The snow began to fall as we left Berlin. The car was so packed full – of presents, food and drinks – that there was not space for us all to travel along the autobahn together, so half of the party made the short underground hop to Alexanderplatz and the regional train east. The Saturday before Christmas, and the train was filled with returnees, leaving the capital or coming in from further afield, to make their way out to the towns and villages that sit amongst the lakes and the trees between Berlin and the Polish border. On the seats opposite us two young women chatted with the distanced familiarity of old friends who have not seen each other for a while, scattered during term time to universities elsewhere in Germany but brought together for the holidays, coincidentally climbing aboard the same carriage on the train home.
We were, on the other hand, escaping. A week in the countryside to fill the festive period. A house by the railway tracks, not far from the lake. I had been looking forward to it since the moment we landed upon the idea. But in a way, it felt like a return for us as well, to this small town that has become our bolt-hole from the city on more than one occasion, to this house we have stayed in before. At Fürstenwalde we changed over from the top-heavy double-decker regional train to a single carriage that would take us to Bad Saarow, a train that is smaller than the trams that rumble along the Osloer Straße beneath our bedroom window, but that is all part of the charm of the trip. As it rolled south through the forests, wet snow splattering against the window, I was happy that the car had been full and we had been forced to take the train.
Bad Saarow is a spa town, about an hour south east of Berlin, that first became fashionable about a century ago, as the famous and the wealthy of the capital made use of the new train line to take mud baths in the town and build their villas on the banks of the Scharmützelsee. Maxim Gorki came to the town around about the time it was granted the title of “Bad” (Spa), and the Russian writer was the first of a number of pre- and inter-war celebrities that would come for the benefit of the mud lifted from the mere behind the town, strolls along the lakeshore, or simply the fresh air of the countryside in a time when Berlin was massively expanding following the unification of Germany in 1871 and the ongoing process of rapid industrialisation.
After the Second World War many of the villas were commandeered by the Soviet army or were taken over for use by the political and cultural elite of the German Democratic Republic. Some of the most picturesque parts of the lakeshore were locked away from the ordinary citizenry by a wall behind which Soviet officers and their East German political allies could enjoy the fresh air and scenery without the riffraff. Meanwhile, at the Academy of Military Medicine that had been established in the town, scientists embarked on the doping programme that would deliver Olympic medals by the truckload to the peasants and workers state and that would, alongside the actions of the Ministry for State Security (the Stasi), make the GDR infamous.
In 1989 of course the Berlin Wall fell, and with it the wall in Bad Saarow, and Russian troops left German territory completely by 1994 following the reunification of the country. The villas were handed back to the previous owners – or at least, their descendants – and although some have been renovated and redeveloped, others stand in a sad state of ruin, looking out beyond the landscaped footpath and the lake. We first came here in 2008 and have returned every year since. We come for the walks along the water and through the woods, for the sense of peace that hangs over Bad Saarow even at the height of summer, and the warm waters of the thermal baths that were established in 1996 to put the “Bad” back in Bad Saarow.
As we arrived this time, our small train pulling up apologetically the grand old station that is far too large and has too many columns for its purpose, the snow was beginning to stick to the ground. It would only last roughly forty-eight hours, and not quite long enough to guarantee a white Christmas, but it certainly added atmosphere to our first excited walk down through the town, sliding along icy pavements towards the steaming outdoor pools of the baths, the winding paths of the Kurpark, and the still waters of the lake. We noted certain things that had changed since our last visit, over a year ago – such as the fact that the hospital now has its own stop on the train line, or the fact that another house had been added to the colony north of the tracks, on the edge of the forests and the old firing zone of the East German army – but mostly Bad Saarow was much as we had left it. Which is exactly how it should be.
Much of the history of the town in this piece comes from the wonderful article by my friends at Hidden Europe magazine (Bad Saarow appeared in Issue 26, May/June 2009) and I can wholeheartedly recommend a subscription for anyone interested in the corners of Europe most magazines don’t reach…
Words and Pictures: Paul Scraton
Pictures: Katrin Schönig