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Ghostly path

ISSUE 7
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November 9 marks the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. David Whitley visits the city to see what's changed – and how the legacy of the world's most famous division is being remembered


On the side of the whitewashed building, an East German soldier makes his bid for freedom over the barbed wire. Supersized to cover the best part of the wall, the image has a sport photographer's precision, capturing the exact moment of the leap from east to west.

 

Other buildings along Bernauerstrasse have similar images, all scenes of desperation and desire to reach a different life on the other side of the Berlin Wall.

 

Bernauerstrasse, along which the wall once ran and where one of the first openings was smashed through in 1989, is Berlin's most evocative street and it has been turned into an open-air museum of a once-divided city.

 

There was not one Berlin Wall, but two, and between them was a 'death strip'. Anyone who entered that wire-choked, dog-patrolled wasteland could expect to be shot on sight.

 

Some original concrete clumps of the Wall stand and the rest of the path is marked by rusty-looking metal posts. Sprinkled between are pavement memorials to those who died trying to escape. Photos on signs show children leaping out of apartment windows, hoping to be caught in nets held by firemen on the other side. Displays tell stories of families who were arbitrarily split in 1961 when the physical barrier between competing ideologies was put up overnight. A 1.3km walk between train stations stretches out over an afternoon, shell-shocked contemplative silence the only appropriate response as the tragic personal tales mount up. The Wall wasn't just above ground, though. At the Nordbahnhof underground station, a mini-exhibition tells of the subterranean divide. Subway tunnels were blocked off and rail lines came to abrupt halts. Many tried to escape through the tunnels – including one driver who made sure his family were on board and then smashed the train through the barricades. But for many East Berliners, the 'ghost stations' slowly drifted from the public consciousness. Signs were taken down, entrances were boarded up and maps were airbrushed. Only after German reunification were long-forgotten connections re-established.

 

Through the rest of central Berlin, the path of the Wall is more discreet. A line of twin cobblestones snakes across roads and over pavements. Following it, the significance of certain sites becomes apparent. Long a symbol of the city, the Brandenburg Gate was trapped in the death strip, visible to all and accessible to none. Checkpoint Charlie, which is now something of a tat-surrounded nostalgia theme park, represented the most jarring transition. It separated dour, shackled East Berlin from the Mustangs and Coca Cola free world of unbridled capitalism in the American sector.

 

An amble along the Wall's ghostly path is not just about the past, however. The walk unlocks the secrets behind modern Berlin's personality. It's a city of unusually vigorous creative energy. Street art thrives, myriad subcultures have room to experiment and the vision of edgy cool proves far more appealing than a good job back home for young migrants. In the words of mayor Klaus Wowereit, Berlin is "poor but sexy".

 

artists and musicians

 

The removal of the Wall gave Berlin something special: space. There was suddenly a strip of wasteland through the centre of the city. Big, glitzy development projects – such as the Potsdamer Platz shopping centre and new main train station – lumbered to fill it. But the squatters, artists and musicians were much more nimble, taking over abandoned buildings with impressive speed.

 

One by one, the weird and wonderful projects that sprang up along the former death strip have been displaced. But some glorious slices of absurdity remain. Just off Bernauerstrasse, Beach Bar Mitte defies prevailing Northern European weather systems to provide a world of sand, deckchairs, beach volleyball courts and lazy sunshine music to swig beers to.

 

Elsewhere, the transformations have been more peaceful. In Kreuzberg, a district previously surrounded by the Wall on three sides, there's a gently curving string of ivy and linden tree-covered parks. They duck down into the gap between streets that were previously on either side of the divide, finishing at Café am Engelbecken, where the serene leafy terrace looks out over a miniature lake.

 

The longest remaining stretch of the wall runs along the River Spree in Friedrichshain. Here, 1.3km of the original concrete was left standing and turned into an outdoor art project. The East Side Gallery's spray-painted, often naïve scenes of peace and harmony have turned a thing of terror into a popular tour bus stop.

 

Around the East Side Gallery, Friedrichshain is soaring upwards. Luxury apartments and media company offices are mushrooming along the banks of the Spree. From the water, it's possible to see that such development is not entirely popular. Building-top graffiti offers a succinct, potty-mouthed assessment of Media Spree.

 

a scar that's healed

 

Paddling hard, the canoes on Backstage Tourism's 'Walk on Water' tour veer left from the Spree down the Landwehrkanal. Now a place for anglers, pleasure boaters and bankside picnickers, it was once a place where the bodies of would-be escapees washed up. Many of the 138 documented fatalities at the border weren't at the Wall at all – they were in the water, shot dead before they could reach the Western bank.

 

In 2014, canoeists can sidle over and pull over by the Jockel beer garden. From the long wooden tables, blissful gazes over the water betray no hint of the recent past. Here, the scar that once tore across Europe is at its most healed.

WAY TO GO

On November 7, thousands of illuminated helium balloons will be installed along the path of the Wall. They'll be there for two days before being joined by a human chain on November 9, the anniversary of the fall of the Wall. Other events running in summer and autumn include guided cycling tours along the path of the Wall, visits to former watchtowers and a sightseeing tour of the old East Berlin in an original Trabant.

 

For information about Berlin and the celebrations, see visitberlin.de.

 

The three-to-four hour Walk On Water tour with Backstage Tourism (Tel: +49 30 5321 5742 / backstagetourism.com) costs €25.

 

For tailormade city breaks in Berlin including a pass to the museums on Museuminsel, try Kirker Holidays (Tel: 020 7593 1899 / kirkerholidays.com).

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