On the first weekend of the year we decided to escape not so much the madness – for that was all reserved for New Year’s Eve and the early hours of the following morning – but the debris and the feeling of the morning after the night before. Outside our apartment on Osloer Straße the street was strewn with firework casings, empty and smashed bottles, piles of grit from the snow flurry earlier in the week, and first of the abandoned Christmas trees, branches drooping and the needles scattered across the pavement.
We caught the S-Bahn from Bornholmer Straße, that famous bridge where the Berlin Wall was first opened and – with its dramatic views south towards the city centre – the venue for one of the larger impromptu firework displays on the 31st December. The half-empty train took us north, through Pankow and towards the suburbs, always close to the Panke river that flows, mostly hidden, by the raised railway tracks. At Karow – still Berlin and yet, with its detached houses and neat village centre, feeling like a place apart – we sought out the river and the route to the Karow ponds.
I had been there before, with Lotte in the height of summer. Then the trees were green and the grass tall, the verges encroaching on the pathways and the ponds themselves filled with birdlife. On the first January weekend the scene was somewhat more subdued, the verges cut back by the council strimmer, the ponds frozen, the birds – for the most part – elsewhere. But it remains, these former sewage fields turned into a nature reserve, a lovely calming place, a mixture of open fields where cattle graze, woodland and the ponds themselves… and even on the bleakest of winter days, under the greyest of grey skies, one of my favourite places in Berlin.
The next morning we headed further afield, but to another familiar stomping ground – the Brandenburg lakeside spa town of Bad Saarow. Despite its big hotels, holiday apartments, pleasure boats and the thermal baths, I have been to Bad Saarow at all times of the year and it never seems truly crowded. And it has a fascinating history as well, a place where part of the town was occupied for decades by the Soviets, off limits to local residents, where in earlier times Max Schmeling and Maxim Gorky found refuge from the outside world, and where scientists from the GDR developed the drugs programme that would lead the small communist nation to Olympic glory and infamy.
The clues are there in the town, even if you spend your day as we did with a stroll along the promenade and then a few hours in the baths. We emerged into darkness, the town shuttered and hunkered down, and it felt like the only life for miles on this Sunday evening was beneath the lights and the steam of the warming waters. We headed back to Berlin with the end-of-holiday traffic. School tomorrow. The long weekend at the end of the festive period coming to an end. We did not have to follow that stream of red lights for long and we were home. Over two days it felt as if we had escaped the city, but in truth, we had never been far away.
Words: Paul Scraton
Pictures: Katrin Schönig & Paul Scraton
Please check out my new project – a quarterly print magazine that will be launched in June 2015:
Elsewhere: A Journal of Place