Der Berliner Mauer – mit dem Fahrrad
The thought of exploring the Berlin Wall [or more accurately what remains of it 20 odd years after it came down] has always been on my ‘to do’ list; last week my wish finally came true at last. And I got to explore it on the most suitable mode of transport possible – bicycle.
Berlin has changed almost beyond recognition over the last 20 years since reunification. Now capital of Germany, it is a booming city with new buildings rising from the wastes of the Communist-era DDR. But there are still reminders of the old times all over the place – some are memorials to the abuses inflicted on the population by the control-crazed state of the German Democratic Republic, others are simply things that haven’t yet reached their turn to be modernised or removed. And that makes the city really interesting.
So it was that we arrived at the premises of Berlin By Bike, situated in trendy Prenzlauer Berg in a former brewery, in order to collect our hire bikes and take part in a guided tour of the route of Der Berliner Mauer [the Berlin Wall]. Bike hire companies like this one exist all over the city. Berlin has one of the highest ratios of bikes to cars, and is a city well provided for cyclists. I will dedicate a separate article to general cycling in Berlin soon.
Sturdy, dynamo equipped German cycles obtained, we set out in a group of about 15, following our native guide along cobbled streets to the first sight – not the Wall itself, but the Gethsemane Church, close to the Wall. It was in this building, in 1989, that protesters and activists had congregated to organise peaceful protests against the state. Around 500 were arrested in or around the Church, and it has become a focus for the memory of the fight against the state, which was eventually to be successful in the autumn of 1989.
Moving on, we crossed a footbridge over the railway line that signified the division of the city. In the East, some buildings that adjoin the railway are still in their original dilapidated state. It is said that the buildings were confiscated by the state, and the rightful owners never traced. They have attained that East Berlin squat-style that is so prevalent in some areas – plenty of grafitti and evidence of illegal occupation.
The tour continues at this point through the outer suburbs of the former east, to the bridge over the railway line at Bornholmer Strasse. This was one of the ‘ghost stations’ on the U-Bahn, so called because if you were traveling in the west of Berlin, the railways were constructed in such a way that the train had to pass through a number of stations in the east in order to get to other stations in the west (yes, the whole thing really was as petty and ridiculous as that!) – so the train would speed through those stations and continue to the west. The bridge here is the one that was iconically photographed on the night the wall was breached, as eastern citizens traveled a few kilometres to find out what life would be like in the west.
We cycled further through back streets, mostly cobbled, until we came to Bernauer Strasse – probably one of the most famous thoroughfares in the folklore of the wall. This was a street literally sliced in half by the wall and its attendant ‘death strip’ of watch towers and minefields. A large memorial site now exists next to a large cemetery, including a genuine eastern watch tower which was apparently purchased on eBay for €2000!!!
Now, in the way of things, it is assumed that if one embarks on a cycle tour, one will be guided to the relevant sights and feel oneself cocooned in a layer of comfort, provided by the knowledge that one simply has to pedal and not think too much. Imagine our surprise, then, when my lovely and erudite companion and I emerged from an impromptu look around the little museum to find our tour had gone without us!!!!
Times like these call for an inspired and decisive mood, and as such, we continued and decided that we would, from now on, concoct our own special tour of the wall – and maybe we’d catch the tourists up as well!! Onward we went, into the centre of the City, appreciating the wide, empty cycle lanes as we went. Really, there cannot be many cities in the world so well designed in terms of the bicycle. Everywhere we went we felt like we were employing a valid mode of transport as opposed to feeling like an uneasy combination of irritant and criminal like one does in British cities. Chapeaux to the good burghers of Berlin for making the bike a priority! So, we passed through the hordes of tourists at the Brandenburger Tor, and then headed south along the only slightly hairy section of the journey, towards Potsdamer Platz and thence onward to Checkpoint Charlie.
Now, those of you who have experienced Berlin will know that Checkpoint Charlie and its’ attendant environs are tourist hell in the way that the seedier bits of Oxford Street are.
But we did find a little Imbiss situated by the Trabant Safari hire place (where you can, if you are mad enough, hire a Trabi and then attempt to negotiate the swarms of black BMW’s and Audis that these days prowl the roads of Berlin). We stopped off, took some pictures, and enjoyed a currywurst.
These snacks are one of the institutions of German life – a bratwurst sausage covered in a ketchup-based sauce sprinkled with curry sauce. They are a prefect pork-based pick-me-up for a tired ‘radler’, and so we soon felt able to move onward, realising that time was ticking away and we were due back at Berlin By Bike at 3pm.
Now another thing you will know if you’ve ever been to Berlin, or more accurately, cycled around Berlin, is that it’s actually a long way from the centre to places like Alexanderplatz in the east. The wide, multi-laned Leipziger Strasse will get you there fast, and with bike lanes – but it’s a bit more exposed to traffic than some of the roads. We pedaled with urgency to ensure that we were soon riding through the (another….) Berlin Wall exhibition on Alexanderplatz, in the shadow of the massive Fehrnsehentum (TV Tower), a needle poking up into the sky and constructed by the DDR to show the west its innate superiority back in the 60s.
From here, with a couple of juducious turns, you’re on Schonhauser Allee, which is the main vein (as Lester Bangs may have said) into Prenzlauer Berg and the trendy, boho east. A growing sense of familiarity began to overwhelm us as we approached the Kulturbrauerei, the old converted brewery which houses numerous (mostly music-biz-related) small businesses, including our now absent hosts, BBB.
And then it was all over – we had toured a section of the wall, partly guided and partly by ourselves. The bike shop people were cool – no problem that we had departed from our tour – and as such, we decided to celebrate with another currywurst and a Berliner Pilsner.
Coming soon: some bike photos from Berlin, and another article about cycling policy and practice….