DDR Chic: Reliving East Germany in a Berlin Hotel
Want to spend a night in East Germany and experience the way things used to be? A new youth hostel has opened in Berlin seeking to offer visitors a taste of life before the Wall fell and a bit of Communist kitsch.
A new Berlin youth hostel is offering a new spin for backpackers looking for a change from the usual cheap beer and breakfast buffet of müsli and yoghurt. Ostel, located in Berlin's central Mitte district, promises a taste of what life was like in communist East Germany. It offers rooms in a prefabricated "Plattenbau" concrete apartment block like those seen all across Eastern Europe from Berlin to Novosibirsk, as well as a saccharine dose of communist kitsch.
"I'm just surprised nobody came up with the idea of opening up this kind of hostel sooner," says Helbig, who like his business partner grew up in East Germany. Since opening, the proprietors have also begun selling DDR-era souvenirs, including photos of former Communist Party leader Erich Honecker. Hotel guests kept nicking them from the walls.
The tea room located next to the reception has also been converted into a mini museum of East German life. Dime store artifacts include plastic ice cream cones, pennants for East German football teams and plush toy versions of the popular East German cartoon character the Sandman.
Sitting on a corduroy upholstered sofa in the reception area, a treasure from East German times, Helbig explains his strategy for success. "We want to show visitors to Berlin what East German apartments looked like. Sometimes we even get East Germans who want to experience a bit of the old times -- times that were snatched away from them too quickly." Helbig and Sand spent weeks scouring flea markets and the Internet to track down East German furniture and memorabilia to fill their budget hotel. They had no trouble finding material.
Communist, But Cheap
While the Ostel may be something of a museum of DDR fixtures and fittings, the feature that most immediately draws attention is the garish rugs. Plus, of course, there's the cabinet with the built-in record player in the reception area. Helbig lays down an LP and begins playing a song by a former DDR singer and television presenter who represented the country at the opening of the 1974 football World Cup -- an important event in DDR history because the East German team beat West Germany, which went on to win the tournament.
Thirty-three years later, the Ostel evokes memories of a system that has been consigned to the history books yet remains palpable. To operate the hostel, Helbig and Sand have rented 12 apartments in a large Plattenbau block in central Berlin. With a paltry total monthly rent of only 7,000 for the complex, they say they were already profitable within their first month of business. And on weekends, business is especially brisk. The world, it seems, is happy to spend a Saturday night with Honecker and friends.
"The carpets are fabulous," says Carlos Nivot. "I didn't know Germany had anything like that." The 22-year-old, who is from a town near Barcelona, is sleeping in the "Pioneer Camp," with his friend Anna. Carlos opens the door to the Pioneer Camp, where he finds three double beds, a lamp that looks like a crystal chandelier, a potted flower and a round wooden table with a metal base. Carlos travelled to Germany to protest against the G-8 summit at Heiligendamm, but he has stayed on an extra week to take in the sights in Berlin. He saw the ad for the Ostel in a subway train: "I love the communist furnishings, but the real reason I'm here is that it's so cheap."
A night in the Pioneer Camp dormitory, so named after the "Young Pioneers," the East German Communist Party's version of the Boy Scouts, sets guests back by only 9 ($12) a night. And those who want a little bit more privacy can stay in their own room, like Number 26 in the Plattenbau, for 38. An oval mirror with a plastic frame hangs on one of three white walls in the room. The fourth wall is an inferno of colors. And the carpeting -- egg yolk and neon green -- is practically blinding. A small East German-made radio sits on a small brown and blue nightstand.
The room is dominated by a portrait of senior SED Communist Party official Willi Stoph, who died in 1999. Of course, it's not in every person's taste to have to sleep under the watchful eyes of an SED man who was arrested after the fall of the Wall for crimes committed under the Communist Party -- even if, in the end, he was deemed unfit to stand trial. Indeed, some guests have already complained about some of the photos. But Helbig dismisses the criticism, saying: "We're completely apolitical and these pictures are just intended as a joke."
Is the East Sexier?
Helbig reports that some older men have even dropped by to spend an amorous weekend with their young girlfriends in a socialist environment -- being back in the DDR apparently makes them feel younger and randier. Still, Ostel isn't 100 percent true to its East German roots, either. The bathrooms, for example, look more Ikea than socialist sanitary facility.
"We're still working on things," says Helbig. Indeed, the owners have big plans. A few Plattenbau apartment blocks away, East German vacation apartments are being readied and plans are afoot to transplant the Ostel concepts to other eastern cities like Dresden and Leipzig. "But I must admit there's still plenty of DDR atmosphere in those cities," he adds.
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