BERLIN — BERLIN -- With sand between your toes, a cocktail in your hand and the smell of barbecue wafting from a smoky corner nearby, it's hard to believe you're sitting in a deck chair in landlocked Berlin.
But for many here who don't have a house on the Baltic Sea, Berlin's numerous beach bars scratch that summertime itch.
It is not all that different from Baltimore's beach volleyball courts at Rash Field at the Inner Harbor or the sandy outdoor bar at the Bay Cafe in Canton.
The trend started on the continent five years ago in Paris, where the mayor - hoping to curry favor with the working class who couldn't afford to vacation at the country's chichi coast - declared that he would bring the beach to the city, on a two-mile swath along the River Seine. The urban beach concept swept like wildfire across Europe, even to cooler climes in England and Holland.
The idea has become so popular in Berlin that there are now at least two dozen beaches, most with views of the River Spree, which snakes through the city. But some fear that their popularity could be their downfall: Developers are eyeing the desirable waterfront property for condos, restaurants and hotels as Berlin's building boom continues.
With its unemployment rate in the high teens and its finances in the red, Berlin has eagerly welcomed foreign investment. As a result, much of the city looks like a construction site. Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz - whose Clarity Media Group Inc. owns the Examiner newspapers - moved a section of The Wall to make way for a pier that would allow boat access from the Spree to his 17,000-seat entertainment and sports arena, which is to open next year.
Some beaches, such as the Bundespressestrand, have had to scoop up and move at least once.
Others take advantage of what prime spots are available at the moment and are literally set up overnight - often by squatters, something officials overlook when touting the beaches in tourism brochures.
Many are elaborate, boasting pools and palm trees. Others have dance floors, disco balls and DJs.
Each attracts a different clientele. For example, the Bundespressestrand, which looks across the Spree at the federal parliament buildings, is a popular after-work spot for government-types and journalists.
The Badeschiff near Treptower Park features a large chlorinated swimming pool that floats on a converted barge on the Spree and is popular with families and hipsters alike. Swimmers come as early as 8 a.m. for laps; by noon, sunbathers have staked out rows of multicolored deck chairs and hammocks on the multilevel deck; and as the sun sets, the party crowd gathers to listen to DJ-spun techno, sip cocktails and walk barefoot through the cold sand.
"People need this in the summer," said Lone Bech, a spokeswoman for Arena Berlin, the management company that owns the Badeschiff and five other nearby properties, including an arena and theater. While the city has plans to clean up the Spree and allow swimming by 2011, she said the Badeschiff is the only place people can now swim in the river. "It's not like the city pools," she assured. "It's a totally different situation."
Along The Wall
There are several beaches, or strands, along The Wall, beginning with the Stadtstrand or "City Beach" at the part known as the East Side Gallery, a memorial which features murals of hope painted by artists from around the world. But capitalism is quickly replacing the last vestiges of communism: Panels of the long-feared Berlin Wall have been removed to make "doors" to the beaches. And where Berliners dared not linger 20 years ago for fear of being shot now stands a row of portable toilets for beach patrons.
The Oststrand is one of the largest beaches along this stretch, offering several venues in one. A large disco ball hangs above the more clubby section, with white couches under a tent.
The next "door" along The Wall belongs to a reggae-influenced beach bar called Yaam.
Further along The Wall one finds the laid-back Strandmarkt, a haven for locals and punks alike.
Under one of the tiki huts on a hot and sunny Sunday afternoon, Berlin resident Jan Wolter sat with two friends in deck chairs drinking bottles of Beck's Gold.
"It's like holidays," said Wolter, 28. "The next beach is two hours from here."
"And it's right in the city," said Fabian Topp, 26, who was visiting Wolter from Munich.
They also like the Strandmarkt, because it doesn't draw many tourists.
With views of the Spree and the rumbling of trains from a bridge above, the Strandmarkt serves up a barbecue buffet and alternative music from Beck to early Beastie Boys. It's also kid-friendly, with basketball and beach volleyball courts and a pingpong table.
Owner and Los Angeles native Wally Potts said the space, which he rents, was just a concrete lot before he trucked in sand and piped in plumbing and electricity. He said he doesn't make much money off the beach bar; it serves as a place for patrons and staff to go during the summertime when his main venue, the White Trash Fast Food restaurant and club, known for its celebrity sightings and burlesque revues, is closed, as is typical in Germany.
The urban beach reminds him of summers from his youth, when he and other kids whose families weren't able to travel to California's coast created their own oasis in the Valley, skateboarding instead of surfing.
As summer fades, so does the Strandmarkt's future - at least at that location. Developers plan to pave over his paradise.
"I'm not moving," said the characteristically defiant Potts. "At least not when they tell me, anyway."
Sun reporter Allison Connolly is in Germany on a reporting fellowship administered by the International Center for Journalists.