National Geographic Books editorial assistant Hunter Braithwaite offers up some beach alternatives for urban dwellers.
It’s funny, if not outright inspiring, to think of how something as dreary as an international energy crisis can result in a widespread sea change in how we think about leisure activities. For a variety of reasons, ranging from high gas prices to pure laziness, people are opting to stay in town for the summer. And in some cities, the coast is being imported. Enter the fake beach, which is popping up in different incarnations across the globe.
First, there was the Paris Plage. Initiated in 2002 under Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoë, the plage (French for beach) has occurred every August, each time trying to outdo itself with true Parisian grandeur. Initially, it was just some sand (around 2,000 tons) dumped along the banks of the Seine, but then came the palm trees, the boardwalk, and the swimming pools (you don’t want to take a dip in the river itself). While the beach was initially met with criticism, it has since become a roaring success. Because it is in downtown Paris, the enveloping traffic noise will keep fantasies of the Riviera at bay, but there’s something to be said for tanning underneath Notre Dame. But keep your clothes on. Those going nude, topless, or in thongs will be slapped with a 38 euro fine. Where do you think you are, Europe?
Berlin has its own versions of the fake beach. The Berlin Strand is a group of tiki bars that define beach culture in terms of Germany’s twin passions–drinking and volleyball. A while ago, I passed the afternoon at the Bundespressestrand with my friend who’s spent the past couple years in the city. Literally translated as “National Press Beach,” the “beach” is made up of thoroughly unindigenous palm trees, volleyball courts, and a lot of sand. (In case you were wondering about the name, it was started by an unemployed journalist in 2003.) Admission is free, drinks are reasonably priced, and the volleyball courts cost 12 euro, unless you can grab one for free before 5pm. We had both grown up in Virginia Beach, so the idea of a beach ohne wasser seemed somewhat odd. To be fair, the beach was close to a rippling canal across from Kapelle-Ufer strasse, and even if there were water suitable for swimming, it’d be too cold anyway.
With the success in Paris and Berlin, other cities have now replicated the trend: New York, Budapest, Milan, Rome, Lyon, and even Mexico City now offer their citizens the opportunity to dip their toes in the sand. Mexico’s beach is particularly interesting, because it purposefully engages impoverished citizens, people who might never otherwise experience the beach.
There are many reasons that these faux beaches are successful. They are relatively cheap summertime hangouts. You can say goodbye to the traffic and the gas prices. You can chance upon your coworkers in their bathing suits. But more importantly, they represent a creative redefinition of urban space. These artifices beg the question: “What defines a beach?” Is it saltwater, sand, or a more complex relationship that we beachgoers have with the environment, one dealing with something akin to escape from the ordinary? After seeing these places, it seems to be the latter. The fake beaches, although I’m starting to realize that fake might be too strong a word, are proof that we are resourceful people, that life is fun, and that you don’t really need to drive anywhere. Well, at least not to the beach.
Photo: Above, Revelers gather for nighttime events at Germany's "National Press Beach," from Bundespressestrand website.