International hospitality from Iceland to Bosnia
A cultural tour of the German capital offers endless possibilities. Explore a city in constant self-renewal, from a floating swimming pool to a Weimar-era ballroom.
Morning: The sunny side of the Spree
On the eastern banks of the River Spree, among the skeletons of warehouses and watchtowers left over from the Cold War, Berliners make their way to the shore for a morning dip. Towels tucked under arms, they head for the Badeschiff (‘bathing ship’) – a huge heated swimming pool made out of the shell of an industrial barge that floats in the cold river. As the day draws on, the temperature rises and sun drenches swimmers and the city. Deckchairs scattered around the pool’s sandy terraces fill with people escaping work for a lunchtime drink with friends.
Badeschiff may be unique in engineering terms, but it is not alone: few cities have taken to the urban beach quite like Berlin. There are nearly 30 here, bringing new life to the wastelands that remained when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. Many are tucked behind the East Side Gallery, a section of the Wall covered with graffiti art that lies across the river from Badeschiff. One longstanding favourite here is Yaam, an African- and Caribbean-themed beach bar where sunseekers listen to reggae while sipping imported bottled beers. It doubles as a community centre: small groups congregate on the grass to make artworks or sell handmade knickknacks, while kids play on the sands surrounded by people lazing on blankets or tucking into picnics.
The concept of urban sunbathing may have originated here. The city’s surrounded by huge lakes, which have drawn urbanites from the centre for generations. Sections of the shores around the huge manmade lake at Wannsee, a plush suburb to the west of the city, have acted as faux-beaches since 1907. YouTube videos poignantly show a generation who were to be wiped out in WWI happily frolicking in the shallow waters, and not much has changed. Today, the main stretch of its 1,000 metres of sand is packed with young couples snuggling up in stripy two-seater beach baskets, gazing out over the midnight-blue lake. An elderly woman lies back in a deckchair enjoying the sunshine, while a trio of grandchildren race around her and construct elaborate sandcastles. It doesn’t take much imagination to feel like you’ve been transported 500 miles north to the coast.
Early afternoon: Mind the art gap
Squats get a bad rap in Britain, but in Berlin they were the creative engines that helped get the city on its feet when the Wall came down. Today, they offer the visitor a unique way to tap into the changing cultural life of the capital.
Hundreds of buildings lay abandoned after reunification in 1990. The Kunsthaus Tacheles department store was one: used as a Nazi prison in WWII, it fell into disrepair under East German administration during the Cold War. It was primed for demolition after reunification before a group of artists moved in, transforming its maze-like passageways and endless rooms and halls into studios, nightclubs, cafés, performance spaces and even a cinema.
Martin Reiter, one of the group’s founders, recalls how ‘this area was ruined back then. It was very close to the Wall, on the East side, lined with military. No-one wanted anything to do with it. Yet suddenly, in the middle of the developed world there were these spaces free, places where new things could happen, and artists from Berlin and internationally began to make them happen.’
There is no sign of dereliction today; Tacheles is now surrounded by designer stores, opulent arcades and marble mosaics. A huge arch marks its entrance and a winding staircase covered with paintspattered imagery and graffiti leads up five floors. Doors are left open, inviting the curious into rooms filled with artistic projects: sculptures, paintings, huge pieces of machinery reshaped into twisted new forms. There’s a scattering of people here, some tourists (Tacheles gets around 400,000 a year), some partygoers who haven’t made their way home from the night before.