Camping without camping in Wedding

Tourists are returning to Berlin and the city's most unusual campsite is welcoming the renaissance. Its residents don't mind the lack of views, nature or water.

Lorenz Becker used to be a Catholic priest. Now he's a camper.
Lorenz Becker used to be a Catholic priest. Now he's a camper.Gerd Engelsmann

Berlin-It looks like Lorenz Becker set up his camping chair along a spot next to the former Berlin Wall. Behind him is a high concrete wall, splattered with colourful graffiti, and Becker looks small and somewhat lost. The 75-year-old squints at the sun, stretches out his legs. The gravel crunches under his soles. A few blades of grass peek out from between the stones. A soft, steady murmur can be heard. Sea surf? There's no water around.

There's not even a tree anywhere near Becker for shade, or to provide a sound of leaves rustling in the wind. Becker has plenty of time this Thursday morning. He opens the book he's reading. Cold, Wind and Freedom by former extreme athlete Robert Peroni. It's one of the few books Becker owns that's not digital. "If you're traveling with a camper van, you have to think about saving space," he says. Any book is one too many, he adds.

Becker retired as a Catholic priest 10 years ago and had to give up his five-and-a-half-bedroom apartment in Switzerland. Now he's officially registered with his sister just to have an address and he lives in an RV instead. He had never camped before so he didn't know about any of the drawbacks, he says.

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His new home is two metres long and is parked next to his camping chair, behind another motor home from Switzerland. Everything Becker needs is in his spacious, silver-grey vehicle. A bedroom with enough storage space. A bathroom with a 220-litre shower and toilet. A refrigerator, stove, television, a sitting area and a guest bed above the driver's cabin. The luggage compartment at the rear of the vehicle has room for chairs, a table and an e-bike.

Camping between Badstraße and Gesundbrunnencenter

Becker has already travelled half the world in his home on wheels. The odometer shows 281,000 kilometres. Becker has driven along the Silk Road to China, visited the North Cape, Turkey and Scotland, and traveled 30,000 kilometres through North and South America. He has camped in forests, in swamps and along rivers. On various coasts, he has experienced the sun setting and rising from his camping chair. 

Now the Swiss man is stranded in Germany's capital.

Maybe not stranded, because there's no beach, just concrete. Becker is living in what is probably one of the most unusual campsites in Berlin - the Wohnmobil-Oase ("Camper Oasis") in Hochstraße, smack in the middle of Wedding. The quiet lull of surf is actually the sound of big city traffic behind the wall. Badstraße with its supermarkets, phone stores and barbershops. The street used to be home to the Luisenbad Springs, which would have been just a few minutes' walk away. The option now is instead the Gesundbrunnencenter mall.

The 14,000-square-metre campground is one of 13 official sites in Berlin, and offers a camping vacation of a somewhat different kind. "This is a campground without camping," says Becker. There's no greenery by the water where one can listen to birds, as he usually does when he camps in Berlin. Instead, he's parked on asphalt, surrounded by concrete. "But it's okay," he says. It's quiet and guarded. That's important for RV owners, he says. "And the site is in a very nice central location."

It's five stops by subway to Alexanderplatz. "In no time at all," Becker says he can be meeting with acquaintances on Kastanienallee in Prenzlauer Berg. The site also has everything you need: water, electricity, toilets, showers, a contact person in case of problems. Also nice people for a chat. A few rows of flowerpots full of marigolds pretty up the parking lot. Only one thing is missing for Becker, as he keeps a digital travel diary: Wi-Fi. Because the roaming costs of his Swiss mobile phone provider are so high, he heads into the Gesundbrunnencenter when he needs the internet.

Felix!Gerd Engelsmann

Felix Schmidt says he's working on the internet thing. He knows how important it is for many campers. Schmidt, 30, has been running the spot in Wedding for almost five years together with his mother and brother. Their employees are people with disabilities and former long-term unemployed people. That's the concept, Schmidt says. The staff are still on short-time work furloughs, he says. He himself is still waiting for corona aid from the state. "If the landlord hadn't been willing to negotiate on the lease, we wouldn't have been able to handle all this financially," he says.

The campground has 100 spots. About half are fully booked. Schmidt and his partners can more or less cover their costs again. "We have about 30 departures today, but about the same number of caravans are rolling back onto the site," he says. The newcomers are greeted by him or his brother with kind words, a Berlin map and tips for touring the city. He also recommends his guests visit the rebuilt Berlin palace, the Humboldt Forum. He is happy that the motor homes are finally allowed to stay with him again and that tourism is slowly picking up in Berlin. During the lockdown, the campground, like hotels, was only allowed to accommodate business travelers. The place was closed for 10 months. Who brings a camper on a business trip?

The Schmidts are a real camper family. When Felix and his brother were still children, they went camping in Tyrol, on the Baltic island of Fehmarn or in Italy during school holidays. The parents slept in a caravan, the boys in a tent. "We never actually spent a night in a hotel," Schmidt says.

The Wohnmobil Oase is not a classic campground, but rather a hybrid between a campsite and a parking lot. But it is the most central campground in Berlin, if not in Europe.

Felix Schmidt, Wohnmobil Oase

Near Venice, the family spent a vacation at a campsite where people with disabilities worked. "The project appealed to my parents. They wanted to set up something like that here in Berlin," says Schmidt, whose brother has a disability. He suffers from scoliosis. In Gesundbrunnen, the family found the empty patch on Hochstraße, and leased the lot. Felix Schmidt helped set up the site, even though he was still training to be an industrial mechanic at the time.

Schmidt leads the way to the back of the site, where there are trees and an old building. There used to be a brewery here, and later a meat processing plant, he explains. Now the building houses a pub. Graffiti depicting old Berlin characters adorns the walls. "It was done by a friend," Schmidt says. The bar is as deserted as the beer benches and tables. Schmidt might open the pub and the beer garden in front but he lacks the staff. Everyone in hospitality is having trouble finding staff, he says. Waiters, bartenders, cooks - they all found other jobs during the pandemic.

Christian Tänzer from VisitBerlin says the impression that tourists are returning is true. "Bookings are slowly picking up again," he says. But international visitors - those from the UK and the US - who had previously made up the bulk of tourists, ahead of the Spanish and Italians, have yet to return. German tourists haven't been able to take up the slack. In 2019, a total of 34 million overnight stays were counted in the capital. Last year it was two-thirds less. Camping is becoming increasingly popular, Tänzer says. "There is a definite trend."

The image of cheap vacations that camping once had is long outdated. RV travelers like Lorenz Becker appreciate the flexibility and freedom that traveling in their own homes brings. The numbers paint a clear picture: caravanning made decent gains in the lockdown. Hotels and guesthouses had to close for months but many people wanted to be on the road. Quite a few opted for a motor home.

63,000 motor homes registered

According to a survey by a German caravanning association, 62,839 motor homes and caravans were newly registered in Germany in the first half of this year - an increase of 15.4 per cent over the same period last year. And an all-time record, the association, Caravaning Industrie Verband, said. In the first six months of 2021, as many of the vehicles were registered as in all of 2017.

Schmidt has already welcomed guests from all over the world to his site. Even caravans with Chinese license plates have shown up. But he says many tourists, especially visitors from overseas, the ones who come for the party scene, are still not back. His big hope is now the Berlin Marathon at the end of September. In the past, that meant plenty of bookings. And it also always gets crowded for the German football finals: "When the Bavarians play."

Silence has fallen between the mobile homes. Most of the guests are out and about. A middle-aged woman sets up two chairs in front of her camper. A table follows. She is wearing shorts and a tank top. The license plate on the vehicle reveals that she comes from Saxony. She and her husband arrived the day before, she reveals. Afterwards, they want to check out the new city palace and do a little shopping. She doesn't mind sleeping in the trailer. "It's like a hotel, only cheaper and much more private. Like home, actually."

Lorenz Becker has folded up his chair and stowed it away. In a few hours, he will "pull up his tent stakes" and head to the Vosges Mountains in France with some friends. He'll stay there for a week, then return to Berlin for a few more days at the concrete campground. He has no idea where he'll head to next.

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