion week 2012) and a shop that sells 2500euro fold up bicycles.

The suburb Wedding was a scarey place, with many Turkish immigrants and some streets with a pretty high crime rate, full of 1960’s concrete housing blocks and betting shops. These days many smaller bars and designer places are relocating there, the old disused swimming pool has been turned into a funky location for perfomances and other offbeat art, and even one private english/german bilingual school is considering relocating to Wedding.

But nowhere does the change surprise me as much as in Neukölln. 13 years ago this was the place I first lived in Berlin. I shared a flat with a guy called Randy (no joke) and paid €180 a month, utilities included. It was (and still is) a major enclave for the Turkish immigrants in Berlin with more Turkish than German being heard on the streets and in the subways. It had (and still has) the highest percentage of families living on welfare. It is a major drug centre of Berlin. It was also a primary place for peadophiles to prey on young boys from poor families. The planes landing and taking off at the nearby Tempelhof airport made life pretty noisy.

But a nearly 10 years ago the airport closed and has subsequently become a massive open green space for public use, with community gardens, a bird sanctuary, a kids festival, a music festival, a kite festival, Berlin fashion week and much much more. And what has happened to Neu Kölln? I was down there a month or so ago and was overwhelmed at the speed of change in my old neighbourhood. It seems like almost every week something new opens up – a designer clothes shop, an organic bakery, a whole in the wall waffle shop that serves soy milk lattes, not to mention a couple of really damn good restaurants (when I lived there the Döner on the corner was the only option for a night out).

What has happened in Neu Kölln is that there is now the sense of a two tier society sharing the same suburb. The first is people who are genuinely poor, struggling with social issues or identify with the Turkish culture. The other consists of artists, foreigners, students, hipsters, start ups, trend followers and young entrepreneurs. And the people wanting to live in the funky neighbourhood these people create of course.

So what happened to the Turks, drug addicts and welfare cases?

They’re still there. For now.

Berlin by Water

Fun tour guide fact:

Berlin has more bridges than Venice. It’s true. Berlin has a huge network of canals dating back to the pre-train era when the easiest way to shift goods was by barge. Even Queen Sophie Charlotte preferred to take a private boat into Berlin from her summer palace in Charlottenburg rather than endure cobblestones in a carriage. Nd whilst there are many generic style boat cruises on offer in Berlin, a much better way for the adventurous is to hire a canoe and paddle yourself around. If you have the energy (and the armpower) you can actually paddle all the way to Potsdam.

It is a hot summer this year. The longest, hottest and driest on record so far. So what better way to while away a hot afternoon that on the water? My family and I drove west to where we could pick up our Canadian style family canoe. 5 mins later we were paddling through what is easily one of the most picturesque waterways on option in Berlin known as Kleine Venedig – Little Venice.

Tree branches dipped into the water as we wound our way through the tiny canals of one of Berlins most sought after Kleingarten Kolonien (small garden colonies). Living in apartments means most people don’t have access to their own garden, and so these allotment gardens are in high demand. And the Little Venice colony, having water access from almost all gardens is one of the most special you can find.

Looping around we then cut through to a larger waterway, where power boats raced past and the occasional barge drifted by like a large, man made whale. The canal opened into a river – the Havel which actually becomes the Wannsee lake – and the canoeing became more challenging in more open water. We paddled to a small beach and cooled off with a glorious swim before heading to the little restaurant near the beach where you can actually pull up and moor your canoe before climbing directly up to their terrace. Fortified with Flammkuchen (think German pizza) we headed past he moored motor-yachts and began the paddle back.

Driving back home we were all tired and smiling. If you visit Berlin in summer and you have a spare day, you should seriously consider getting out on the water in some way shape or form. You’ll never see Berlin the same way again.

Mauerpark on a lazy Sunday afternoon

A rare Sunday. A day off in summer, and all to myself without family or other obligations. The day stretched out ahead of me like an invitation. It was a glorious Berlin summers day, blue skies and warm air and staying at home on the couch seemed like a sin. So I got dressed in my favourite yellow summer dress and went out to wander.

Somehow I ended up at Mauer Park – an old strip of the former deathstrip of the Wall which has now become without a doubt the most popular fleamarket in Berlin. Some people complain that Mauerpark is not what it was.
It is big, yes – about twice the size it used to be – even a private tour guide like myself could get lost here! But that also means there is more variety than ever.

It is crowded, yes – but if you go early (around 11am) then it’s not too bad. And as long as you’re not rushing, but rather drifting to see what catches your eye then it can be really a pleasure. Yes, there are tourists, but I heard easily as much german as I did other languages. And I heard not just English but Spanish, Swedish, french and something slavic I couldn’t identify. I love the diversity here.

I love the mix of old and new. I love that next to the expat selling her handmade retro handbags you have a young turkish girl in a headscarf selling Gozleme, and that next to her is a Berliner speaking thick dialect while she tidies her second hand clothes she’s trying to sell. I love that you can get everything here from funky new design stuff to 50’s furniture, a belt made out of tire offcuts, a second hand wetsuit or a replacement handle for an old wardrobe.

I love the smell of fresh bratwurst being fried as a young guitarist plays a really good set while I lounge on a deck chair. I love that I found exactly what I wanted – a gorgeous old teapot to replace the one which broke last week. Smiling happily I drifted home past the crowds in my yellow dress thinking how much I love this city in summer.

Climbing up a former DDR Guard Tower

One of the things I love about Berlin is that this city can still surprise me. Even after years of working as a private guide I still discover new things – or old things with a new aspect to them.

Five years ago today I had the pleasure of leading a delightful couple from the United States around Berlin. We had a full 2 days so we were taking our time and talking about things in great detail. As we reached Potsdamer Platz and were talking about the division of the city I wanted to show them an old guard tower which hides around a corner. Most people have no idea it is there – hidden down a little side street next to a modern apartment block and behind a bunch of trees it is not easy to spot if you don’t already know where it is.

As we approached that day I saw something was different – the access door was open. Hmm I thought – strange, I’d never seen it open before. As we got closer there was a man standing next to the door and I asked him what was going on, why was the door open. Astoundingly he told me we could go up inside if we paid €3.50.

My jaw dropped. I couldn’t believe my ears – I had been to this tower so many times before and it had always been shut up tight with nothing more than a little sign. And now I was able to actually go up in it??? To stand where the border guards had stood, armed with their long range rifles, looking for people desperate enough to try and run the gauntlet of the notorious death strip to reach freedom. This was an opportunity not to be missed.

Inside the tower was a small, vertical ladder and I climbed hand over hand. Up the top was a small room with windows in all directions. You would not want to be too tall here. Or claustrophobic. I was really very small. The windows were dirty and there were old electrical wires on the floor. There was graffiti, some of it showing the symbol of the radical left group Antifa (the abbreviation of Anti Facism).

I looked out on to the back courtyard and rubbish bins of the luxury flats and thought about how it would have looked back then – an empty expanse full of alarms, signal fences, vehicle barriers, sand traps and more.

Since that day 5 years ago I have had the privilege of taking many more people on a private tour to see the former DDR tower.  Some choose to make the climb, others don’t.  Each time we meet the volunteers who make this remarkable opportunity possible.  Some have amazing stories to tell of the former times in the GDR, all are informative and engaged with what they do.  And each time I am reminded how grateful I am to live in Berlin now, and not back in the 1960’s.


Hoppegarten – the best Berlin day out you never knew about!

There’s a kids nursery rhyme in German which says “ Hoppe hoppe Reiter, wenn er fällt den schreit er, Fällt er in dem Graben, Fressen ihm den Raben, Fällt er in den Sumpf, Macht der Reiter Plumps!”

This means: “Hop hop rider, when he falls he screams, if he falls in the holes the crows will eat him, if he falls in the marsh then he goes Plop!”

I thought of this the other day when I went to the horse races at Berlin’s racecourse, which is appropriately named “Hoppegarten” – the Hopping Garden. Where the horses hop (or rather gallop) around while we onlookers excitedly strain to see if our chosen chariot has crossed the line first.

If you’re here through the summer in Berlin and have a Sunday to spare, then it is well worth checking the schedule to see if you can catch a racing afternoon at Hoppegarten. Well off the tourist track it is worth the effort to get there (easy to reach on the S-bahn with a short walk) to enjoy an afternoon with Berliners of all creeds and colours, to picnic on the grass and perhaps make a friendly wager or two.

Dating back to the old imperial days, Hoppegarten first opened it’s doors back in 1868, three years before Germany even became a country, under the King of Prussia, soon to become Kaiser Wilhelm the 1st. It soon became one of the premier racecourses in Europe, hosting some of the biggest races on the continent with over 40 stables and 800 horses in training.

Of course during the war it came to a grinding halt and during the DDR times it never really recovered. Slowly the bigger races moved to western Europe and Hoppegarten lost significance, but it still hosted 22 races a year and 8 times it hosted the International Meeting of Socialist Countries.

After Reunification in 1990 it reopened to great euphoria, only to slowly stagnate once more, in part due to lack of investment and lack of clarity over who really owned the property (it had been taken over by the East German government in the communist period). However in the early 2000’s this was clarified, only to have the official owners go broke in 2005. Fortunately, a German investment banker living in London called Gerhard Schöningh bought the racecourse and undertook the not insignificant task of renovating and upgrading the facility.

I first visited Hoppegarten with horse mad friends in 2011. It was a fabulous day out, with pony rides for the kids, cheap bratwurst and you could picnic on the grass right in front of the finish line. There was a bouncy castle, a playground for kiddies, yummy quarkbällchen (think the holes of doughnuts being fried) and the kiddies could run amok in safety while we sipped red wine and ate cheeses in between races. We have been back regularly every year since. My son even had the chance to ride a mechanical horse usually used in training and was told he was a natural jockey 🙂

Since then I have seen more and more people flocking to Hoppegarten. Now the grass is much more crowded and you’re not allowed to picnic right in front of the finish line. Pony rides are super expensive and the bouncy castle is no more. But there is still bratwurst and red wine, friendly wagers and the excitement of picking your horse. Watching them prance in the ring before the race, reading the statistics, choosing the name you like best and cheering your horse on.

Like many things in Berlin, it has become more and more popular and has developed past it’s initial promise into a very successful business venture for Herr Schöningh. But unlike other sites in Berlin it is not created for tourists. Not at all. You hear very little English spoken here. This is a place for Berliners. And even though it’s busier and more expensive than it was 7 years ago, I still think it’s one of the best afternoons you can have on a sunny summers Sunday. So take a chance and get away from the inner city for a true taste of Berlin summer!

The Trabant Turns Sixty!

If you’d visited Berlin whilst the Wall was still up, say in the 1980’s and you’d applied for a day visa to visit the East and crossed at the Friedrichstrasse border crossing, one thing would have struck you immediately as you wandered the streets of East Berlin. The cars.

Small, identical, cramped and looking like they’d crumple in any accident, the Trabant was the standard vehicle of the DDR. They look like play toys for giant babies. And they turned 60 this month.

The factory in Zwickau started producing Trabbis in November 1957 and over the years produced around 3 million of the tiny, cutesy cars. However demand far outstripped production and many people had to wait years and years before their car was ready. There are many jokes about trabbis – “first you smell them then you hear them then you see them” goes one. It’s not far wrong.

After the collapse of the DDR, many easterners loaded up their trabbis with whatever they had and drove as far West as they could. When they ran out of petrol the cars were often simply abandoned on the side of the autobahn whilst their owners hitched a ride to the next town. Indeed, I once had a client on a private tour in Berlin who was ex-British military. He’d been on duty in Germany at the time the Wall fell and said he’d seen US soldiers going along the Autobahn giving out free petrol to the drivers in the hopes that they’d keep driving on into the British zone and then the cars would no longer be their problem!

Despite government subsidies to try and keep the factory going after the wall fell, production ceased in 1991 and the Trabant became officially a thing of the past.

Now, 28 years on the Trabbi has developed an almost a cult status as an icon of a bygone era. You can do tours where you get to drive one yourself, or you can be chauffered around town in a custom made Trabbi stretch limo. Ironically, the cheap and inefficient “cardboard box with a motor” has now become a collectors item. Seeing original Trabbis (not the tourist ones) driving through Berlin is becoming more and more rare. But every now and then you’ll see one parked on a corner, or rumbling along belching out 2 stroke fumes and rattling as though it’s about to fall apart. Cartoon cars from an era when even having this little vehicle was considered a luxury and a sign of status.