BERLIN (Reuters Life!) - Berlin is littered with relics of its communist past, with one of the eeriest being Spreepark, where the remains of what was once East Germany’s only amusement park still stand.
The park sprang to life in July, when a small section was reopened to the public with a cafe serving cakes and drinks and a couple of old rides running again, drawing nostalgic visitors wanting a taste of the park’s past.
Elsewhere in the park, there are abandoned models of giant dinosaurs. A colorful Ferris wheel juts into the skyline, and plants run wild over old rollercoasters and refreshment stands.
The Spreepark, which used to boast one of Europe’s tallest rollercoasters, was privatized after the fall of the Berlin Wall by the Witte family, who ran shows in funfairs in West Germany, but later went bust.
It is now one of many iconic sites awaiting redevelopment in the German capital, which is itself about 60 billion euros ($87 billion) in debt.
Adventure-seekers and history buffs visit the ruins of the park next to the river Spree, either on organised tours or by slipping through gaps in the fence.
“The place is a paradox, it excites your fantasy,” Peter Doerfler, director of “Achterbahn,” a documentary film about the park, told Reuters, adding that Berlin’s contemporary identity is defined by its abandoned and run-down spaces.
“Berlin is known for its unused spaces and temporary events,” he said.
“A proper revival of the park wouldn’t even be that desirable -- Berlin needs to be careful not to become like any other city.”
The amusement park’s history is as colorful as its rides once were. The Kulturpark Plaenterwald, as it was known under communism, was also used as a meeting point by youths rebelling against the state’s collectivist system.
“We always hung out there,” said Michael Boehlke, a punk rock pioneer of former communist East Germany (GDR), who fronted a band called Planlos (“Aimless”).
“Every East German punk coming to Berlin knew that the park was the place to meet everyone in the scene.”
Despite initial success, the park became unprofitable and ran up mountains of debt, mirroring the city’s own struggle to reinvent itself and survive in a market economy.
The Witte family handed the park back to Liegenschaftfond, Berlin’s city-owned real estate company, in an insolvency proceeding in 2001 and later attempted to make a new start in South America -- taking the park’s best rides with them to the Peruvian capital Lima.
But the new venture in Peru failed, and the park’s former manager, Norbert Witte, turned to drug smuggling to make ends meet and was caught trying to smuggle cocaine back into Germany inside a flying carpet -- one of the park’s rides.
After serving five years in jail in Berlin, Witte now lives in a trailer in the Spreepark. His son is serving a sentence for drugs smuggling in Peru.
Chances are slim that a serious investor will revive Spreepark, which stands on the tip of an isolated, forested peninsula jutting into the river Spree in eastern Berlin.
The abandoned Ferris wheel can be seen from any tall building in the city’s trendier central and eastern neighborhoods, and still attracts curious visitors.
“In the 1990s the park did not have to shy away from international comparison,” said Christopher Flade, a die-hard fan of the run-down park who started weekly guided tours of the area two years ago.
“Its rollercoaster was one of Europe’s highest,” he said.
Every weekend organised groups explore the park, where the faded colors of the mock-rustic wooden houses that filled the park hint at past glories.
But many visitors who want to see the area do not join a tour and instead cross the fence that surrounds the private property -- despite efforts by local security firm Emge.
“There have been a lot of illegal break-ins recently,” a security guard, who did not give his name, told Reuters.
As a sign of the park’s growing popularity, tips on how to dodge the security guards are now readily available online.
Editing by Karolina Tagaris