Leipzig is a beautiful and vibrant city not far from Berlin and is littered with abandoned buildings. I spent a few days exploring them and noticed how many fascinating shapes and patterns their doorways created. I present some of my favourite examples below.
The events described in this blog took place on Tuesday November 11th. This account was written partly for your entertainment and partly as therapy for me.
I started out on a misty morning in the village of Szentkirályszabadja. I had seen pictures of an abandoned Soviet military town nearby and on Google Maps, it looked really close and easy to find. This impression was misleading. First I spent a fruitless hour wandering blindly round the outskirts of the place in ever thickening fog, scanning the horizon for the dark outlines of buildings. The horizon was unfortunately invisible and after a confusing and disorientating hour I found myself back in the village, in a market cafe where I spent some fun times pantomiming what I was looking for to the puzzled amusement of the locals ('Soviet Ghost Town' is a tricky charades topic). Eventually, understanding lit someone's face and he explained to everyone else where I was trying to get to. I was given beautifully simple directions : "walk along the road for 100 meters, then at the crossing, turn left, it is 2 km up that road"
Of course at this stage in the morning I didn't know that nothing would be straightforward that day.
At the crossroads there were two left turns. Both identical looking in the blanket of fog. The left I chose turned out to be a path through a huge field. I think if I had been able to see I would have known I'd gone wrong right away, but it was only after waking 1 km or more, and still seeing nothing but field to my left and hedge to my right, that I was sure I was off track. The problem was I was on a timetable. I had a train to catch in the afternoon and I'd already lost nearly an hour and a half of the morning being lost. If I retraced my steps and followed the other fork I would run out of time before I hit the town. I decided to keep going and look for a way to join up with the other path.
After another kilometer (it was a really big field) I saw an opening in the hedge to my right and decided to follow this new path as it seemed to be heading in the right direction. 'Path' may be overstating the case. I couldn't work out if the track I was now following was made by humans or animals, but by this time I had got accustomed to being blind and lost and in the middle of nowhere and it seemed like going on was the only real course available to me.
It's difficult to describe the sensation of walking across scrubland, alone, in a foreign country, totally lost, unable to see where you are going or where you have come from, accepting that finding your path back had become near impossible, the only sounds in the air made by startled birds that keep launching themselves out of bushes right under your feet, peering into the fog for any man made shapes, seeing only hazy outlines of trees and bushes. I had lost even the resemblance of a path by this time and I was just walking. My shoes had started to absorb the moisture from the plants on the ground and I kept thinking of the opening scenes of 'American Werewolf in London'. I was feeling fear but without the adrenaline, a stable, continuous fear, a shaky internal sensation that was to stay with me all day and to return when I sat down the next morning to process these pictures and in the afternoon when I wrote up my notes.
About an hour and a half after I left the cafe I found an abandoned concrete hut. I was less that 10 meters from it when I realised it was there, around it were some broken, abandoned blocks of concrete, this felt like it could be on the edge of a soviet ghost town. About 15 minutes later I saw a shape to my right that I first thought was a bull, then as I got closer I discovered was a donkey, and closer still, I could make out a flock of sheep, a dog and a shepherd who was watching my approach with deep suspicion. My relief at seeing another human being was not at all diminished by his obvious desire not to be seeing me, or by our lack of a mutual language.
In case you find yourself lost and cold in the wilderness, wrapped in thick fog, needing to ask an unfriendly Hungarian shepherd for directions to a soviet ghost town, I recommend pictograms. This one worked with mimes:
He pointed into the gloom, in a direction that was completely indistinguishable from any of the others, and stood watching me as I trustingly walked away into the fog. Inside I was pleading with him to come with me and make sure I found it. Not to let me step once again into this helpless, blind isolation. But this mess was of my making, and it was up to me to face it alone.
About 5 minutes later I came across the strangest thing I've ever seen. A seemingly endless patch of tarmac, painted with huge white lines like a gigantic zebra crossing going from nowhere to nowhere; like me. Of course it may have only been about 25 meters wide, but disappearing into the fog it seemed to go on for ever. Either way it felt very soviet - huge and inscrutable. A little while after this, and passing some small derelict buildings, I found the wire fence and the control towers.
By this time I had been stumbling through an invisible wasteland, helpless and lost for about 2.5 hours and knowing I had found what I was looking for should probably have come as some relief. Hey at least I was blind and lost in the ghost town now! But the place felt sinister, confusing and unwelcoming. It felt more like a prison camp than a town.
I couldn't get my bearings in the fog. I knew I could easily walk round and round in circles right next to the main part of the town and never see it, or take a wrong turn and find myself back in the desolate, impenetrable land I had just come from, with no idea how to get back. After exploring the fenced off spaces watched over by the towers I found my way in deeper to the town and came across the first big building.
Following the path to the front door I found it was unlocked, so I opened it and stepped inside. If I was looking for some way to make some sense of this strange town, this building was not a good place to start. Despite being obviously abandoned, it felt somewhat maintained (the glass in the door was smashed, the path overgrown but the hinges and door handle were still working fine). It felt more like a modern, generic office block that had been closed a year ago and was waiting for the next business to move in.
My experience of this site so far was increasingly baffling. Individual parts of it revealing themselves to me discretely as I got closer and disappearing quickly behind me, were adding to my confusion and disorientation. Where was I? What was that giant zebra crossing thing? An airstrip? A strange Russian joke? Why all the fences and control towers? Was I in a prison camp? Who had been looking after this bizzarely well maintained building?
And why were all these children's drawings of lorries on the wall?
OK, OK, breathe. I knew there was some kind of delivery company or lorry business nearby (yeah, I know, 'lorry business' but my brain had been frazzled) because when I had been standing at that crossroads a lifetime ago, I chose the wrong track because it looked a bit neglected whereas the correct road had an arrow shaped sign with a picture of a lorry on it, some Hungarian writing and '2 km' written on it, I was looking for an abandoned town, not a lorry business (just get off my back OK!) so I took the other path.
So. Right. The lorry people obviously had some kind of kids day, where they opened up this weird abandoned building in this Soviet ghost town, surrounded by barbed wire and control towers, brought their kids in and got them to draw pictures of lorries to display on the wall. That makes sense if you don't think about it at all.
Lets move on.
After this, I passed some buildings that I didn't even try to find a way in to. This has never happened to me before, but I couldn't turn off my underlying fear and unease and as I started to explore some of the larger buildings, my sense of discomfort got worse. The next building I entered also had a front door that just swung easily open like it was waiting for me.
I'm not sure if I can really explain the strangeness of this building, so I'll show you the things I saw in the order that I encountered them...
Did I mention the footprints all over the floor?
While I was on this corridor a huge bang came from somewhere in the building. The fact that I didn't have a heart attack, or actually die of fright made me feel extremely reassured about the state of my physical health. Yes I did stop breathing for a while. No I don't know what it was. Yes I continued to explore the building. Yes I really wanted to run outside into the comforting arms of the sinister, blank fog.
Thinking about it now, I think the thing that really got to me was the strange mixture of dereliction and preservation. Like each room had been abandoned at a different time and then faced different conditions. A corridor with the windows at the end missing and all the weather coming in looked freshly painted and maintained, then a single room with no leaking roof or broken windows falling apart in front of me.
Then it got weird.
My senses had been screaming at me to leave the building since I walked in. I had been fighting the 'fight or flight' instinct with every step (though this had led me to not opening any closed doors, I really don't know what had got into me, this timidity is not like me at all), but this last room (above) was so weird that I temporarily forgot about how freaked out and afraid I was and just stood and stared. Now I've had longer to think about this than you, but I genuinely can't explain this room at all.
After this I couldn't force myself to stay any longer. I left the building quickly, only to be reminded that the outside world was no more comforting than this one.
After a little time calming myself down I walked into this building, telling myself that it really didn't look scary and menacing, and not believing me one bit.
There were tyre tracks on the floor, someone had been driving a vehicle through here. Maybe that was why half the windows seemed to have been smashed into the building, frames and all, they were trying to make a drive through. OK, it made as much sense as anything else on this fucked up day.
I walked into a small side room. It was an ex-room.
The only way I can imagine you could do that to a concrete wall, reinforced with steel wire would be to drive a tank into it. No matter how inexplicable your surroundings, the human brain won't rest until it has a solution. OK, so the building is used by crazy vehicle obsessed guys, probably those lorry boys who arranged the children's art show in the first building. They like to drive round the place in their cars (I'm pretty sure lorries wouldn't fit in here) and they sometimes smash into the walls and windows from outside with armoured vehicles because they can. The probably built those tiny walls in that room in the last building just to freak me out. Yeah, everything's fine, it all makes sense, I haven't wandered into a Fellini-does-horror movie at all.
Despite being a little freaked out by this time, I had realised some hours back that forward was the only way, so I went deeper into the building. I found myself in a black room. A big dark space that I couldn't make out. There were rows of seats in front of me. Was I in a cinema? A long exposure photo answered the question. I was no longer even surprised that this part of the building seemed perfectly preserved. Like it just stopped screening movies yesterday while the rest of the building was just broken.
Some further wandering led me to these buildings, hidden in the undergrowth.
Inside these I found a scene that on any other day would have been weird.
It had started getting late. My state of lostness would become even more problematic in the dark. Even on a day that had so far involved 5 hours of continuous fear, the idea of being stranded there in the dark was a frightening thought. I started walking more purposefully, ignoring the strange world around me, until I came across a garage space that was clearly built as part of this ghost town, but was also obviously being used.
I had found mechanics!
One of the two men inside spoke a little English. There I was, talking to another human being, just like I lived in the real world where this kind of thing happens, and not a scary world of fog and mystery and isolation and inexplicable horror. I showed him a piece of paper with the word Szentkirályszabadja on it and said, "I am trying to get here" (go on then, let's see you pronounce it).
"Just go through the main gate, turn right and stay on the main road for 2 km, there are lots of little roads, but don't take them. Stay on the road and you'll go straight there."
I went through the not-at-all-terrifying front gate and turned right onto what I had to trust was the 'main road' within minutes I was passing the kind of buildings I had seen in photos before I came on this strange and uncomfortable adventure, the ones that had made me think 'oh cool! I have to go there". Now I know what the man said about not leaving the main road, but clearly if I was the kind of person who put self preservation over exploring weird old stuff, I would never had made it this far and you wouldn't be reading this story.
This building was in the kind of condition I had been expecting from the whole town. It was by far the most comfortingly normal place I experienced that day. Just everyday ruin and neglect. It was most reassuring. and my fears were the normal ones: will the stairs collapse? Will the roof land on my head? Normal concerns that hit me like a breath of fresh air.
The floor of this block seemed to be a layer of dirt. My best guess is that it was the plaster had crumbled from the walls and floor and been ground to a fine dust underfoot. Of course, I had got the hang of my role as a lost and bewildered witness to this unaccountable place by now so I didn't really expect to understand anything.
In fact the question "where did this wall go?" troubled me for a matter of seconds before I shrugged and moved on.
By this time the light really was starting to go. I had a 2 km walk ahead of me assuming I didn't make any wrong moves. It was time to leave.
One of the roads in the picture above was the main road. I guessed and started walking. 10 minutes later I was in another mechanics yard waving my bit of paper at people, doing a walking pantomime with my fingers and looking confused. All the directions were in Hungarian (I was nervous, unwilling to be on my own in the fog again, so I was asking everyone I saw) but the general consensus was that I should 'head that way' and Szentkirályszabadja was either 2km or 4km away, depending on who I asked. One guy kindly scratched the most confusing map I have ever seen into the concrete floor with a pointed bit of metal, but this didn't really help. No one offered to take me there. How would they know that I was entering my sixth hour of disorientation, isolation and fear?
So I walked. I was about 70% sure I was on the right road and I should have just enough time to get back to the bus stop before I could no longer see my hand in front of my face. On that lonely walk with the woods on my left and wasteland on my right and the birds continuing to make abrupt and haunting noises, I was surprised to discover myself close to tears several times. I was spent, broken, still afraid and exhausted by fear. My need for a safe, comforting, well lit room, dry feet and normality, had become solid. Like a tangible force pulling me forwards but also a heavy weight I was carrying on my shoulders. The road seemed to go on forever. It got darker. I was no longer a person, just a walking thing.
One step, next step, repeat.
As the light faded faster from the world, I started to make out a vague shape in front of me. A local woman out gathering mushrooms. She confirmed that I was on the right road and very close to the village. My obvious joy made her smile. I found the bus stop in the dark. The bus took me back to the town of Veszprem where the hotel receptionist informed me they had no rooms (if I'd stayed on schedule I would have been half way to Slovenia by this time).
I didn't cry. I didn't yell at her. I didn't even sigh. I just loaded up my bags onto my back and stepped out into the black, foggy, totally invisible town. An hour later I was agreeing to spend a good chunk of my budget for this whole trip on one night in a three star hotel. At 8.30pm, 11 hours after I set out on this absurd day I was in bed, watching the Lego Movie and weeping at the simplistic emotional message that imagination is better than conformity. There was some genuine physical and emotional exhaustion behind those tears and I'm only a little ashamed of them.
Looking back on my day, the thing that surprises me most is that not once did I regret choosing to set out on that trip. Not at the time, or after. I spent an entire day cold, lost, blind, disorientated, afraid and with wet feet. At points I was desperate, terrified, close to tears.
But I wasn't bored for a moment.
I have searched in vain for some historical information about this strange, strange town. The accounts I managed to find seem to be describing a completely different place to the one I was in. I will have to go back some time in daylight and see what I can see.
Read more (but not much more) here:
On the 20th of April 2012 the Spanish government passed a law that stopped the provision of free healthcare to immigrants without documents, thus excluding about 800,000 people in Spain from free access to a doctor. In response to this, a group of activists in the Raval, a neighbourhood in Barcelona where over 40% of the residents are immigrants, created a group called Espacio del Inmigrante to provide free health consultations and support in accessing hospital care when it is needed. See more about their amazing work in this field here: http://roarmag.org/2013/12/espacio-inmigrante-barcelona/
In the Summer of 2014 they squatted a space to enable them to expand their provision in the neighbourhood. When I went down there in August searching of the people displaced by the eviction of Mount Zion I found a number of familiar faces in an amazing social hub where all sorts of people and provisions are brought together.
The space provides a number of basic amenities: cooking facilities; water; electricity to charge your phone, or laptop; wifi; a space to sit and eat together; and it is a fine place to spend a day engaged in gentle discussion with whoever drops by. A lot of the users of this space live in squatted apartments in the streets near by, and a real sense of community has evolved in this corner of the city.
As well as healthcare support and basic living facilities, the Espacio Del Inmigrante also offers language classes and acts as a gallery exhibiting art made by the users of the space. They have also recently started providing drop-in sessions giving free legal advice and free access to psychological support for people suffering from the problems of homesickness, disempowerment and racist abuse.
_Lisa shares her thoughts on art, life and the nature of everything.
Copyright © 2013 Lisa Furness
Photography by Lisa Furness is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.