Sunday, July 14, 2019

Up in the Sky Walking Over the Trees in Beelitz

Beelitz is usually associated with the famous German veggie 'delicacy' asparagus, not the kind of sidedish I crave about - I religiously have it only once the year, just because I want to be a trend follower sometimes. When I visited the place a couple of years ago, I've spent a good amount of time wandering among the ruins of the former tuberculosis sanatorium - Beelitzer Heilstätten
At the time, the fate of the complex which comprises over 60 separate buildings was in balance, following the plans of real estate companies to turn the area into a fancy luxury compound. Some local protest movement joined forces with creative people from Berlin that succeeded in the end to save the area. According to the final designs, the area of the sanatorium was maintained, and gained an additional value with the creation of a complex which relies on the natural environment.
Thus, relatively fast - as usually when it comes to the German building processes - in 2015 the Baumkronenpfad - Treetop Path a wooden path relying on 15 steel pillars was inaugurated and it is only the beginning of a constantly expanding recreational park, the first of this kind in Brandenburg.
Now, I am on my way to Beelitz to see what it is all about...


Reaching it is very easy. We are in a train from Berlin packed with families and bikers heading apparently to the same place. Some have picnic baskets and bikes, we only have a camera and some bottles of water. As usual, travel light and enjoy - eventually support - the local restaurants  (just another excuse for being lazy enough for preparing those stacks of sandwiches and roadtrip supplies).


The feeling of being in a place abandoned, used only for various film or photography settings is in the air, despite the big groups of people that are heading to the recreational area. Some thematic parks can be hosted in abandoned places too. So what if this abandoned place is a former tuberculosis hospital?


I am passing near an area that was used for the setting of movies like Schindler's List or Operation Valkyrie, which is partly used currently for various medical facilities. 


The biggest attraction remain Beelitzer Heilstätten. Intrepid guides in German and English are surrounded by curious visitors keen to find out more about the local history. Some buildings can be partially visited, and I did it during my first visit, but besides some mountains of rubbish, graffiti and rests of human excrements, I didn't find anything terribly exciting to repeat the experience. 
A look at the location, without a proper look inside, is enough, especially if you just want to give a visual form to the amount of historical and architectural information you can easily gather online or from various bibliographical sources.


Once you pay for the 10 euro ticket (good news, you can pay with card too), you can enter the area of the recreational park, that was set up as a garden with eating places, and some outdoors relaxing areas, in the shadow of the Sanatorium ruins.


There are some lounge areas with paste colours and a country vibe and a vintage touch, where you can relax while munching on a pancake or other local sweets or some 'pommes' - the local equivalent of French fries. Affordable but not cheap prices, and modest quality, but who is here for the food, anyway.


Some old remanants from the Sanatorium years were refined and back in use. Built in stages from the beginning of the 20th century until in the 1930s, the medical facility was considered a forerunner in terms of both architecture and functionality. Beelitz was the location of choice given the good connection to both Potsdam and Berlin, from where most of the tuberculosis - a malady relatively widespread at the time - patients originated. 



The steel pillars surrounding the area look from certain angles as huge scifi constructions, huge myriapods spreading their multiple legs through the ruins.


You can reach the top either by taking the stairs or by using the elevator. Therefore, the Baumkrone is open also to families with small children or people with disabilities.


From the soaring heights, one can have a look over the many facilities that were created as part of the Sanatorium. Among others, here it used to be a bakery, a butcher, a church and a nursery, with completely gender separated blocks of buildings. One of the architects who set the plans, Heino Schmielden was a close friend of Martin Gropius and was inspired by his focus on creating functional yet minimally aesthetic architectural structures.
Used as a hospital for the German troops wounded during WWI, the Soviet Army took it over and some of the scribbling in Cyrillic can still be seen on the walls. Not sure, but it seems that the Soviet man was one of the first promoter of the graffiti style, if I am to take into consideration the various handwritten traces left by the military men coming from this country either in the building of the Reichstag or in the Bunkerstadt Wünsdorf-Waldstadt


History and thoughts about the past are becoming irrelevant once you admire the views from the top of the Baumkronenpfad. You can embrace with your eyes the entire area of Fläming and it is a beautiful view of it. I only can dream about how this part looks like when the trees are showing off their beautiful autumn colours.


In the last years, around 40 different tree species were planted here, which make it a very good example of sustainable tourism. Meeting the end of the horizon, all you have is a green sea of deep breathing lungs.


Back on the ground, I notice that some of the buildings are getting some beauty intervention and I am only curious what can be done here. As far as I know, tuberculosis virus can stay in the walls for an impressive amount of time, which make it less likely to create a living space in a former hospital of this kind, but let's wait and see.


The next stop of the day is a walk in the Barfoot park - Barfußpark - the second part of the recreational area created. There are no ruins here, only the chance of walking without shoes - like everyone does - on the forest paths. It does good to the feet, for sure, but the body needs a bit of time to get used with what used to be a natural feet function - to face the natural structures without any intermediate material and objects - like shoes - in-between. 
You can leave your shoes and backpack in the lockers at the entrance, in order to get more freedom of movement and fully enjoy the natural experience. 


There are different experienced that can be tried in the park: walking through the mud, try your balancing skills, short walks etc. There are three different trails marked by three colours - blue, yellow and green - and you just need to read the explanations and follow your path. 
Don't take everything too serious so you maybe can have some spontaneous barefoot dancing party. You might even find a disco globe glowing in the middle of the forest.


This park offers a lot of fun for everyone, from small children learning to walk, to their parents. Get rid of the stress, enjoy life and recharge your batteries with some nature - including natural dirt, mud and some stitches eventually.


Brave enough to walk on pine cones? Been there, done only half of it, because I know how it feels - tried against my will with small pieces of Lego hidden in various corners of the room anyway.


It was interesting to be back in Beelitz and the experience from over the top of the trees was one of a kind. From the point of view of the concept it shows how some ruins with a certain history can be reintegrated into the travel cycle while adding up some sustainable details. Germany is a good example in this respect and would be curious to visit other similar projects. As long as they involve a lot of nature it makes them even more attractive for me.

A Musical Sunday Summer at Chorin Abbey

Less than one hour away from Berlin, there is a place that resonates a lot with classical music lovers in the capital city and Brandenburg: Chorin Abbey. This former Cistercian monastery that underwent secularisation in the 16th century is a noteworthy meeting point for all those in love with a good classical concert. 
Between 22nd of June and 25 of August, here are taking place every Sunday, in the afternoon, around 2 hours of quality music. Some are listening from a comfy place inside the monastery concert hall, some prefer it outdoors, on their blanket while having a family picnic. 
A tradition for over 50 years, I made it there only the last week. As usual, my one-day trip involved more than music, and only opened the eyes and the appetite for at least another adventure to come in the next weeks.


Reaching Chorin is relatively easy and all you need is a 13 Euro ticket, plus a short commuting from Bernau (b.Berlin). For the first time in a long time, I was welcomed by a train station which looked a bit different than the usual derelict buildings I've been used to in the last trips. Nearby, a bike parking place, as the area is a favorite destination for cyclists from around the area. 


Outdoor activities are encouraged by the pristine nature surrounding Chorin. I was relatively familiar with it when I went to visit the Schorfheide natural reserve a couple of years ago. The abundance of green adds on to the sense of calm that breathes the streets. Pretty houses hiding behind colourful flowers with hardly a car on the road, the perfect rural retreat not too far away from the urban life.
For the guests of the classical concerts, there are buses taking them for free from the train station, with return hour after the concerts are over. Otherwise, one can slowly walk the little bit over 2 km. walk to the Abbey. It is an easy ride, and all you need is comfy shoes and the moderate preparation.


We arrived at the abbey from the backyard, meandering mysterious doors and hiding places. As it is less than 30 minutes before the concert start, there are plenty of people taking the chance of some fresh breathes of air, but there are still enough remote areas where you can hardly meet anyone.


The ruins are taken over by the nature and the human intervention was only for allowing the visitors an easier ride, by setting up stone stairs and bridges.


Before of after the concert, a round walk around the Amtssee is a mind-soothing experience. It takes around 2 hours of slow walking and it is worth the experience of pure enjoyment of moderate wilderness.


The red-brick building, a trademark of the Cistercian Gothic architecture, the monastic order the abbey belonged to, are making an appearance behind the lush vegetation, and now I know that it is time to head back to the concert area.


There are so many temptations around, including a very old restaurant and some beer gardens, but I promise myself to be back in a couple of weeks for a full tasting of Chorin, plus an overview of the many art galleries open in the area.


But people are hurrying up for the music event and I am following the crowds. The tickets for the summer concerts can be purchased other online, or on the spot. The number of places indoors is limited, but for outdoors - our choice, which costed 8 euro - you can have it any time. 
The sound is as good as inside, and unless there is some threat of rain, you can fully enjoy the experience. At the entrance, there are many food stalls with various treats - a bit overpriced, but this is the price you pay for some good bio goodness, it seems - so even if you did not bring a heavy basket with you, you can have some small guilty pleasures during the concerts.


I often asked myself how in Germany it is possible that even though there is a massive amount of people everyone is so quiet. Like a mass of voiceless bodies are moving slowly in a perfect pace, but without the need to utter any sound.


Indoors, everyone took its place and are waiting for the performance. The guest orchestra this time is from the neighbouring Polish Szczecin, and it plays a classical mix which includes also Mozart. Since its creation, the abbey was an important player in the relationship with the neighbouring Slavic territories and nowadays, several German-Polish projects are developped in the area, many of them focused on cultural dialogue.


Although it was abandonned for centuries - following the conversion to Protestantism of the rulers of Brandenburg, in the first half of the 16th century - the massive Gothic architecture, one of the most important in Brandenburg, is still impressive visually and architecturally.


The efforts to save the old monastery, which among others, was used also as a livestock farm, were initiated by the famous architect Schinkel, in the 19th century, who convinced the Prussian kings that those ruins are worth the preservation not only for cultural, but also for nascent national reasons. 
The Cistercian order was created in 1088, originating from Cîteaux, near Dijon, preaches values such as austerity and self-sufficiency, elements that were at a large extent resonating with the nascent national identity the Prussians themselves were trying to build. Therefore, the appeal of Schinkel  for an investment in saving the ruins after a visit here, called home more than he probably imagined.


The first part of the concert is filling the air with an exquisite energy. The music takes over everything, and once listening, you hardly notice anything, but the united sound of the fast instruments. It is an exemple how music and culture in general, can embelish and enoble souls, wild nature and even weather. The rain forecast for the afternoon are apparently on hold for now.


During the short break, it is about time to visit the rest of the abbey and have a look at the various exhibitions tracing the long history of the building and the monastic order in general. The details of the architecture are fascinating though and are telling their own history with a loud voice which does not need too much cultural or historical background.


There is a certain ambiance that was probably part of a larger mentality continuum at the time, aimed at a specific representation and projection of the religious feeling. Indeed, the order was austere and less interested in an extrovert manifestation of the belief, but the small details of the construction and the permanent dialogue between light and darkness was there for more than an aesthetic reason. 


The small details are part of the history and I am enjoying to take picture of those little elements that beautify the place.


For the Romantic mindset of the 19th century, ruins were an important element of a way of being and seeing the world as a place of loss and permanent reminder of human fragility and short stay on this earth. Some places like castles were left as a ruin on purpose, as in the case of the Heidelberg castle. Surrounded by the untainted green grass, it looks for me as a huge cemetery, where history is burried.


Cistercian monks were hard workers and they had relevant contributions not only to the field of architecture, but also in diverse domains such as agriculture and metallurgy. In the Middle Ages everything was connected to religious activity, therefore, the monasteries were both centers of learning with access to knowledge which further allowed the development of technique and science that at least for a couple of centuries mored it remained wrapped in the covers of religion, until secularisation reclaimed its own mental space.


Once the concert is over, I take over the hiking path for bringing the cultural insights into the nature. What can be better than a wondering through the nature with a mind full of intellectual ideas and cultural concepts? It's the perfect environment for a discussion in two or just for solitary random thoughts. The surroundings are not disappointing.


Like in life, the path takes to ups and downs, easier and less easier turns, where you need more focus and self-restrain.


The houses are looking are hiding in a very discrete way, with their presence noticed only if you want to direct your eyes at an upper level.


Everything looks remote and I am enjoying the post-concert hike more than I thought. I was expecting just a relaxing walk through the forest without too many intellectual challenges. It seems that the historical overview of the place plus the architectural impressions and the classical concert brought enough food for thought that will stay with me for more than a couple of hours. Maybe for days. Maybe for weeks.


The only question is now: when I will return to Chorin to reveal even more interesting corners both for the curious mind and the nature lover soul?

A Short Hiking Adventure in Kleinmachnow

We are already half-July and it seems that summer is running fast, faster than my travel plans at least. Regardless if I am enjoying the summer in Berlin - which is always a lovely experience - or taking random trips around the city for the weekend - more about this in the next two posts - I still some more German travel plans in my pocket. 
One will be in a couple of days an exploration of the iconic Sächsische Schweiz, near Dresden - and not only because it has the same 'Switzerland'/'Schweiz' in it. I am a big lover of hiking in the mountains as since a very early age - somewhere near 5 - I was took to long trips in the mountains with my family. 
Spending a couple of long hours the day on my chair does not help me being prepared for such an adventure and although I am trying to keep myself a regular gym program I need to get ready for long and eventually challanging walking and hiking journeys.
When the forest areas around Berlin - like Schlachtensee, Krumme Lanke, Nikolassee or Grünewald . are no more attractive enough for my wandering spirit - a short adventure to places like, for instance, Kleinmachnow, are worth a try.


I've been to Kleinmachnow four years ago, when I was rather interested in the recent history. Caught between Potsdam - which belonged to the GDR - and Steglitz-Zehlendorf - formerly part the American sector - it used to be a relatively isolated locality on the Cold War map of the area. After the fall of the WWII, Kleinmachnow was frequently mentioned in the media of the 1990s for the drama following the property restitution cases. When the locality was assigned to the communist Germany, many residents fled and abandonned their houses that were took over by locals or representatives of the Communist Party. Once the Berlin Wall was down - during the Cold War here it was a massive border crossing checkpoint, similar in importance with the checkpoint Bravo situated on the A115 motorway - those original owners or their inheritors wanted to recover their properties and often it was not possible without struggling which turned also violent once in a while.
From Berlin, you can arrive there either from Krumme Lanke, by bus, or from Grunewald, also by bus. My stop was at Rathausmarkt, where you can find all the shopping and eating facilities in Kleinmachnow. The offer is modest but enough if you just want to spend the day in the area, without leaving for Berlin. The Italian restaurants are just fine and there is even a bookstore selling the latest popular titles.


After a relativel short refuel shop for a short lunch meal, we are slowly walking alongside the Förster Funke Allee, with its identical one story blue houses, with discrete decorations on the window seals and small gardens embelisshed by blowing bushes of white and pink hortensias.


The more we walk, turning on Karl Mark Street, for instance, I have the confirmation why Kleinmachnow is considered such a paradise for real estate. Despite the persistence of a relatively confuse property rights situation, people keep buying and selling here, including expats, and during our short stay in Rathausmarkt we already heard three English-speaking locals. The houses are really beautiful, with generous garden space and covering a variety of architectural styles.



I wanted this trip to be nothing but of pleasure, but it rarelly happens in my case, as I cannot avoid historical and political references. I am in the front of the entrance to Hakeburg, a castle built at the beginning of the 20th century in neo-Gothic style by the family von Hake who owned it. Used by the Reichpost during WWII, and after took over by the German Communist Party - SED - it was later used as a guest house where special guests of the Communist Germany, such as Nikita Khrushchev, Yasser Arafat, Fidel Castro or Mikhail Gorbachev were hosted.
I make a mental note to come back again in autumn to check the situation of this building - but that's all for now. I need to focus on my actual hiking priorities.


Which hiking opportunity is opening generously on the opposite side of the street. There is a protected nature area, where I am supposed to encounter many special birds, and almost empty. For over an hour, I am wandering through the trees, many of them falling down on the grown, with no other human in sight. It is a relatively easy hike, and my simple sport shoes are enough. It's all I need for now, a fresh air, a little walking accompanied by the birds chirping. 


Suddenly, I am entering a sandy area. A sea of white sand without sea, surrounded by high trees. I've seen another one in Grunewald area and visually at least, it creates an interesting diversion, especially if you use hiking as an opportunity to keep thinking on and off without necessarily a direct connection to the environment. It is a pleasant surprise after all, and it makes the walking experience even more challenging.


There are many possibilities of hiking in Kleinmachnow for long hours. You cross the street and you are in the middle of another small forest. Some do it by walking, as me, others prefer to bike. For all, there is the offer of comfortably easy tracks, that do not require a special preparation. But it can start as a preparation for even longer and more difficult tracks.


Without noticing and not necessarily looking for, we are back in the urban area. We noticed that in the front of many houses, there are small banners where protests against the property situations are scribbled. One complains that he/she is homeless now although it is the right owner of a house here, another one is just writing down a protest against real estate sharks. Some just set up a magnified picture of the property as it once stood.


But for the rest of the residents - more or less local by birth -, it is life as usual, the the layers of various urban styles and interventions can be read at once, on the same street page. This visit to Kleinmachnow made me even more interested to delve a little bit more into the recent history of the place, but first and foremost, it offered me a well-deserved hiking opportunity that I promise to use it at least one more time in the very near future.