There are thought to be around 100 wagenplatze, or ‘wagon places’, across Germany: intentional communities of people living autonomously in old wagons. I visited three of them during a road trip across Europe in early 2010.
We found Barricade Göttingen late in the evening after driving around the outskirts of the city, following contradictory directions. We wandered around a small scrap of wasteland with a smattering of old circus and construction wagons, peering through curtain cracks for a light or sign of life. It was a chilly winter, and Germany, like most of Europe, was slathered with ice.
We spied smoke curling out of a protruding stovepipe and called hello through the window crack.
Tim was in the middle of cooking, but popped out into the cold to greet us in only a thin shirt. He took us on a brief, crisp tour of the telephone wagon, communal kitchen, woodpile, and compost toilet — then invited us over to his wagon for dinner.
I love it here, I whispered to Pete on the way back to our van.
Pete and I had been travelling around Europe for just over two months in his tatty white Mercedes Sprinter. While staying in Copenhagen, we had refitted it ourselves, welding and angle-grinding an old fire extinguisher into a wood stove, fitting a chimney, and nailing our bed together. Then we were searching for other people living in vehicles, and heard about these wagon communities.
An hour later, we headed back to Tim’s wagon, brandishing chocolate. He had two other guests and only a small wagon, so we all piled into a larger one next door. Tim fed us bowls of pasta and handed us a beer each while we chatted about the community.
With the pipes in the churchyard frozen, the single public water tap the community relied upon was out of action. Many residents had gone away for the winter months, whittling the community down to the hardiest seven. The city grudgingly allowed them to live on the land for free, but it obviously wasn’t making things easy.
Between mouthfuls of pasta, Tim explained how the community was quite mixed when it came to socialising. Some kept to themselves, while others sometimes gathered in the big communal kitchen wagon, which we were also welcome to use. Residents each paid €10 a month for the communal telephone, wireless internet, and wood deliveries.
Pete and I spent our days in Göttingen, exploring the city on bikes. In the evenings, we cooked dinner and read by candlelight in the communal kitchen wagon. It was large but cosy, with a wood-burning stove, gas cooker, and plenty of chopped wood.
A few friendly neighbours waved or called hello when we saw them, but we were sad not to meet many of them properly.
Before leaving, we donated some cash for the wood and gas we used, and were delighted when Tim presented us a with a crate of fresh vegetables — a gift from the community.
We enjoyed our stay at Barricade Göttingen so much, we decided to seek out another wagenplatz when we drove our clunky van into Berlin.
There were five Berlin wagon places listed on wagendorf.de. After browsing a few websites, we decided to try Lohmühle, since it had a nice website that said visitors were welcome.
Lohmühle occupied a bigger patch of land than Barricade Göttingen, and was slap-bang in the middle of the city. A lot of time had clearly been spent beautifying the site, perhaps for this reason.
There were small patches of herbs and other plants, with signs in curling script announcing what was growing. A board by the entrance advertised community events, such as the weekly cafe, film nights, and concerts.
We found a woman with dreadlocks brandishing an axe, and asked her if it might be alright to park there a few nights. She responded in an Eastern European accent that the community decide this sort of thing on Mondays, but she thought it would probably be OK. She moved her car so we could park in the space, and promised to ask some of the others when she saw them.
Snow was still falling between bursts of sunshine. The usual bustle of Berlin was subdued and the wagenplatz was no exception. We went to the weekly plenum on Monday and shyly asked if we could stay a while longer. Like the community at Göttingen, many of the residents were hibernating, but the few people there welcomed us to stay.
Again, there was no water in the wagenplatz, but being in the centre of the city, there were several options. Across the road were blocks of flats, many of which had a tap in the backyard. To gain access, you could dash in after a resident, push all the doors until you found one open, or ring bells and risk abuse.
The communal structures at Lohmühle included a huge polytunnel used for concerts, and an outdoor bar. Sadly, these were out of action in winter due to the cold.
In late August every year, Lohmühle host their grand summer festival, spread over the whole wagendorf — there’s food, a kid’s space, concerts, cabaret, and cocktail-smoothie bar. The summer festival date for 2014 will be Saturday, 30th August.
Another wagenplatz in the centre of Berlin is the infamous Schwarzer Kanal — a ‘queer’ wagon village — forming a tight-knit, hip community of people defying gender and sexuality stereotypes.
Schwarzer Kanal existed on the south bank of the River Spree in the city centre since its inception in 1991, but the community lost a long-running land dispute with the city council, and were about to move to a new site across the city. They were appealing for help.
We arrived dutifully, if a little late, at the new site one Saturday. The Schwarzer Kanal residents would move their wagons the following week, and there was a lot of work to be done, mostly involving — to our disappointment — cutting down trees.
The new site the council offered, after a long battle and many years of negotiation, was full of young birch trees, which formed an impenetrable barrier. Fortunately, most of the trees would remain, but many would have to come down to make space for the wagons.
Pete and I had just spent a month in a park in Hamburg, actively fighting to save trees. Now we were digging them up. It was a bittersweet experience, digging up tree roots with a large spade and tossing them carelessly into a pile to burn.
We spent two long days toiling with residents and other helpers, chatting and feasting on the communal lunch halfway through each day.
Schwarzer Kanal host regular events, such as variety shows, concerts, an outdoor cinema, and several annual festivals, along with a DIY bike workshop.
Many wagenplatze accept guests, but it is strongly encouraged to contact communities in advance, rather than just turning up. We learned this the hard way.
There is a map, along with information about many of the communities in German, at wagendorf.de.