An Englishman abroad
It’s been a while since we did a bit of ‘Urbex’ (urban exploration) – particularly of abandoned sites. Blame it on the winter. We did a cluster of them last year and I wrote about them in Breaking into Beelitz and Best Laid Plans.
I’m no adrenaline junkie but there is something exciting about exploring abandoned sites: you’re usually trespassing; you don’t know who else might be around (there’s often evidence of vandalism, drugs and neo-Nazis); you don’t know what you’ll find; it’s dangerous so you explore at your own risk – checking floors and ceilings before entering a room and keeping away from any signs of imminent collapse.
Of course, the real thrill comes from gaining a sense of history from the evidence around you. You slowly piece together what purpose the abandoned building once served and it’s amazing what you can discern.
We had a day off on Monday so we decided to visit Vogelsang. We jumped in the car, headed north out of Berlin and soon found ourselves driving along oak-lined country roads. It was a beautiful day and we had our bikes in the boot/trunk, various drinks and snacks and thankfully some sun cream.
First of all, credit where credit is due: we learned pretty much everything about this place from Abandoned Berlin’s Vogelsang post. The whole Abandoned Berlin site is an incredible resource and I’m hugely grateful to Der Irische Berliner. Thank you.
Very briefly, Vogelsang is a former Soviet Army nuclear missile base. In effect, it’s a small town in a forest. It housed 18,000 people (army, their families and other staff) and included schools, a cinema, a theatre, a hospital, a sports hall and various other recreational facilities. It was a very secretive place and even the East German authorities didn’t know what went on there. The missiles were aimed at key west European targets like London, Paris and Bonn.
The first thing we found was the item in the picture to the right. You never like to jump to conclusions when exploring abandoned sites. They’re interesting enough without making false claims. For this reason, I don’t want to say that this is an unexploded bomb – but it effing looked like one. Needless to say, I didn’t kick it around to check.
Of all the abandoned places I’ve been to, Vogelsang might be my favourite. It was a really hot day and it felt like we had the place to ourselves. We got a strong sense that we were walking around a little bit of the Soviet Union. And that’s as close as I can get to such a significant part of 20th century history.
The best moments come when you find something identifiable. We were pleased to come across what might’ve been a creche or nursery but even more pleased to find the Soviet monument next to it. There was no mistaking that. Lenin carved in concrete – vandalised, fading and slowly crumbling away.
Even more exciting was the theatre next door. The foyer was particularly stylish with a lovely stairway. The auditorium was huge and much bigger and impressive than I expected.
Perhaps the find of the day was the cinema. We didn’t know that’s what it was at first but there was something special about the building. We nearly rode past (we didn’t have time to look everywhere) but I decided to go back and I’m pleased I did.
The largest section of the building had comprehensively collapsed but the entrance building and far end were okay. We looked around inside and wondered whether it was lodgings for higher ranking officers, or something. Then we ventured upstairs and I noticed four small square holes in the wall.
“Oh, that’s the projection room. It’s a cinema!”
We suddenly understood what we’d been looking at. The little room we’d walked past near the entrance was a box office. The concrete panels outside were probably for displaying film posters and screening times.
The collapsed section was the actual cinema bit – where people would sit and wait for the lights to dim. The stage/screen end still stood and there were even some ragged pieces of the curtain that would draw back to reveal a screen – now long gone. I found a stage door at the back of the building and took a look inside.
Some of the floorboards were rotten and had fallen through, but placed on the stage, was a tattered Soviet flag on an old stand. The red flag with the hammer and sickle – torn, rotten and moth eaten. I think the flag was genuine but I doubt it had been in this position since the Soviets left in 1993. Perhaps someone found it nearby recently and decided to place it somewhere more noticeable?
It was an impressive find but not in a way I can easily explain. I’m not particularly pro-USSR but there was just something incredibly evocative about finding the flag. But if you’ve read any of my previous posts, you’ll know I’m a sucker for this kind of stuff.
After finding the flag, we started to hear the sound of heavy machinery nearby. We had read that there were plans to demolish the site and we saw several large piles of twisted and broken concrete. One thing that was absent from our visit were residential buildings. There are now large bare sections of forest where these apartment blocks once stood. We were sorry we couldn’t have seen these but thankful for finding as much as we did.
If you want to see Vogelsang, be quick. I don’t know why they’re destroying the site or what plans there might be but there won’t be much left for very long. I know you can’t preserve everything and that history moves on, but I’ll be sad when it’s gone. It’s a hell of a site, an incredibly evocative place and an unforgettable day.
Update: Thanks to Jekaterina Heinzevna Dallman of Don’t Get me Started for letting me know that the ‘nursery’ has ‘Cafe’ written above the entrance. So, not a nursery/creche after all. She also discreetly pointed out that I’d got my Stalins and Lenins mixed up – how embarrassing…
Click on any of the pictures below to view as a slideshow.