Five years ago, Cycling Plus headed to Berlin to ride around the perimeter of the Berlin Wall. As it's the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Wall, we thought we'd revisit that ride here on BikeRadar…
“Please, come in, you can touch everything!” That’s an invitation I’m always going to give serious consideration to. And when it’s an invitation delivered in a thick German accent by a giant sausage, well, I’m in…
I’ll be honest, this isn’t what I expected at Berlin’s Checkpoint Charlie. I was a Cold War kid. I still have nightmares just thinking about the advert I saw for nuclear war shocker Threads when I was 12. I also have nightmares when I recall the fall of the Berlin Wall. Not because it was scary – anything but, it was a joyous, monumental moment in modern history of course – but because it was more than two decades ago and that makes me feel old.
It’s because of the anniversary of the Wall’s fall, on 9 November 1989, that Warren Rossiter, snapper Paul Smith and I find ourselves being accosted by Herr Sausage at the iconic former border crossing between East and West Berlin. We fancied a big ride. Something with a good dose of history. Some research led us to the Berliner Mauerweg – the 160km Berlin Wall Trail – and it was job done: we’d ride the Wall. That there turns out to be a recently opened Deutsches Currywurst Museum for us to ‘experience’ after the ride is just the icing on the cake, or the gravy. Well, kind of spicy gravy…
Checkpoint Charlie is an early landmark on the Berlin Wall Trail
One of the world’s weirdest museums has to wait though, as Checkpoint Charlie arrives early on in the ride, merely minutes from our start point.
If anything symbolises modern Berlin it’s the Brandenburg Gate. In 1987 then American President Ronald Reagan gave a speech at the Doric-columned, Roman-goddess-in-a-chariot-topped gate, exhorting Russian counterpart Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall!” Just a month after the fall of the Berlin Wall the West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl strolled through to shake hands with the East German premier Hans Modrow. Most famously of course, the Brandenburg Gate was the backdrop to the concert at which David Hasselhoff serenaded adoring Germans with his mighty anthem Looking for Freedom and a flashing leather jacket.
David Hasselhoff just out of shot
Now it’s a bustling tourist magnet, cameras much smaller than Smith’s click away and we have to ride warily beneath its arches in order to not cause a diplomatic incident. It’s the perfect place to start riding the Wall though. Now sitting among the evidence of modern Germany’s affluence, 20 years ago it was anything but, as it lay just beyond stark concrete blocks in East Germany and surrounded by deserted, open land. The ‘Death Strip’ patrolled by men with machine guns and dogs.
Rather naively, we’d expected there to be a little more, y’know, wall. Unsurprisingly, most of it is gone. From Brandenburg, though, the route of the Wall is easy to follow – a line of cobbles in the road signifies how the city was once divided. Cars, buses and bikes now roll freely over them.
That was also pretty much the case up until the early 1960s. Germany itself was divided between east and west in 1952 with the construction of the Inner German Border, but Berlin, which was sectioned up between the Russians, French, Americans and British, was a little more complicated and offered slightly more freedom of movement.
At midnight on 13 August 1961, though, East German troops sealed the border between east and west Berlin with barbed wire barriers. Overnight a city had been divided. Subsequently the wire was replaced with the concrete wall and surrounded by the death strip. In the 28 years it stood, only 5,000 East Berliners managed to escape, while 138 were killed.
Following the cobbles through the centre of Berlin – a rather grey place in the autumn rain due to so much post-war concrete – the divisiveness of the Wall is obvious. It ran through residential streets, separated factories from workers, families, even the dead…
Invalidenfriedhof is a cemetery close to the centre through which the Wall – and the death strip – cut. It’s a ride-stopping kind of place. The same is true of the eerie concrete blocks which make up the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, close to the Brandenburg Gate.
The longest standing stretch of the Wall is the 1.3km East Side Gallery. Running along Muhlenstrasse, close to River Spree and the city centre, it’s where around 100 artists painted their works shortly after the Wall fell. A mural showing former Russian and East German presidents Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker snogging compete with slightly more hippyesque offerings. You can touch the Wall. It’s big. It must have been miserable. A feeling reinforced by the plain grey stretch in Bernauer Strasse.
The East Side Gallery is the longest remaining stretch of the Berlin Wall. It's worth a break in your ride
If this is making a ride around the Berlin Wall sound like a morose nostalgia-fest then rest assured it really isn’t. Yes, starting in the centre offers sobering reminders of the city’s darker, oppressed – and staggeringly recent – history. But it also provides the three of us with that curiously joyous and hard to explain feeling you get when you whizz through traffic, in a city you don’t know, trying to follow bloody-hard-to-see signs.
Ah yes, the signs. Thought Britain was the market leader in poorly waymarked bike routes? Well, the Berlin Wall Trail signposting crew give us a good run for our money. If you haven’t downloaded the route to a GPS and want to avoid repeated reference to a guidebook once the cobbles run out – and they do quite quickly away from the centre, making random reappearances in the middle of nowhere – then you’ll be relying on the Berliner Mauerweg route posts. Keep your wits about you as they’re small, grey and always, always on the other side of the road.
Persevere though, as they really will reward you with some fantastic riding. First up, the Berlin Wall Trail is essentially flat. You could easily circumnavigate it on a flat-barred hybrid with an 8-speed hub gear. In fact, almost every other rider we see is riding a comfortable, meerkat-upright bike. They look at us on our borrowed Cube road bikes as if we’re stupid. As we’re to find out, they may be right.
After passing Potsdamer Platz – nothing more than an abandoned U-Bahn station when the Wall was up, now a bustling, modern office and shopping complex – then the mighty Reichstag, Germany’s parliament building, and through some dullish suburbs, we eventually end up on the Teltowkanal. Flat and fast riding ensues and we’re getting lulled into a false sense of security – this is going to be a breeze.
Unlike in London and many other major cities, you find yourself very suddenly in what feels like proper countryside here in Berlin. There’s a lot of green out in the suburbs: elaborate allotments with sheds the size of holiday chalets, open fields, coniferous woodland, lakes and rivers. It’s surprisingly peaceful.
Of course, just over 20 years ago had we been riding along here we would have been at best arrested, at worst shot. Few watchtowers remain, but the ones preserved as memorials, and the orange signs telling the stories of slain escapees, offer a vivid reminder of this trail’s brutal past.
There’s also a pretty brutal present in store. Cobbles. Big, uneven cobbles as you head through the forests. They’re fun at first as you attack them with a Paris-Roubaix zeal, but on boggo road bikes, especially ones with aluminium forks, they soon become wearying. Smith reckons we bounce painfully over around 30km of stones – quite a few of the residential streets we tackle are also cobbled – and with the harshest bike he’s moaning of neck ache by the end of day two. Warren also suffers, claiming to be the first man to ever get a cobble-induced headache. “It’s like an ice cream one, but without the flake.” The upright bike riding locals were right to laugh…
Cobbles aside, the Mauerweg is eminently rideable whatever your fitness and skill level – concrete roads, smooth tarmac path, some looser gravel and very occasional hard packed earth paths. The shores of the Nieder Neuendorf and Glienicker Park in Potsdam, as well as the pine forests, are beautifully tranquil. (While in these parts, play out spy fantasies on Glienicke Bridge – it’s where East and West exchanged prisoners.)
The route is made more rideable by the abundance of S and U-bahn stations within easy reach; the Garmin shows that we are rarely more than 2km from an easy escape from riding. It’s €4.20 or less to the centre and bikes can be carried underground and overground.
Finally! Cycling Plus editor Rob Spedding celebrates the end of the ride with currywurst
You’re also rarely too far from places to eat out on the trail, although we are disappointed that there isn’t a sausage on every corner. Wurst – sorry – is to come when we do eventually hit the Deutsches Currywurst Museum. I can confirm that we are allowed to ‘touch everything’, but this isn’t as exciting as it sounds. I’m not entirely sure what we’re expecting from an interactive museum dedicated to hot dogs covered in curry sauce but it’s disappointing. Especially as it makes us desperate to sample the wares yet doesn’t offer a single sausage to eat. Maybe it’s for this reason we also decide to skip the equally tempting Erotik Museum…
We do eventually find some spicy sausage and wash it down with some green and red Berliner Weisse beer. Straight Berliner Weisse beer is, apparently, too sour and acidic without the addition of fruit syrup. Once mixed, the beer becomes curiously, pleasantly bitter-sweet. Not unlike the ride.