Travel

Wander Dim Tunnels and Dark Pasts by Going Underground in Berlin

Explore new depths on these immersive tours beneath the surface.

Flickr/logan hicks
Flickr/logan hicks
Flickr/logan hicks

It’s not unusual to be underground in Berlin. Sure, there’s the local subway, the U-Bahn, which makes up a network of nearly 93 miles (150 kilometres), and you’ll probably hop aboard one of its bright yellow trains at least once during your time here. But it’s one thing to head down the stairs of an U-Bahn station to patiently wait on the platform for your ride, and it’s another thing to separate from the commuting masses, enter an inconspicuous door somewhere in the station, and find yourself in a preserved World War II air raid shelter or Cold War bunker.

Breaking and entering isn’t necessary (and definitely not advised) to access these underground time capsules. All you need to do is book one of Berliner Unterwelten’s tours to be led through subterranean concrete labyrinths that easily make one think, “Yup, I could see a scary movie being filmed here.”

Depending on your tour, you might pass through a room of spartan bunk beds, where it was “first come, first serve” for Berlin citizens hiding from Allied bombings. Another tour might bring you to a kitchen with a couple heavy steel pots that were supposed to serve the thousands seeking refuge there after a possible nuclear attack amid Cold War hysteria. Or you could see what it was like to try to sneak under the Berlin Wall. No matter which you choose, here are all the murky histories lying beneath the surface in Berlin.

Flickr/Claudia Liebram
Flickr/Claudia Liebram
Flickr/Claudia Liebram

Trace the roots of the tunnels

“There seems to be an unbridled curiosity, fascination, and demand for the ‘underground,'” says Eva Westphal, who works in public relations for Berliner Unterwelten e.V. With their tours, you can satisfy that curiosity without adding trespasser to your resume.

Most of the tours start near the Gesundbrunnen shopping centre and train station in the north of the city. Modern, loud, and busy, this area provides a stark contrast to the quiet spaces from times gone by that you’ll experience once you head down below with Berliner Unterwelten.

Flickr/logan hicks
Flickr/logan hicks
Flickr/logan hicks

Berliner Unterwelten e.V. (or Berlin Underworlds Association) was founded in 1997 by eleven people enthusiastic about the “underworld.” The non-profit is dedicated to researching, documenting, and preserving historic sites in the Berlin underground-as well as making them accessible to the public.

“Our facilities-such as air raid shelters, civil defence facilities, and former industrial buildings-and the tours guided there demonstrate vividly an important part of German and European history as well as Berlin’s urban history, which we should not and must not forget,” Westphal says.

Having grown to around 100 employees and more than 500 members, Berliner Unterwelten currently offers 11 tours across 10 facilities. The tours last around 1.5 – 2 hours long and are offered in six different languages. Here’s what you’ll experience on two of those tours.

Flickr/logan hicks
Flickr/logan hicks
Flickr/logan hicks

Explore Dark Worlds

Tour 1: Dark Worlds focuses on bombing raids during World War II. To get started, the group gathers around the U8 Gesundbrunnen station entrance next to the Berliner Unterwelten ticket shop. Once checked in, everyone heads down the subway stairs, but before reaching the platform, each person files through an unmarked door that’s painted a light sage green. It’s the kind of unassuming door you’d overlook completely if not for the guide ushering people through.

Stepping over the threshold, you’re immediately thrust into the past. A grey hallway emerges with the original paint on the walls that includes the words “air raid shelter” in German and old directions to men and women’s toilets. Another sign eerily warns that you should close the doors after you hear the bomb explode and put your gas masks on before opening the doors again.

Flickr/logan hicks
Flickr/logan hicks
Flickr/logan hicks

As our group moves along and hears the periodic, low rumblings of trains, we encounter rooms that showcase how things really were here during World War II. In one, we get to see how the glow-in-the dark paint on the walls-meant to help direct people if the lights go out-still works. In another, we see how the space was ventilated using air from the subway. One of the rooms features triple bunk beds where you can imagine civilians crowding as the war raged on above them.

Other spaces we pass through are outfitted with curated exhibits that give additional context but weren’t necessarily from the shelter itself. We see a room with bombing prep supplies, including a grim board game that was meant to teach children what to do in an air raid. Another displays old firebombs and other munitions. Towards the end of the tour we see exhibits of soldiers’ belongings, including an 80-year-old condom, as well as a massive card catalogue case with records of forced labourers.

Whether or not you consider yourself a history buff, the underground tour makes for a fascinating, immersive way to understand the realities of the war.

Flickr/SnaPsi Сталкер
Flickr/SnaPsi Сталкер
Flickr/SnaPsi Сталкер

Dive into Bunkers, Subways, and the Cold War

The Berliner Unterwelten’s Tour 3: Bunkers, Subways, and the Cold War takes you to different parts of the city. Focusing on air-raid shelters repurposed during the threat of nuclear war, this excursion is a two-fer, offering tours of two very different shelters.

The tour starts in a small, white building across the street from a bank. This atomic fallout shelter is small and austere, designed to hold 1,318 people for up to 48 hours. Inside is a still-functioning air pump and a neighbouring room filled with volcanic sand meant to filter out radioactivity from the air.

The second part of the tour is down the street, about a 10-minute walk above ground to the Pankstrasse U-Bahn station. Descending once more, another seemingly insignificant door awaits below. You’ll likely encounter more than a few stares from people in the subway station passing by as you walk through. Hey, who wouldn’t be suspicious seeing a big group heading into an otherwise locked door underground?

Flickr/Toni Almodóvar Escuder
Flickr/Toni Almodóvar Escuder
Flickr/Toni Almodóvar Escuder

After walking through a heavy, vault-like door not unlike the hatch in Lost, you can see that this “multi-purpose facility” is far larger than the first shelter, and it’s said to hold 3,339 people for at least two weeks. There’s an infirmary (which is pretty much as creepy looking as you’d think), a sick bay with some baby beds, and an emergency generator. The distinct shade of light green painted on some of the walls and ceilings was intentional, specifically chosen because the colour is supposed to make people feel relaxed-you be the judge.

In another part of the shelter, you can see toilets, a kitchen (albeit seemingly small for its intended number of residents), and many four-level bunk beds. There’s also a good amount of shock-proof machinery, ventilation systems, and reserve water tanks. All in all, it seems like state-of-the-art luxury compared to the fallout shelter we came from.

There are a few other tours you can choose from, mostly focusing on WWII, the Cold War, and sneaking under the Berlin Wall. Whichever you choose, as you meander this history-rich underworld, one thing is for sure: You’ll never look at those random doors in the Berlin subway the same way again.

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Cindy Brzostowski is a contributor for Thrillist.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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