A Tale of Two Cities: Visiting a Soviet ghost town hiding behind another

The first thing you need to know about Vogelsang is that there is not one but two Vogelsangs. This Vogelsang was always shrouded in mystery even to the residents of the other Vogelsang. A true forbidden city, it was self-contained and off-limits to all non-residents, including its neighbors.

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Summer, I imagine, is in full bloom in Vogelsang as I am writing this much-belated travel report in mid-June. The empty streets and crumbling buildings must be absorbed in the brilliant green of the deep Brandenburg forests which hide this famed ghost town. The animals have certainly come out. I hear the place is a haven for wildlife; visitors have reported seeing deer, boar and even wolves.

When I visited Vogelsang almost three months ago during Easter Break, there was only a faint promise of summer in the air. It didn’t rain like it had the day before, but the air was crisp enough to warrant wearing an extra layer. It had taken me four hours and three different trains to reach this mysterious town-in-the-woods from Berlin after my friend-with-a-car had to cancel our road trip at the last minute, leaving me with the option of either going alone or not going at all.

After some hesitation (wolves, remember?) I chose the former – and I could not have been happier with my choice. Vogelsang, the largest Soviet garrison outside of the Soviet Union, turned out an utterly lovely, relaxing place to explore at your own pace.

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Most articles and blog posts before this one will tell you that there is in fact not one but two Vogelsangs. The first Vogelsang – the one your train leaves you in, all wide-eyed and hungry for adventure – is a teeny-tiny village of 100 residents in the outskirts of the city of Zehdenick. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think that this is it. This is where Vogelsang begins and ends.

However, hidden in the deep, silent woods around you is the Vogelsang you are looking for. A three-kilometer hike off the railway along an unmarked path lies the enormous military town, its homes, school, theater, shops and café now mere ruins. Back in the day, this 5800-hectare area was home to some 15 000 Soviet soldiers and their families.

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The above pictures are from what I assume is the officers’ clubhouse in Vogelsang

Built in 1951, this Vogelsang was always shrouded in mystery even to the residents of the other Vogelsang. A true forbidden city, it was self-contained and off-limits to all non-residents, including its neighbors.

Now, you might find this strange. What was there so secret about life in Vogelsang that it had to be completely concealed from the rest of the world?

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School’s out forever

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So, it seems, is café culture

The answer, of course, is nuclear weapons. A lot of nuclear weapons.

Those with an interest in Vogelsang’s nuclear facilities will want to check out Abandoned Berlin‘s pictures from the site. The town kept a sizable stock of weapons of mass destruction in a subterranean bunker, ready to launch at any provocation from the West.

Luckily, this never happened and the world didn’t explode in an epic power struggle between two transnational bullies. Vogelsang stayed intact until 1994, when the town’s population dispersed following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Today, all that is left of it is one heck of a playground for urban explorers, history buffs and alternative dog-walkers alike – provided they can first find it.

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Communism, like nazism, stressed the importance of sports and athleticism for its citizens

I got lucky: a somewhat sketchy map I’d printed off someone’s blog brought me right to the edge of Vogelsang. A 30 minute walk through the forest had left me a little unsure (”will I find myself in Poland?”), but once I saw the first derelict rooftops peeking through the thickets, I knew I’d come to the right place.

I did a little victory dance in my mind and delved in, only to find myself standing on a parking lot with signs that said ”smoking forbidden” in German and Russian. Good thing I’m not a smoker.

I immediately noted that unlike Krampnitz, Vogelsang wasn’t neatly organized along straight roads. The buildings were smaller, less imposing and partly covered by the rampant vegetation. I found the lack of visibility strangely calming; there is something about long empty roads that has always felt a little unnerving to me. Not that Vogelsang was missing them entirely, but I chose to mostly skip along on the small forest paths I discovered zigzagging the area.

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What followed was a good six hours of wandering around the giant ghost town claimed by nature and time. Like in Krampnitz, I only entered a handful of particularly inviting buildings and spent the rest of the day just drifting about. Yet, because of the enormity of the area, I only covered a small part of it. They say you need a whole week to fully explore Vogelsang.

I didn’t find the aforementioned nuclear bunker, but then I wasn’t trying very hard. More interesting to me were the other oft-photographed sites: the school, gym and other buildings of unknown purposes. Some of these revealed wildly fascinating Socialist murals and other political artwork, which were slowly but surely giving in to the passage of time.

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Vogelsang 13Running my fingers along the rough surface of a concrete plate of Lenin right next to the cafe, I felt like I was touching history itself. It’s unlikely that it, like the other plates, will survive the transformation Vogelsang is currently going through. Returning visitors have noted the appearance of bulldozers at the north end of the town, and although nobody knows the details, it seems that demolition is imminent.

For a long time, Brandenburg’s abundance of derelict WW2 and other structures has made it a go-to destination for urban explorers, but with the gradual disappearance of iconic sites like Krampnitz, Beelitz-Heilstätten and now Vogelsang, that may be about to change. To be able to enjoy a place like Vogelsang in its final days of existence, all uncurated and unpackaged, felt like quite the privilege indeed.

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It’s not that I was the only person in Vogelsang that day. Despite its relatively remote location outside of urban centers, hundreds of curious visitors flock to the town each year. You may not see or hear them at all times, but they are always there, just behind that building or around the street corner, with their cameras and phones out, just like you.

I would run into other visitors, usually a group of 2 to 4, every hour or so. As usual, some of them proved invaluable sources of information and navigation tips: I would surely have missed some of the spots you see in this post had I been boring and avoided all human contact.

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For context’s sake, this is the other (i.e. official) Vogelsang’s train station between Berlin and Zehdenick – doesn’t look so fresh either, does it?

You may notice that this post has been a little light on history. I needed to write it as quickly as possible so as to not extend this hiatus any further, since my backlog has grown exponentially and my next big adventures are only two weeks away (more about those later!). Those interested in reading more about the history of Vogelsang will find the internet full of good sources.


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