“Have you heard of Teufelsberg?” Nicole asked me.
Teufelsberg (lit. “devil’s mountain”) is a hill to the southwest of Berlin. It’s a forest, essentially. A wilderness criss-crossed by hiking paths and the occasional ski slope which, in the summer, make do as challenge material for suicidal cyclists.
On the peak, however, lies a ruin.
During the cold war the Americans were exceptionally interested in what might be going on on the East German side of Berlin. Since Teufelsberg had a clear line-of-sight view on most of the city, the NSA built a listening station on the mountain as part of the terrifyingly-named Echelon project.
Imagine living in beautiful suburban Charlottenberg, beside the world-renowned Olympic stadium, amidst gardens and topiary, and one day seeing this peeking out above the forest:
This geodesic dome is the topmost point of the listening station. What was inside it… well… radio listening equipment of some sort.
The base was closed at the end of the cold war and all the equipment removed. The land was sold to a private developer to be turned into a resort. The developer promptly lost all his money in a real estate bubble and the site was left to decay, surrounded by cyclone fence.
We formed a party to tackle Teufelsberg on a beautiful Saturday in June, unprepared and not knowing what to expect. We didn’t even bring Felco C7 wire and cable cutters.
If there’s one thing Berliners hate it’s fences, as evidenced by the myriad holes in the fence that were cut and repaired repeatedly over the years. (Especially if the fence is surrounding technically unused property. Another time I must tell you about Tempelhof Airport…)
We followed the fence through the woods until we found a ragged hole which we slipped through (well, they slipped, I squeezed, but it worked). From there we crossed over dangerous pits of concrete and rebar and scaled treacherous hills before arriving in front of the base only to find a couple of older looking tourists already there.
Nicole asked how they got in and they said there was a convenient hole right by the main gate. At least all that dangerous climbing made us feel like we deserved to be there.
Finally, we were inside.
The main floor of the base was a standard ruin, covered in graffiti and trash. The structure was intact but most of the walls had been knocked out.
The place was meticulously emptied. Every piece of equipment that might have revealed the site’s purpose had been carefully removed by the NSA when they left. Nothing but bare concrete walls and, here and there, raised sections or metal grilles that might have supported unknown machines.
This is not a standard tourist destination. The torn-down walls reveal sheer drops to the pavement below. Elevator shafts look down into dark chasms. Here are there courteous adventurers have tied ropes or caution tape across openings too dangerous to cross, but generally you are completely on your own. Try not to do anything stupid or you might die.
The view is spectacular.
We spent some time on the second level enjoying the ambiance. Eventually I decided to climb one level up. What I discovered blew me away:
These geodesic domes housed… something. Perhaps radar equipment. The skin of the dome is made of tough plasticized denim which many visitors have cut over the years.
Yet higher there is a tower that reaches up to a single, larger geodesic dome. At this point I stopped taking pictures because I was so amazed by what I was seeing. The dome was huge. The acoustics were strange, creating unusual echoes and long reverb tails. A cathedral for martians.
I don’t have pictures but Mary was good enough to capture this audio recording that demonstrates the strange sonic properties of the place:
Finally we headed back, this time via the main gate. A bunch of scrappers were collecting leftover metal to sell in the front, and a group of British tourists worriedly talked about two of their party who seemed to be missing somewhere in the ruin.
The hole in the fence led us to a cobblestone path and then to a road that took us back to civilization. We were tired and utterly exhausted but it was entirely worth it. The Teufelsberg listening post ruin is simply the most fascinating place I’ve ever been. I can’t wait to go back.