BERLIN — As authorities in the German capital put the brakes on public life in March, I decided to try and aggregate my daily walks into the entire 160-kilometer route of the former Berlin Wall.
Social isolation and Cold War history rolled into a monthlong mix of stroll and slog around the city outskirts.
Only a small portion of the route runs through downtown Berlin, via all the tourist draws that were eerily empty during my walks. The vast majority traces the border between the city and the surrounding state of Brandenburg via forests, fields, lakes and sleepy suburbia.
In the three decades since the Wall fell (longer than it stood in place), most of the structure itself has disappeared, memorial rock chipped away chunk by chunk. Instead, there’s the route of a former patrol path through the reforested death strip encircling the western perimeter of Berlin. It’s maintained as the so-called Mauerweg for cyclists, and sometimes serves as overflow parkland for those living on the edge of the city.
I started at the old Sonnenallee border crossing (which bears no resemblance to the Wall-era setting of the popular 1999 German comedy film of the same name) walking alone, clockwise, under Berlin’s southern belly, equipped with a camera phone and a cycling guide by Michael Cramer, a former Green MEP who made the Mauerweg his legacy in local politics during the 1990s.
Walking the Wall would be a stopgap until the pandemic passed, I thought.
But just as I reached the waterworld that is Berlin’s upscale, lake-filled southwestern suburbs, Chancellor Angela Merkel appeared on national TV, outlining new restrictions to daily life on March 22. That put a monthlong pause on roaming any further than the supermarket.
Fast-forward two months: As I completed the route, the German capital reopened its restaurants and beer gardens, though the socially-distanced economy is still very much in a trial phase. Without anyone there to take a selfie, the plasticky views of Checkpoint Charlie and the East Side Gallery make them feel more like flimsy film sets than sites of profound historical importance.
Walking the whole route in 2020 is apt, as it is mostly based on local administrative borders dating back to 1920, when the Greater Berlin Act expanded the city’s boundaries.
The Wall left multiple exclaves of West Berlin stranded in East Germany, along with various loopbacks and a “duck’s beak” of the East inexplicably jutting into the West. Kladow, already on the western shore of the Wannsee lake, was in West Berlin, but Groß Glienicke, with which it shares another lake, was not.
Although the Wall itself is gone, the stories of the 140 lives lost directly as a result of its terror punctuate the route. But there are also more colorful tales, of train driver Harry Deterling who accelerated his passenger service to escape into West Berlin (with commuters on board) in 1961; of Erwin Shabe, a boy who got an armed escort to school after falsely claiming East German soldiers were obstructing his route from the tiny exclave of Eiskeller; and of farmer Helmut Qualitz, who smashed a hole in the Wall with his tractor in 1990 to restore an old link between two communities.
In the present day, there remain local disagreements over efforts to restore lost infrastructure links. The expansion of the old Dresden railway to offer express airport trains is controversial for locals in the south of the city who have grown comfortable with unobtrusive local services that don’t rattle their windows. Up north, plans to reroute the old Heidekrautbahn line have sparked a three-way fight over station-naming rights between suburbs. By my count, the entire Mauerweg route passes more than 10 rail tracks (plus one or two ghost lines) radiating out of the city like spokes on a bicycle wheel.
Even with division long gone, the work to reweave Berlin’s urban fabric still isn’t finished.
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