Among the trees and above the ruins, Beelitz

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The Beelitz Heilstätten stands in the forest some 35 minutes by train south of Berlin’s Zoologischer Garten station. This hospital and sanatorium complex opened in 1898 as one of the biggest tuberculosis clinics anywhere in the world, and by the outbreak of WW1 had developed to include its own power station, water tower, laundry and restaurant, farm and post office. Between the wars it developed even further to occupy over 200 hectares of the forest, and following its use as a military hospital during WW2 it was occupied by Soviet forces until their final withdrawal in 1994.

The Beelitz that we explored earlier this week under soft October sunshine is the crumbling ruins of an almighty complex abandoned with the Soviet retreat and pretty much left to nature and the attentions of (sub-)urban explorers and graffiti artists. The buildings are landmark protected, but the scale of the complex makes it hard to imagine what kind of project could bring life back to these structures in the woods. And so they are left, trees and plants growing on balconies and roof-tops, the buildings slowly being swallowed by the forest as people walk amongst them, for it seems that ruins – and not just of the antique variety – hold an endless fascination for many.

As it was on this autumn Wednesday, as we followed a line of visitors that had caught the hourly train from Berlin city-centre. But they, and we, were not just drawn by the ruins and the beautiful decay, but by a new structure that opened in September and now lifts visitors up to the treetops and takes them between and above a selection of the old hospital buildings, allowing for a glimpse into the rooms and hallways that are normally only available either via guided tours or for those willing to jump the fence.

The elevated walkway, all steel and wood, has an observation tower with incredible views across the surrounding countryside, and it is this combination of the natural beauty of the surroundings – in this sea of trees it is hard to imagine one of Europe’s great cities is just a few kilometres down the train tracks – and the photogenic dilapidation of the buildings that had the assorted visitors unsure where to point their cameras or their phones. We walked back and forth among the treetops and then descended to a beer garden at the base of the tower for an early afternoon beer and a sausage. What German tourist attraction, however quirky, could operate without those twin forms of sustenance to top off the visit?

A shorter postcard from our visit appeared on the Elsewhere blog. For a more detailed history of the Beelitz sanatorium, check out this post from Slow Travel Berlin.

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Words: Paul Scraton
Pictures: Katrin Schönig

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