A cycling jaunt around Germany's capital

Since the Wall fell, Berlin has slowly emerged from the East-West rumble to become a multicultural, fascinating and slightly hedonistic European city

8 mins

At Berlin’s Checkpoint Charlie it was business as usual. Two guards in military dress kept a stony faced watch over Friedrichstrasse, backed by a bank of sandbags. A pair of Trabants, former East German car of non-choice, chugged their fumey way down through Mitte, as they had done for many decades. The famous sign – ‘You are leaving the American Sector’ – was still in place, the slogan repeated starkly in French and Cyrillic, recalling tense moments from a dozen Cold War thrillers.

But then the dream dissolved. One of the guards reached behind himself, to sneak a bite of pepperoni pizza. The Trabants were sprayed with tiger stripes and leopard spots, part of Berlin’s Trabi Safari, a sputtering, gear-grinding tour of the capital’s former flashpoints. And beneath that famous sign, as if to belie its announcement, a group of tourists in Chicago Bears baseball caps stood grazing unconcernedly on hotdogs and quarter-pounders.

A cycle through history

The Berlin Wall fell nearly two decades ago but it’s still big business for the German capital, with ‘genuine fragments’ on sale at tourist stands alongside Stasi uniforms, red stars and GDR visa stamps. In final, reluctant recognition of the Wall’s iconic status and enduring tourist pull, the Berlin authorities have recently opened the Mauerweg, a 160km cycle route following the zigzag former division through Berlin’s centre and running, as the Wall itself did, around the circumference of the capital’s western edge.

With the city’s reunification celebrating its 20th anniversary next year, and the Mauerweg set to be one of its star attractions, I was here to cycle it, stopping off for currywurst and pilsner as I went.

Berlin 2008 is still a divided city, though the divisions do not seem so much east-west as past-future. There is a schizophrenic quality to the place, as buildings steeped in almost indigestible history are set down beside edifices so futuristic they seem like a thick line drawn under the city’s past, a page turned.

What has the city not suffered or brought about? The cataclysms of Nazism, aerial bombardment, traumatic partition, a chilling and lingering Cold War fear.

Yet all that is past and gone, and it’s proof of the Berliners’ fabled resilience that their city now seems strolling and carefree, almost immunised against high drama. In its characters – the hurt-looking boy with the saxophone on his back, the Günter Grass lookalike with beret and mackerel moustache, crabbily clutching a copy of Die Zeit – you may sense ennui, or melancholy, or a savage, bone-dry humour, but the heaviness has gone.

Grim reminders

So it seemed to me, anyway, as I set out from Potsdamer Platz, the Mauerweg’s starting point. Potsdamer, of course, is a case in point – described 20 years ago by Jan Morris as a ‘dingy wilderness’, it is now the prong of Berlin’s cutting edge: skyscrapered, Starbucksed and slick as mirror glass. It is also, like most of Berlin’s streets, cyclist heaven, with lanes either shadowing the roads or running in a demarcated strip down the middle of the pavements.

Twitchily – for I had not cycled for the better part of two decades – I made my way along some of them, following the Mauerweg signs. Despite their grim design – a grey stripe for Wall, white for a sunless sky and a stencilled watchtower fixing you over the top – these markers soon became reassuringly familiar.

The route, before it left the city, took me past sights top-heavy with the past, for you can barely move in central Berlin without encountering its grim heritage – take the Topography of Terror, a gruesome outdoor museum on the site of the Gestapo Headquarters, or Bernauer Strasse, the Wall’s front line, where a tamed wedge of it, sanded, raked and book-ended, still stands in commemoration.

The memorials to those who gambled their lives to escape and lost the bet punctuate the route, as do impertinent little fragments of the Wall itself: concrete-coloured, fissured, the detritus of a seemingly permanent structure shrugged into driftwood by time, human nature and political necessity.

As the cycle path took me out of Berlin, along the banks of the Teltow Canal, beside wild meadows or, for endless happy hours, up and down the paths of forests, I marvelled at the comeback the Wall Route had made. Where there were watchtowers, tracker dogs and landmines, Berliners are now taking the time out to rollerskate the route or ramble through the greenery with their spaniels and Weimaraners. This was not the suburban devastation I expected: those who had guarded the border had done so, to my surprise, in a countryside so restorative that, Wall or no Wall, the Mauerweg seemed to justify itself.

Solitude and schnitzels

Time and again I stopped, not just to savour the solitude and thick emerald light of the pines and oaks, but to remind myself of the terror and tension that had once poisoned the idyllic landscape. This copse had marked the death spot of Michael Gartenschlaeger, shot with 120 Stasi bullets for attempting to dismantle a machine gun. That innocuous-looking steel bridge arching over the Havel River was the notorious Glienicker Brücke, where spies were traded furtively across the border.

As I cycled round the rippling silver sheet of Lake Wannsee, where herons yawned and flapped and beer-garden diners stolidly devoured their schnitzels, it seemed unimaginable that here, in this elegant dove-grey waterside villa, the top brass of the Third Reich gathered together to drink cognac, tell backslapping jokes and greenlight the Final Solution.

I cycled on, and so has Berlin. It is hard to find a continuum between that city and the Berlin of today – multicultural, lightly hedonistic, its streets more probably named after humanists or sportsmen than the dreary, monstrous patriarchs of its past. The rejuvenation of the cycle route is proof of how one thing can become another, how places symbolic of barrenness can sprout takeaways and tourist routes, and how progress need not necessarily be towards the bad.

Berlin United FC

If there was a moment that encapsulated Berlin’s resurgence, it came on Saturday lunchtime. As I pushed my bike up a path in the forest and drank in the rainy woodland smells, I met a gang of cheerful Berliners, East and West, lugging a trailer full of beer and sausages up behind them and laughing as they went. They were doing, they said, what they did every weekend, gathering to play ballgames up and down the wreckage of the wall that had once divided them and, as the day ambled on, get mildly drunk together.

I shared a beer with them and wondered aloud what Erich Honecker, late President of Communist East Germany, would have made of it all – the Mauerweg cycling route, their innocent weekly games, our unguarded conversation together.

“Honecker?” shouted one of them. “Hah! He would have turned in his grave!”

“Does it matter?” I asked.

“No!” she cried joyously, clapping her hands, and the others roared with laughter.

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