Friday, June 17, 2011

Taking the Plunge in Berlin

On Saturday June 11 an article I wrote about swimming in Berlin was published in the Irish Times.

Go Germany: In summer Berliners take to the Spree, lakes, pools and swimming clubs, writes FERGAL McCARTHY

SWIMMING pools, lakes, hot tubs, rivers and the concept of bathing in general have a fascination for me. Wherever I travel, I seek out unique places to swim.

The freezing ocean off the north Icelandic coast, hot springs in Nepal and the impossibly luxurious riverside pool at Istanbul’s Four Seasons Bosphorus hotel are just some of the highlights of a life led in pursuit of watery highs. I have always identified with Burt Lancaster’s character in his 1968 movie The Swimmer who spends the film swimming home through pools owned by friends and neighbours.

Berlin is one of my favourite cities. There is much to experience, from its recent history to the contemporary art scene and, of course, the clubbing.

I go there to swim. I know of no other city that offers such a wealth of options when it comes to its bathing culture. In my experience, Reykjavik and Tokyo come close but Berlin pips them both at the post for the diversity and originality of its pools, lakes and saunas.

Berlin has a split personality neatly divided into two seasons. Winters are long and freezing. People escape the plummeting temperatures with frequent visits to saunas, which seem to exist on every second street.

Summers are short and often scorching. Outdoor swimming pools re-open, urban beaches appear overnight and Berliners flock to the crystal clear lakes that surround the city.

I first visited to celebrate the new year in 2007. On arrival I immediately sought out the Badeschiff (bathing ship) in Kreuzberg, a floating swimming pool in the middle of the Spree. You traverse a boardwalk leading to several white pods that bob in the middle of the river. Inside is a pool, two saunas, dozens of day beds and an affordable cafe. We rented robes, gorged on toasted sandwiches, ordered perfectly-made lattes and had dips in the pool whenever all the lazing about got too much.

Swimsuits are frowned upon at the Badeschiff. This tradition is not always easily adopted by modest Irish types but luckily robes are on offer and you become quite proficient at whipping them off quickly half way down the ladder into the pool. But German liberalism soon takes hold and after several visits, you cease to care.

The pool is deep and unsuitable for non-swimmers. At either end, you can swim through a flap in a see-through curtain into a compact outdoor section. This is especially magical at night as you gaze upon the city lights.

The Badeschiff was conceived as an art project in 2004. Every summer, its tented pods come off and the concept changes dramatically. It adopts the culture of an urban beach with imported sand, an outdoor pool and DJs most nights until the early hours. It gets incredibly busy on warm days, so you need to get there early.

The dress code also alters and swimsuits are encouraged. In the darker days of the Irish winter, I often find myself fantasising about what life would be like to have access to something similar in Dublin.

On a subsequent Berlin summer visit, after a particularly late night of bar-hopping interspersed with currywurst (sausage and curry) stops, I headed for the lakes that lie to the west of the city.

Schlachtensee rests on the fringes of the Grunewald forest and it’s 30 minutes away on the S1 railway line. It’s pristine, and somehow curiously German in its perfection. After a walk through the woods and a bracing swim, I repaired to the outdoor terrace of the typically German Alte Fischerhütte cafe and watched several small wedding parties amble up and order coffee and cake. Every Berliner has a favourite lake and the locations of the best are kept a closely guarded secret. Locals are especially furtive about Liepnitzee, which is 25 minutes walk from Wandlitzee station. Good luck finding it.

I returned to a snowy Berlin for new year 2010, this time accompanied by my wife and two-year-old son. We stayed at the newly-opened outpost of Soho House in Mitte so I could wallow in the rooftop pool that overlooks the TV Tower. I can imagine this pool is quite the scene in summer, but in late December I was the only one to brave the icy outdoor temperatures.

In my ideal world, every morning would begin with a dip on this roof. The basement houses the curiously titled Cowshed Spa, which has an authentic hammam, sauna and opulent day bed area stuffed with glossy magazines. The problem with Soho House is that it’s so perfectly designed to cater for all of your needs, you won’t want to leave and could miss out on the unique thrills awaiting you in the rest of the city.

But drag myself away I did, after hearing about a sauna on Möckernstrasse that sounded like it was worth a visit. Liquidrom houses a labyrinth of giant saunas, icy plunge pools, outdoor hot tubs and a slick bar serving juices and more grown-up refreshments. The highlight is a darkened, circular, salt water pool with ambient lighting and piped underwater music.

Armed with several foam tubes, I immersed myself in the water among the blissed-out bathers and tried hard not to succumb to the gentle strains of Enya and German trance. Confusingly, swimsuits are worn in the pool but not in the saunas so take two towels: one to sit on and another to wrap around your waist.

On the hour, crowds gathered in the sauna for a series of herbal infusion sessions administered by a towel wielding expert. This was quite the display as he whipped up the heat. After 15 minutes, he elicited a spontaneous round of applause.

Later in the week, I brought my son to the recently re-opened Stadtbad in Neukölln. This neo-classical pool was considered one of Europe’s finest when it opened in 1914 and it still has the feel of a Roman bath with soaring columns, mosaics, gargoyles, fountains and, most importantly, a shallow pool for kids. Don’t be put off by the bland concrete façade – it’s worth the trip south to this newly hip suburb.

I’m returning to Berlin next month. On my list this time is Stadtbad Mitte, a Bauhaus pool that narrowly avoided the second World War bombings, Olivin, a sauna on Schönhauser Allee, and Prinzenbad, an outdoor paradise in Kreuzberg. Swimming is so much more than a sport in this city. Whole days can be passed lounging about in the vicinity of water in a myriad of environments. Refreshments are nearly always on offer and alcohol is seemingly never abused. Massages are available and pools are places at which to relax and to exercise.

Western society could learn a lot from Berlin. It’s no longer the grandest city in Europe but in many ways it’s the most chilled out, and that can’t be bad.

Berlin where to . . .


Soho House , Torstrasse 1, 00-49-30-4050-440, Originally a Jewish department store converted into the headquarters of Hitler Youth, this Bauhaus gem has recently been reimagined as the latest outpost of the Soho House behemoth. It boasts seven floors of fun comprising ping-pong tables in the lobby, a cinema in the basement and a private members’ club that attracts Berlin’s creative elite. Doubles from €90 to €400.

Michelberger Hotel , Warschauer Strasse 39-40, 00-49-30-2977-8590, This is where models stay when they are in Berlin, which makes sense as the Michelberger is possibly the coolest hotel in town (with a bizarre website). It’s worth a visit alone to view the booklined lobby and it’s got a fantastic spa in the basement. Located in bar-filled Friedrichshain, it’s perfectly situated for dips in the Badeschiff on the other side of the river. Rates start at €59 per night.

Tentstation , Seydlitzstrasse 6, 00-49-30-3940-4650, This is the only campsite in the centre and it is five minutes from the Hauptbahnhof station. An empty swimming pool on the grounds is used for beach volleyball tournaments and at night movies are projected onto an outdoor screen. Pitches start at €11 per person.


Grill Boot , This is a crazy idea: you rent a plastic boat that is shaped like a doughnut complete with a giant umbrella, a sound system and a barbecue in the centre. Get a few friends together and float around on the Spree for a few hours while you cook your lunch (only in Germany). Available at Treptow and Wannsee, starting at €35 an hour seating up to 10 people.

Van Loon , Im Urbanhafen, This old Dutch barge on one of the widest parts of the canal in Kreuzberg offers breakfast, home cooked meals and late night drinks. In winter, there are seven tables and a hot stove. In summer, a big waterside terrace draws a crowd.

Currywurst stalls are everywhere in Berlin. Order a currywurst, which is a sliced pork sausage served with curry flavoured ketchup, and chips as often as possible. They taste a whole lot better late at night if you are going between bars.


Badeschiff , Arena Club, Eichenstrasse 4, 00-49-30-533-2030

Liquidrom , Möckernstrasse 10, 10963 Berlin, 00-49-30-2580-0782,

Schlachtensee , Am Schlachtensee 1. Lake on the fringes of the Grunewald forest.

Stadtbad Neukölln , Ganghoferstrasse 3, 00-49-30-6824-9812,

Useful website is an incredible site that tells you all you need to know about the city. Download its app and unlock the secrets of underground Berlin.

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