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.
1. My starting point on the Mauerweg at the old Sonnenallee border crossing point in March.
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.
2. Looking west across the Teltow Canal. For this stretch, the Wall trail is sandwiched between the waterway and a highway.
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.
3. A hidden belt of green land between the edge of Rudow in the former West Berlin and the airport town of Schönefeld in the old East Germany is now home to livestock.
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.
4. Gropiusstadt, one of West Berlin’s utopian social housing projects. The complex of apartment blocks is named after Walter Gropius, its architect and founder of the Bauhaus School.
5. Mid-March flowers sprouting through a young reforested track on the former death strip near Lichtenrade.
6. Much of the perimeter of Berlin’s southern boundary faces out on to old drainage fields, especially around Marienfelde.
7. The A115 highway, once the busiest East-West border crossing but a ghost autobahn just hours before Germany enters lockdown on March 22.
8. Around the old Stammbahn railway, Berlin’s first train line. Now forested track.
9. Steinstücken was for a time an exclave of West Berlin, so the allies maintained a helipad. Today, this is memorialized by a helicopter blade installation next to a climbing frame helicopter, closed due to the pandemic.
10. Griebnitzsee, the entrance to Berlin’s waterworld of lakes and forests around its southwest. Here, U.S. President Harry Truman made the decision to drop nuclear weapons on Japan, and both Stalin and Churchill stayed close by while the trio met in Potsdam to carve up Europe after World War II.
11. Despite the virus lockdown, wedding shoots went ahead. A couple pose on the Glienicke Bridge between what was West Berlin and Potsdam in East Germany, otherwise known as the Bridge of Spies where East and West exchanged prisoners.
12. A lake in the town of Groß Glienicke, which the East-West border ran directly through and the Wall right around. Many houses have their own private access to the lake these days.
13. Berlin has so many airports it has even forgotten one. The Gatow Airfield in the far west was Britain’s terminal during the Cold War, along with Tegel (France), Tempelhof (U.S.) and Schönefeld (Soviet). Today it’s an air force museum.
14. There is very little left of the original Wall structure itself, and much of the old death strip has been turned into landscaped gardens in suburbs such as Staaken. Here, an elderly pair enjoy the view.
15. In order to trade excess electricity production, the West Berlin administration built pylons through an otherwise bucolic Spandau Forest during the 1980s.
16. The garden city suburb of Frohnau is tucked up against old woodland and lakes. After this the trail turns sharply south toward downtown Berlin.
17. Locals use the old phone booth to trade books at Lübars, billed as the last true Berliner village. It’s surrounded by fields and lakes hidden away from tower blocks close by.
18. The original so-called Heidekrautbahn railway route is being revived decades after it was diverted by the construction of the Wall.
19. The Schönholz Soviet war memorial is a monumental mass grave in the former East Berlin with 13,000 soldiers laid to rest here. I arrived the day after Russia’s Victory Day so there were plenty of fresh flowers and wreaths.
20. Bornholmer Straße, where the East-West border first opened in November 1989. Today the bridge is a memorial, but it also marks the boundary between suburbia and gentrified Prenzlauer Berg.
21. Bernauer Straße hosts one of just a few remaining segments of the original Wall, with metal installations filling in missing parts along the road.
22. A bystander looks at part of the modern Bundestag office complex, reflecting the renovated historical parliament building across the Spree river.
23. Looking west through the Brandenburg Gate. During the division of the city, the landmark was encircled by the Wall.
24. The Checkpoint Charlie intersection is usually bustling with tourists. Although Berlin’s restaurants are reopening this month, the tourist traps were still empty on a sunny May Sunday.
25. The East Side Gallery is a long stretch of the Wall that often becomes a forest of selfie sticks. Here, it’s empty, with Dmitri Vrubel’s famous embrace between Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker available to view without a queue.