Cycling the Berlin Wall / Financial Times
The evening sun slants through the silver birches flanking the trail along which we have been cycling. The air is filled with birdsong and the sweet scents of countryside in late spring. Two women pass on horseback as we chat to an elderly man walking his dog. Yes, Dieter Schulz confirms, we are following the precise route of the Berlin Wall. “A watchtower stood just there,” he adds, pointing to a glade 20 yards away.
Schulz, now 80, remembers the wall being built in 1961 – a mere fence at first, then workmen arriving in lorries and armed guards supervising them as they drove great concrete posts into the ground and built the wall that split friends from friends, neighbours from neighbours, communism from capitalism, East from West.
As the decades passed this front line of the Cold War became ever more elaborate, with an inner as well as outer wall, trip wires, a trench to stop vehicles, guard dogs and watchtowers: a ‘death strip’ 100 miles long and wider than a motorway, patrolled by an East German border force that shot to kill.
Most walls are built to keep people out. This one was built to prevent East Germans escaping their own country. It snaked not only through the very heart of Berlin, but right around allied-controlled West Berlin – a tiny enclave of freedom inside the vast prison that was East Germany.
It seemed so entrenched, so permanent, but in 1989 the East German government – indeed the entire Soviet empire – abruptly collapsed. “I never believed it would happen,” says Schulz, and 30 years later his face still lights up at the memory of those momentous days when the wall came down.
Today the route of the Berlin Wall could not be more different. Now called the ‘Mauerweg’ (the ‘path of the wall’), it has been transformed into a hiking and cycling trail that weaves past the great sights of Germany’s reunited capital, along canals, lakes and rivers, and through lovely, gentle countryside.
The Mauerweg is well worth cycling for its own sake, but its history makes it all the more compelling. Its bucolic charm is punctuated by frequent, jarring reminders of its terrible past: three dozen remnants of the wall itself, memorials to the 136 people killed in the death strip, commemorative plaques, even an occasional watchtower or crossing point.
The wall survives, also, in the memory of any middle-aged Berliner, and like Herr Schulz they all have tales to share.
Four friends and I began our three-day ride round the Mauerweg at the Pension Sperlingshof, a comfortable, unpretentious hotel outside the town of Dallgow-Dobertiz, a 25-minute train ride west of Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof.
Gerd Koallick, the genial proprietor, rented us solid, heavy, sit-up-and-beg bikes (Germans have yet to discover lightweight models, it seems). He organised hotels for our next two nights, and for the onward delivery of our luggage each day, and provided tool kits, maps and sat nav devices with our route programmed in. Koallick once worked in old state-run East German hotels. “Unthinkable,” he chuckled when asked if he ever expected to be organising bike tours of the wall.
And so we set off in high spirits on a sunny May morning. We joined the Mauerveg in a western Berlin suburb called Staaken, its route marked by a line of cobblestones in the road. We headed north – clockwise - so the former East Germany would always be on our left and West Berlin on our right.
Amid the neat, compact homes we soon spotted the first of many tall orange markers showing where would-be escapees died. A shorter post next to it displayed a black-and-white portrait of Willi Bloch, 31, who became entangled in barbed wire as he tried to cross the wall in 1966 and died in a hail of bullets. His family, like so many others, was ordered to keep the circumstances of his death secret because escapees damaged East Germany’s attempt to portray itself as a workers’ paradise. Indeed its government even banned the word ‘wall’, insisting it was an ‘anti-fascist protection barrier’.
Beyond Staaken we rode through the tranquil Spandau forest where the death strip has now vanished beneath birch and pine trees and only a few crumbling concrete posts remain. We passed joggers, cyclists and a woman in a pony and trap. It was hard to believe we were on the edge of one of Europe’s major capitals.
By the broad Havel river we found a memorial to Franciszek Piesek, who drowned trying to swim to West Berlin in 1967, and one of the wall’s four surviving watchtowers – it once had more than 300.
The tower now houses a small museum. Andreas Kuhn, its attendant, recalled how the day after the wall fell he rushed into West Berlin to buy Lego and comics. Other East Germans rushed to buy bananas. “People had money before, but nothing to buy. Now we can go anywhere and buy anything, but don’t have the money,” he said with a wistfulness for the relative simplicity and stability of the Communist era that we encountered several times among former East Germans.
After lunch in a Hennigsdorf bakery the path took us through woods and fields, past another watchtower now used for nature conservation work, and more harrowing memorials to failed escapees that we felt compelled to stop and read. Most were young men desperate for freedom, a few were disgruntled border guards, the black-and-white photos of their faces contrasting starkly with the lush green country all around.
By late afternoon we were zig-zagging into Berlin through its northern suburbs. In places the death strip has disappeared beneath new apartment blocks, shopping centres and petrol stations. Elsewhere it has been converted into parks and playgrounds. On Am Burgerpark [umlatt on ‘u’] the floodlights that once illuminated it now serve as street lamps.
We stopped at Bornholmer Strasse, the first crossing point thrown open as the East German government collapsed on the night of November 9 1989. There Klaus Goldammer, a friend of a friend, told us how he was one of thousands of East Berliners who poured across the Bose railway bridge into West Berlin and were greeted by bars dispensing free beer.
“It was unreal. You’d never have dreamed it even a few hours before,” he said as he stood by a remnant of the wall and some explanatory signs at the bridge’s eastern end. A marathon runner, he joyfully ran 33 kilometres around West Berlin early the following morning.
We retired to a city centre hotel for the night, exhausted after 40 miles on our tank-like bikes, and began Day Two at the deeply moving Berlin Wall Memorial on Bernauer Strasse. It includes a stretch of the original wall, a fine museum, a chapel of reconciliation, underground stations that were bricked up to prevent escapes, and any number of wrenching human stories: people jumping from windows or sliding down ropes as the wall was erected down the middle of the street, escape tunnels dug beneath it, a couple trapped in East Berlin tearfully waving to their newly-married daughter and son-in-law in West Berlin.
We then followed the Mauerweg as it snaked through Berlin’s vibrant heart. To our surprise we found a grey concrete watchtower ringed by colourful modern flats in a cobbled backstreet. A resident told us it was saved because a homeless man had occupied it. It is now a memorial to Gunter Litfin, 24, shot as he tried to swim across an adjacent canal 11 days after the wall went up.
We followed the route round the Reichstag and past the Brandenburg Gate where, in 1987, President Reagan urged President Gorbachev to “tear down this wall”. We pedalled on through Potsdamer Platz, past another length of wall outside the Topography of Terror museum, the tourist mecca of Checkpoint Charlie, and a commune by St Thomas Kirche whose inhabitants live in old East German military trucks.
We did not linger at the East Side Gallery – a stretch of wall almost a mile long where visitors can buy East German passport stamps and teenagers now pose for selfies in front of somewhat pretentious murals. We preferred to search for lesser known remnants of the wall such as the plaque on a nondescript apartment block next to the bakery in Heidelberger Strasse where we lunched. The plaque recorded how, from the cellar, a young West Berliner named Heinz Jercha dug a tunnel through which 50 East Berliners escaped before the Stasi discovered it. Jercha was shot but crawled home to die.
We briefly left the wall at this point. It was May 9, the anniversary of Nazi Germany’s surrender, so we visited Treptower Park with its vast and imposing memorial to the 80,000 Soviet soldiers who died liberating Berlin at the end of World War Two.
Thousands of relatives had come to remember them. They held aloft the soldiers’ photos, laid flowers, played accordions and sang sad songs. Their patriotism was moving, their commemoration of the dead admirable, but there was no acknowledgement of the misery the Soviet Union imposed on “liberated” East Germany for the next 44 years.
In glorious sunshine we followed an autobahn out through Berlin’s southern suburbs, and were soon back in semi-rural countryside. Turning west, we rode past lakes, meadows, stables, allotments and clusters of simple wooden summer chalets. We followed an old East German patrol road through dappled woods, dodging joggers, dog walkers and parents pushing baby buggies.
But history kept intruding - a memorial to a 1,500-foot tunnel built by the British and US militaries to eavesdrop on their Soviet adversaries until George Blake, the British double agent, betrayed it; former crossing points which gave West Berliners access to Schonefeld airport and a rubbish dump; and yet more markers relating harrowing human stories like that of a disillusioned East German politician with lung cancer who simply walked towards the border guards until they shot him.
That evening we rode wearily through fields of spring wheat to the town of Grossbeeren for schnitzels, cold beer and sleep. Three days, we realised, were too few for all there is to see.
Our final day began with an encounter with two elderly cyclists, Gieselher Eberhardt and Gunter Frummer, by a line of cherry trees donated by Japan to commemorate Germany’s reunification. ‘Beneath the branches of the cherry tree nobody is a stranger,’ a plaque proclaims.
The pair remembered the wall going up, and the East Germans blasting propaganda across it - “Socialism will triumph”. They remembered the US riposte – a deafening firing range and a ghost town built for training where the cherry trees now grow. They remembered thinking the wall would stand for ever. “It was unbelievable when it came down. We all cried,” said Eberhardt, his eyes watering even now. But they took no chunks for souvenirs. “We didn’t want to keep any because for us it was a terrible memory,” Frummer added.
We cycled on beside the Teltowkanal, a haven for anglers, and through more suburbia. From a bridge over the autobahn that connected West Berlin to West Germany, 100 miles away, we saw the old, mothballed Dreilinden check point, alias Checkpoint Bravo, straddling the highway like a disused motorway service station. Where cars once queued to be searched by East German guards traffic now roars by unimpeded.
Thereafter the Mauerveg carried us through the deep and lovely Duppel forest to the Kohlhasen bridge where we found another piece of wall inexplicably left standing – most of it was taken for souvenirs, given to museums or crushed for building roads.
We continued past the fine mansions overlooking Griebnitzsee, past the splendid Schloss Babelsberg, to the notorious Glienicke Bridge – the ‘bridge of spies’ - which leads across the Havel river to Potsdam. A couple of plaques record how the US and Soviet Union used this elegant steel structure to swap prisoners, most famously the U2 spy plane pilot Gary Powers. Cars now speed across while the odd tourist takes pictures.
The magnificent domes and spires of Potsdam beckoned, but we were running out of time. A gorgeous five-mile path took us along the wooded bank of the Havel, past biergartens and swimming beaches, to affluent Wannsee. From there a 20-minute ferry ride swept us past the infamous lakeside mansion where the Nazis planned the ‘final solution’ to the yacht basin at Kladow on the Havel’s northern bank.
By late afternoon we had completed our loop. We cycled happily back to the Sperlingshof through lush green fields, marvelling at the wall’s astounding transformation from a Cold War ring of terror to Berlin’s playground.