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A guide to Berlin’s hidden swimming spots - from the woman who wrote the book on it

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A guide to Berlin’s hidden swimming spots - from the woman who wrote the book on it
Jessica J. Lee swimming in one of Berlin's many lakes. Photo: Stefan Schomerus
16:21 CEST+02:00
Acclaimed author and avid swimmer Jessica J. Lee walks The Local through Berlin’s top lakeside spots, and tells us how swimming helped her cope with trauma.
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Lakes with beautiful wildlife, lakes with Nazi history, lakes near nuclear reactors, lakes that divided east and west - the wealth of water wonderlands that is held within the Berlin area is staggering. 
 
With more than 43 lakes in the city itself, not to mention the more than 3,000 in neighbouring Brandenburg, there are so many lakes to choose from that it can feel overwhelming. That's why Jessica Lee, author of the book Turning: Lessons from Swimming in Berlin’s Lakes, is here to help.
 
Lee chronicles in her debut book the year when she moved to Berlin and swam in more than 52 lakes in order to deal with the trauma that followed her to the city.
 
She is considered a “wild swimmer”- someone who prefers to swim in nature, and even braves the bitter cold of winter to get her swimming thrills.
 
Whether looking for a day out with friends or a serious retreat from the big city,  Lee says that choosing the right lake is a matter of deciding what it is you are looking for - and knowing a bit about your surroundings.
 
“What I look for in the summer in a lake is very different than what I want in the winter,” says Lee.
 
Author Jessica Lee enjoying her free time in a nature oasis in Brandenburg. Photo: Ricardo A. Rivas
 
Lake getaway
 
While the native Canadian notes that lakes like Krumme Lanke, Liepnitzsee and Schlachtensee are very popular for Berliners looking for a retreat in nature, they are not always the best choice. 
 
“For me, the best spots for swimming are where I feel a sense of intimacy. I'm not there to chat or to overhear other people’s conversations, but to attend to the lake itself,” said Lee. 
 
Lee reiterates that the key to getting to know Berlin is to embrace the hike to its more obscure surroundings.
 
“The biggest thing is to not be afraid to get off the beaten track - that’s how you get to know a place.” 
 
So where can you go to get to know the natural side of Berlin and its surroundings? Here are some of Lee’s top picks.
 
Sacrower See
 
Sacrower See, located in the upper part of Potsdam, is one of the top spots Lee would recommend for those looking to stay close to public transportation while still getting a nature-filled experience. 
 
Located just outside the city boundaries of Berlin, Sacrower See used to be “the cultural destination of the social elite of the east,” says Lee, making it a great stop if you want to get a little history with your day in the sun. 
 
Easily accessible using a bike or bus from Spandau, this lake is “sheltered in the forest” and thus a great getaway for those interested in wildlife, Lee explains.
 
Transport: Head to Berlin-Spandau, then take Bus 639 to F.-Günther-Park. It's a 15-minute walk to the northern bathing area.
 
Bötzsee
 
Bötzsee is great for those looking for it all, and a little privacy too. Photo: DPA
 
Lee describes Bötzsee as “a lake that has everything, but still feels very secluded.” With a public beach, wooded section and nearby town, there is almost nothing left wanting from this Brandenburg waterway near the town of Strausberg.
 
The lake, with its “chalky, turquoise water”, is one of the best hidden gems in the Berlin area, Lee says. “A beautiful pine forest surrounds it - there is something about it that is so green and so swelling with growth, you can’t help but feel wonderful.” Lee explains.
 
Transport: Take the S5 out to Strausberg and hop on bus 932 out to Eggersdorf (Strausberg), Mittelstr. From there, it is roughly a 40-minute walk to the beach section.
 
Liepnitzsee
 
One of the most beloved places in the area, Liepnitzsee can also be a bit crowded - but may be worth it. Photo: DPA
 
Located just over the state border in Brandenburg, Liepnitzsee is a favourite among Berliners and tourists alike. 
 
Because this is a popular lake destination near Berlin, Lee notes that lake-goers can expect a more crowded experience.
 
However, to Lee, the crowds may be worth it for this gem. “It is absolutely beautiful,” she says, likening the dense forested surroundings to something out of a fairy tale. This particular lake is good all year round and should be a little less full in the autumn and winter seasons.
 
Transport: The RB27 train runs every half hour from Berlin Karow (S2) to Wandlitz See Bahnhof. From the station, it’s a 2-kilometre walk down Lanker Weg to the woods.
 
Hellsee 
 
“A very wild, hard to get to See”, Hellsee is worth the hike, claims Lee, who admits that this one may top the list as her favourite spot due to its beauty and location 
 
Known as 'bright lake' in Germany, it lies hidden in the woods of Brandenburg. It is very likely that you will find yourself alone at this destination. 
 
For the Canadian author, getting to experience Alleinsein, or a feeling of aloneness, is exactly the point of choosing this lakeside destination.
 
“When here, I get the chance to look at the flora and wildlife. I feel like I get to know the place for what it is and to examine the history of how the landscape has developed.”
 
Take the S2 to Bernau. From there, the easiest way to Hellsee is via bike or bus 890 to Lanke, after which it will be a 26-minute walk to Hellsee.
 
Kaulsdorfer Baggerseen (Habermannsee)
 
The three Kaulsdorferseen are unique for their sandy beaches and can be enjoyed in winter, too! Photo: DPA
 
One of the most unique lakes in the Berlin area, Habermannsee has more of a tropical holiday feel than that of a traditional German lake, according to Lee. 
 
The reason for this is the lake’s background: formerly, it was the site of a sand-and-gravel mine, which now leaves the lake with crystal clear water and sandy shores more fitting for Aruba than Berlin.
 
“Going here is like going to the tropics,” jokes Lee. “If you go on the island, you will find these hidden coves where you can relax and just watch the water. Every time I am there, I ask myself: Am I still in Berlin?”
 
Transport: Kaulsdorf S-Bahn is on route S5 towards Strausberg Nord. The lake is a 3-kilometre walk from the station via Mädewalder Weg. By bike, Habermannsee is about 15 kilometres east of the city, via Karl-Marx-Allee.
 
Orankesee
 
For the brave: swimming in winter with the Berliner Seehunde at Orankesee. Photo: DPA
 
All of the other lakes Lee mentioned are great all year round: however, for the brave-of-heart, Lee recommends one of her personal loves - winter swimming. 
 
For her Berlin winter swims, Lee often has to break the ice with a hammer before plunging into the freezing water for a five-minute dip.
 
“It’s all about taking control of your body - I will count strokes, never going above 120, to make sure I don’t go past my own limits," she says. "But the feeling you get - it’s powerful.” 
 
For those wanting to dip their toe into ice-swimming, Lee suggests Berlin’s Orankesee for one great reason: you can join a community of winter swimmers. 
 
The Berliner Seehunde meet there on a regular basis to support each other in their winter water-sport (costume optional), making it a great option for people without previous experience.
 
While some may be petrified by the idea of intense cold, Lee advises: “it’s a safe time with a wonderful community. Just don’t go out of your depths, and stay steady.”  
 
Transport: Strandbad Orankesee is 8 kilometres by bike from Mitte, via Greifswalderstraße. Tram M4 also stops a short walk away.
 
Winter doesn't stop this swimmer. Lee says she often breaks the ice with a hammer to enjoy Berlin's lakes mid-winter. Photo: Anne Häming
 
'Swimming has always been my best release'
 
For Lee, Berlin’s lakes have provided a kind of therapy that helped ease the pain after her arrival.
 
The 28-year-old moved to Berlin shortly after a painful divorce in 2015 and turned to her love of swimming as a way to deal with the hardship she was experiencing emotionally. 
 
“I was in a really bad place when I moved to Berlin. So I knew I needed structure so as not to stay in bed all day - for me, swimming has always been my best release.” 
 
In her book Turning, she often refers to the soothing experience of water on the skin as an “intimacy of touch uninhibited” that allowed her to reconnect with herself in her new life. The isolation of the remote lakes and the experience of the water is something Lee used to remove herself from her traumatic situation - and to feel closer to Berlin itself. 
 
“When I am in Berlin and Brandenburg, I feel oddly comfortable because the level of knowledge you get from swimming, hiking and being out in nature is very different than if you stay in your Kiez (neighbourhood).”
 
While for many swimming in Berlin’s lakes may be a great form of vacation, Lee has taken away a lot more than just fun-in-the-sun.
 
“Swimming in Berlin has taught me a lot about softness. I went into things being much harder on myself than I am now. There is no cure for problems, but it’s about finding happiness in the small moments - and swimming here is that for me.”
 
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monamon - 03 Jun 2018 22:40
Loved this article - many thanks!
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