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Tempelhof: The Yin and Yang of an Abandoned Airfield


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Old Tempelhof Airport
A day comes to an end at Tempelof Field.

If you’ve ever known that pang of sadness on the longest day of the year or the faintest glimmer of hope on its shortest, this is for you. If you’ve ever pondered cycles and the tricks of the seasons, that too.

It was an early August heat wave. Audrey and I were returning home on bicycles from a late-afternoon-turned-evening gathering with friends, a craft brew and food festival just a few miles away. The sun nearly finished setting. We were just passing the final light of day. Along our path, we approached the western end of Tempelhof Airport, the airfield that was the site of the Berlin airlifts in 1948-49 and had remained open until 2008.

Now it stood empty – but not entirely so, for it had thankfully been turned into a public space, Tempelhof Park. Especially when the weather is fair, people turn out in droves to take it in – to picnic, to create, and to work all manner of wheeled and wind-propelled devices whose enjoyment requires open space.

Let’s see if we can still get in,” I said to Audrey as she passed alongside me, casting night shadows.

After dark, the airport is usually closed.

But not this time.

We turned our bicycles into a narrow entrance and there was the old airport before us. I rolled over a few chunks of broken tarmac until the wide strip of 9L/27R, its main runway almost 2100 meters long, smoothed ahead of me.

2000 Meters

As I peddled faster, I picked my body up and I could feel a gathering rush of warm air. I drank in the summer. Sheets of heat lightning broke high in the darkness, but rain was no threat. All manner of warmth — like a blanket of goodness — washed over me.

Warm days are wonderful, but there’s nothing quite like the weight of a warm night. Anywhere — but here especially — it feels to me like something that maybe shouldn’t be. But when it is, I take it in.

This is joy, pure and unadulterated.

1500 Meters

Amidst the runway tar strips, I caught flickers of light from other bicycles. We weren’t the only ones with the idea of enjoying an empty airfield on a warm night. Others were still here. And I wondered if any of them were thinking what I began to think:

A warm wind, once a cool wind.

1000 Meters

I could see boyfriends and girlfriends wrapped in blankets, embracing.

I wondered if they’d been there all day long. Friends in t-shirts, long days, the haze of freshly poured beer.

My mind began to wander to so many moments on this runway, through the exchange of seasons. I had experienced Berlin just enough to see and feel each one. Summer to winter, and the in-betweens.

Autumn Days at Tempelhof Park
A perfect autumn day at Tempelhof

The movement of seasons is something beautiful and complex. It hearkens to death and rebirth. But it’s not so straightforward. It plays tricks. For on the longest day of the year, the Summer Solstice, we’re told we have the entire summer ahead of us, yet the days will become shorter. On that day, I feel just a little sad amidst all that light. And on the shortest day of the year, the Winter Solstice, we’re told we have the entire winter ahead of us, yet the days will become longer. On that day, I feel just a little upbeat amidst all that darkness.

500 Meters

I could see the end of the runway and the little hill that rolls up to the edge of my neighborhood, a cache of life called Schillerkiez.

The seasons would change. And it would be winter once again right on this very spot. And I will feel it then, too. I'll jog these runways and when I do, I'll take in their stillness, the silence, the peace, and the solitude. The cold, the biting wind also. For there’s something oddly beautiful in all that, too.

I might also think back to a warm summer night when I could cycle across it in the dark, with a warm breeze washing over me.

0 Meters

I pulled up off the runway and into the neighborhood. There was great life as people hung out open windows and spilled out from restaurants and bars into the streets. Even from the local Turkish taxi driver men’s club.

I wondered where they all would be several months from now, in winter, at this very moment, at this time of night.

—-

In the change of seasons, there’s a balance, an exchange.

I sometimes wonder what makes us alive. I hope we all do. This wonder gives us a platform for gratitude – for what is, for what was and what remains, in cycles.

About Daniel Noll
Travel and life evangelist. Writer, speaker, storyteller and consultant. Connecting people to experiences that will change their lives. Originally from the U.S. Daniel has lived abroad since 2001 and most recently has been on the road since 2006. When he's not writing for the blog you can keep up with his adventures on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. And you can learn more about him on the About Page and on LinkedIn.

14 thoughts on “Tempelhof: The Yin and Yang of an Abandoned Airfield”

  1. I haven’t been to Berlin in years. Early 1990s when I was there chipping away at the wall with a hammer and chisel and then again a couple of years later visiting a friend. I’m guessing that it’s changed somewhat from a bombed-out, bullet-ridden city of squatters in 1993 to something a little more elegant now. The idea that the old runways are still there is interesting. Here in Denver when they built a new airport they ripped up the old one and turned it into more housing.

    Reply
  2. A beautiful post about a wonderful park. Enjoyed seeing it through your eyes and your juxtaposition of the seasons as experienced in that space; delicious. Enjoy Tempelhof for those of us not in proximity. It was one of my favorite spots in Berlin Spring 2011. Glad to hear how it’s being utilized even more today.
    HUG and happy travels.

    Reply
  3. @Caroline: Glad to hear it. A lot of people miss Tempelhof when visiting Berlin.

    @rob: I suppose Berlin isn’t quite as extreme as it was in the early 1990s as you described, but it still holds some of that charm 😉

    Elegance is part of it, development is another, trying to figure itself out is another.

    Regarding the runway remaining, the fact that 5-6 years in, it’s still there is a testament either to patience in development, a recognition that unusual open spaces are very much a Berlin thing, or a stopping off point to what happened in Denver. Even as bits of the Tempelhof Park are being built out (they added a small baseball field in one of the corners, for example), I really hope the city does not take the latter route and develop the life out of it.

    We shall see.

    @Kristin: Delicious. Thank you! Tempelhof Park and the airfield, even in two years, has changed considerably. So far, not in a bad way, but in an expansion of public use elements. There is talk of sticking some housing on the edges. We shall see. Hugs.

    Reply
  4. It was indeed kind of extreme. Early spring 1990 I was working in West Germany, about 3 hours from Berlin. Another Canadian with whom I was working and I decided to do a long weekend in Berlin. We cleaned our rental car front to back to make sure there was no hint of where we were working or for what company, and had a slow drive through East Germany and into Berlin. There were still lots of guard towers and both border crossings, into East Germany and into Berlin had 3-4 gates and checkpoints. At this point the writing was on the wall and only one checkpoint at either crossing was manned. But still to go into East Berlin we had to get a 12-hour visa and go through Checkpoint Charlie, and we had a minor interrogation by the East Germans on the way out.

    A few months later I was, as I mentioned, chipping away at the wall, and two years later visiting a friend from Mannheim who was there working. Things were already changing rapidly, but we ate and drank at “squatter” restaurants and bars – bombed out buildings that still somehow had power and water. It was very strange. Clearly I need to add Berlin to my list of places that need another look. 🙂

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  5. @Rob: Fascinating story. Thanks for sharing. Wish I had the awareness and foresight back then to do the same.

    I don’t know if it’s as alive and well as it once was, but the squatter culture still lives in Berlin. It was apparently especially big in neighborhoods like Kreuzberg (we posted a photo to FB recently from the Regenbogen (Rainbow) Factory that was squatted in protest of its demolition in the 1980s). Now, the squatters have legal rights and it has turned into communal living quarters. Anyhow, the jokes still abound about squatting in Berlin. Berlin’s always changing, so what’s here today may be completely altered, if not gone altogether, by tomorrow.

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  6. Tempelhof is amazing place directly in the middle of the town, I used to live nearby and it’s just perfect for walks, picnics or having a game of football with friends…

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  7. @Ces: Before you visit Belrin, be sure to check out our Berlin Beginner’s Guide. And of course, if you have any questions, let us know!

    @John: Absolutely. During the “good” seasons, absolutely. But even during the winter, Tempelhof, even despite those cold winds, is a great place to clear one’s head. We joke that Tempelhof is what helps us survive the Berlin winter.

    Reply
  8. There’s something about that park (or urban moor, or whatever it is) that sent me deep within myself when you introduced me to it a while back – but also sent my thoughts far away, zooming the lens out and making me think satellite’s-eye-view thoughts. Seems you’re having the same experience, but with a fourth dimension built of your own experiences in the city – and Tempelhof is evolving every year (dramatically so by the end of the decade, if all goes according to development plans). It’s a place to feel change, however glacial its speed.

    And re. thinking big thoughts: it’s almost like wide, deep thoughts need a surrounding space to expand into. I felt something similar, and I also felt it in Orkney, another moor-that-isn’t-a-moor…

    Lovely read. Thank you.

    Reply
  9. @Mikeachim: Wide space for deep thoughts. True that. I know you’ve felt this at Tempelhof, too — moor, expanse, urban veldt, whatever it is.

    Reply

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