Cooling Down Like the East Berliners

Ah, summer in Berlin. If I needed one reason (as if I didn’t have enough reasons already) to stay for longer than a year, it would be because I wouldn’t want to miss the Berlin summer. Last year was almost magical: drinking beer on the city’s beaches, having barbecue after barbecue in Volkspark Friedrichshain, dancing until the sun was high up in the sky again and most of all: a sheer endless amount of sunshine. Coming from Holland, I wasn’t used to that. But there was also the heat, which rose to 40 degrees Celsius in August. To prepare for it, I took some cooling-down suggestions from the GDR. Here’s how Central Berlin kept it cool 50 years ago – and still does.

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Summer in Berlin. Image courtesy of Daphne Damiaans.

Splashing in my backyard

During my first months in Berlin, it was a strange sight on my way to the supermarket: some sort of abandoned, derelict swimming pool by the side of the street. It wasn’t deep enough to swim in and there wasn’t any water in it – but I couldn’t think of any other purpose for it. And then, as soon as summer started, sprinklers were placed along its edges and suddenly it was filled with people playing in the shallow water and picnicking around it. Some research taught me that these GDR “Planschbecken” or “Plansche” are spread all over the former East Berlin, as free swimming pools for the city’s kids. Some of them managed to survive, like the one in my ‘backyard’, on Singerstraße. It is supposed to be renovated one of these years, but I don’t think any of the kids splashing around in it this summer would see why.

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On my way to the supermarket last summer. Image courtesy of Daphne Damiaans.

The swimming pool on Karl-Marx-Allee

Spoiler alert: it’s not here anymore. But once upon a time there was an actual open-air swimming pool on Karl-Marx-Allee. Right next to the street, free for anyone to enter day and night. Just imagine coming home from a party and taking a dive… The swimming pool was first opened in the 1960’s and old pictures show happy GDR children playing in the water, the famous Karl-Marx-Allee buildings in the background. In 2013, however, this ‘Planschbecken’ had to be closed due to the poor state it was in. Ever since it has been a sad sight, hardly recognisable as a swimming pool: it’s no more than a few holes in the ground, surrounded by fences. But there’s good news: one day, the swimming pool will be opened again. In 2013, they thought it would be in 2015. In 2014, they thought it would be in 2016. Some day in the future, is my estimation. One of my friends couldn’t wait that long and went for a night swim in the fountain at Strausberger Platz. I’m not sure how healthy that is, so I’ll just dip my feet in the water until the swimming pool reopens.

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What is left of the swimming pools at Karl-Marx-Allee. But maybe one day…? Image courtesy of Daphne Damiaans.

Exploring Berlin’s many lakes

So where to swim around Strausberger Platz and Karl-Marx-Allee until the Planschbecken is renovated? Well, you’ll have to take the U-Bahn for that. There are some open-air swimming pools in the former East Berlin, my favourite being the one on the RAW-Gelände. This pool, called “Haubentaucher”, is built amidst the industrial remains of a former railroad construction factory. But that pool is quite new, so where would East Berliners go swimming in GDR times? Easy: one of the many lakes within Berlin or just outside the city. The beautiful Havel and Wannsee were in West Berlin, but the East had the Weißensee, the Orankesee and the Müggelsee – to name just a few. All perfect for swimming and sun-bathing, but they can get quite crowded. My favourite lakes so far are the Kaulsdorfer Seen, three lakes in the far east of Berlin. Quite hard to reach, but that’s what makes them hidden gems. If you don’t mind travelling even further, the Liepnitzsee is another great destination: incredibly clear water and nothing but nature surrounding it.

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Prefer peace and quiet when swimming? Travel to the north of Berlin, to the Liepnitzsee. Image courtesy of Daphne Damiaans.

Toes in the sand

If it’s just a beach you’re looking for and you don’t necessarily want to swim, Central Berlin is your best friend. There is no city in Germany (and neither in Holland, I would guess) with as many city beaches as Berlin. Within a one-mile radius of Strausberger Platz, there are at least 5 beach bars that I know of.  I already paid tribute to Yaam, Sage and Holzmarkt Pampa in my last blogpost, but for the sake of completeness it is also worth mentioning the beach bars right on Alexanderplatz (AlexOase) and next to the Jannowitzbrücke station (Gestrandet an der Jannowitzbrücke). Except for their location in the former East Berlin, there’s nothing GDR about these beach bars, but I’m sure they would have been just as big a hit in the 1960’s and 1970’s as they are today.

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No need to complicate things: beer and sand is all you need on a summery day. Image courtesy of Daphne Damiaans.

I scream, you scream…

And finally: the quickest and probably most delicious way to cool down: ice cream! I’m still surprised how much ice cream the Germans eat and how readily it is available on virtually any street corner. The love for ice cream is nothing new: in the GDR, Karl-Marx-Allee was famous for its ice cream parlour. This Mokka-Milch-und-Eisbar was situated next to the Kino International and opened in the early 1960’s. It must have been quite impressive: 2 floors with seating for 300 people – and still often overcrowded, resulting in long waiting times. On the menu were also specials like ‘Pittiplatsch’ (named after a fictional character from an East German TV show) and ‘Mokka-Flip’. Sadly enough, the ice cream bar didn’t survive modern times. There’s still fresh ice cream available around Strausberger Platz, but I prefer venturing a little further and trying unique flavours like Moscow-mule (Rosa Canina, Hufelandstraße 7, Prenzlauer Berg) and mango-lassi (EisPiraten, Grünbergerstraße 85, Friedrichshain).

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Just across Volkspark Friedrichshain from Strausberger Platz, you’ll find the most amazing ice cream at Rosa Canina. Image courtesy of Daphne Damiaans.