Berliners escape to their colonies

Last Sunday I was lucky enough to spend the afternoon in a Berlin ‘colony garden’. It was the perfect escape from the concrete and heat of the city centre – and almost on the doorstep.

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Most Berliners live in apartment blocks and many of them have neither balconies nor outside space. There are plenty of wonderful parks of course – especially the Tiergarten right in front of the Brandenburg Gate – and within half an hour of the centre Berlin is surrounded by thick forests. You only have to look out of a plane on a clear day to see what a verdant city it is. You might also spot what look like mini-housing estates; conglomerations of individual gardens each with a wooden hut on them. These are ‘Gartenkolonien’ also known as ‘Schrebergärten’, named after the ‘Schreber movement’. This was a public initiative started in Leipzig in 1864 which decided to lease areas within the city for children to play in. Later on, these areas included actual gardens for children, but soon adults tended to take over and cultivate these gardens and the movement spread to other cities in Germany. Some of the Berlin plots are magnificent allotments and the pride and joy of their owners. But others are simple country retreats. Places to hang out and chill. Although in the Grunewald it is important to keep the wild pigs out …

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You have to be lucky to own a Schrebergarten, many of them are handed down from generation to generation, but occasionally they come up for sale if you are prepared to go on a waiting list. My friends have had theirs since the 1990s when there was a shift in population after reunification. They are not avid gardeners but grow a few vegetables and herbs and enjoy the fruits from apple, cherry and quince trees. Sitting outside their small wooden house, surrounded by flowers and trees, with only the bird song of the Grunewald to pierce the air, is a rare treat.

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In the distance I could see the tattered remains of the ‘golf ball’. This was the former NATO satellite station that stands on top of Berlin’s ‘Teufelsberg’ (devil’s mountain), the hill made out of the rubble of Berlin in 1945. Berlin has come through so much; near annihilation in the bombing, the division of the Cold War and then the upheaval of reconstruction after the fall of the Wall.  But their garden colonies have survived it all.

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At tea-time we heard the bell ring at the garden gate. It was the chairman of the garden colony who had called round on his bicycle with a bottle of Schapps to share. He had just returned from a holiday in Austria visiting the place he was evacuated to with his school in the early 1940s. Another Berlin survivor – and with a tale or two to tell.

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