Last week I paid my first visit to Berlin. Fortunately around my schedule of meetings I had a few free hours to myself for an afternoon and the freezing rain relented just enough to make sightseeing a realistic opportunity.
I was horribly unprepared to be a tourist having done almost no prior reading. When I checked my usual source on such matters Tripadvisor’s main recommendations were all places that needed at least an hour each to do them justice. Given that my knowledge of Berlin is entirely made of fragments from spy movies and occasional news footage, not the soundest of starts.
So it should come as no surprise to any reader of this blog that I hired a bike and pottered about with my camera just trying to get some impressions of the city.
I was able to top up my knowledge by chatting to colleagues the following day so I was at least able to answer some of my immediate questions, but here is a brief snapshot of thoughts and feelings from a first afternoon cycling and sightseeing in central Berlin.
First orientation issue – am I in East or West Berlin? I am starting from the middle (Mitte), but checking the map tells me I am in the former East because the Berlin Wall actually encircled the old centre like a bump in its alignment. Not obvious to my eye which was which or that the East had been the poor half because my walk down Friedrichstrasse to hire a bike passed parades of shops and offices indistinguishable from any modern city.
Once a bike was obtained from one of Deutsche Bahn’s many bike hire stations I realised that the layout was very compact and it was a matter of minutes to turn down the main street of East Berlin Unter den Linden and head for the must see monument, the Brandenburg Gate. (above)
Not only an impressive monument but important for my orientation because this was one of the symbols of divided Berlin and I could follow the former line of the Berlin Wall from here, especially as so many tourism landmarks appeared to be along its route.
It turned out to be quite an odd ride, as if the city doesn’t quite know what to do with its legacy, or indeed it’s cycling. Heading south from the Brandenburg Gate towards Potsdamer Platz the road was obvious but almost all suggestions of the wall’s existence were gone. Instead the first landmark was the Holocaust Memorial, a sombre grey feature of large blocks laid out in a grid, completed in 2004. A moody place in the overcast sky and slushy snow.
At PotsdamerPlatz I encountered my first evidence of the wall with some retained segments placed on the square covered with interpretation materials about the wall and its legacy. This explained more about what I was, or indeed was not seeing. In the transition after the wall came down many sections were demolished leaving the wide open spaces that used to be the former killing zone, the space left for the guards to see anybody trying to cross. Some are still undeveloped over 20 years later and appear as waste land, some quickly got developed or incorporated into road schemes and a few make the site of memorials and museums.
As I left Potsdamer Platz the cycle lane on the pavement disappeared, the road narrowed and I appeared to be on a very ordinary city street with no indication of history. My map said I was following the wall and should take the first left into another very nondescript small side street heading for the famous Checkpoint Charlie and a site called “Topography of Terror”. It was all very quiet, few cars, few tourist trappings and not unpleasant cycling at all.
I quickly knew I was on the right road because a much longer section of original wall came up beside me. Behind it was a flat plain containing a low grey modern building and some open building foundations. No signs, no obvious clues as to what was going on until I found that “Topography of Terror” was the site of the core of former Nazi control in Berlin, the seat of the Gestapo and the Propaganda Ministry and the building footings I could see were Hitler’s Bunker and Gestapo rooms. I found out later that the surface buildings had been demolished by Allied bombing during the war and its proximity to the wall meant it was just left as open space for over 40 years. Another uncomfortable memory to be incorporated into the city and the museum was perhaps suitably understated.
Its neighbour across the street could hardly be more of a contrast!
Shortly beyond was Checkpoint Charlie, the main gateway between the American and Russian sectors which had appeared in many iconic Cold War images and is certainly more of a tourist hot spot now.
The motif of the wall was used well to provide photographic displays on the approaching streets which gave the history of divided Berlin in news photographs and information boards.
But yet again nearby was one of those ambiguous memorials that really set me thinking – this time the museum of the infamous STASI, the East German secret police.
I spoke to a colleague later about these many memorials to difficult subjects. He said that because Berlin had stagnated for so long after the war there had been no systematic attempt to “move on” and certainly no civic regeneration programme to remove evidence of difficult subjects. And then after reunification it became recognised that Berlin should not be allowed this past so the city had begun to establish them as part of education and reconciliation. I had the feeling it was a sort of pact – you can become the capital city again but you cannot be allowed to forget.
There is certainly no avoiding the subject of the wall. I had assumed that when I left the central area some of the references would go diminish but later that evening on the S-bahn railway I learned about the ghost stations where North-South trains ran under East Berlin from two sectors of the West but didn’t stop at the pre-war stations. And the sections of that line that ran almost along the wall with platforms only open on the West side.
Back to my ride. Having passed Checkpoint Charlie I had my fill of wall sites so I swung North East to see more of the older city. First I followed a relatively large road across to Alexanderplatz which was a pretty nondescript public space in the growing gloom but I was then able to pick up the banks of the River Spree and circle around the hugely impressive Museum Island. What actually caught the eye here too was the amount of building going on, this looks like a city going though a construction boom.
I then used the river bank to retrace my steps back to a building I wanted to see, the Reichstag. The historic parliament building became the seat of German government again when its modern dome designed by British architect Norman Foster was finally built into the older frame.
Around it I discovered a huge modern civil service quarter built on the river bank and a series of waterways and parkland which looked really nice environment. If I had been organised I would like to have booked a visit to see the inside of the Reichstag because everything I have heard about it looks amazing. But for now the space in front of the Reichstag was vast, open and increasingly cold so I didn’t linger, I needed to keep moving.
From the Reichstag it was a quick trip through the Tiergarten park back to the Brandenburg Gate and the return of the bike to its hire station as the gloom came in.
Fascinating place – so many questions about the attitude to history, to culture, to monuments and a potentially days to spend. That is without touching the arts, culture, nightlife and even some of the suburbs – so many other things form which the city is known.
And what about the cycling?
Well I found as many oddities about cycling in Berlin as I did about the city itself.
I had been told that about 13% of trips in Berlin are made by bike. That’s in line with the German average which means well above the rest of Europe and especially the places I usually ride. But I have convinced myself I am getting the hang of this mode share business, I am beginning to be able to see what the differing levels look like.
But in Berlin I couldn’t. Whether on my ride or looking at the rush hours I couldn’t see the significant flows I was expecting. Cyclists visible on most streets, yes, but not huge numbers. There were lots of bikes parked round the city but in fact much of the cycle parking was empty. So maybe the weather meant that cycling was quite seasonal I asked? Apparently not, but perhaps I was in the wrong place because the levels of cycling are highly dependent on the routes in from certain suburbs.
Just like everywhere else in Europe it is the middle classes and intellectuals who cycle the most and in Berlin it is the areas where the alternative cultural movement established itself in the sixties that cycling levels are highest. If this is the case then it might explain why cyclists in the city centre really did feel quite isolated.
However in the city centre what I could see was that other indicator of cycling health. Women on bikes are universally recognised as a sign that the population thinks cycling is safe. However maybe they think they are not quite safe enough because I did notice that nearly all the women wore the dreaded cycle helmets – but none of the men!
The other thing that will be a bit confusing for many cycling advocates was the lack of segregated cycle routes. The vast majority of cycling I did was on the carriageway – I could have been in Brussels or London. That certainly contradicts the message that you need a big segregated network to get cycling levels above 10%. However I rarely felt worried, the drivers were largely respectful of the cyclist and the cycle lane – now that is a big difference. Possibly my view was distorted by the time of day, I was just before the afternoon rush hour, but even the following morning I felt general traffic volumes in the city were really low compared to most large cities in Europe. Maybe Berlin drivers are less stressed than their equivalents stuck in traffic across the world? I still instinctively believe that cycle lanes are just one way of changing the relationship between rider and driver and Berlin seemed to support the notion that respectful driving is a valuable way to create a cycling environment too.
So Berlin by bike?
Flat, compact, interesting, well behaved drivers, loads of bikes on hire. Something I definitely want to do again. But better prepared and able to use the Call Bike system properly, jumping on and off to visit the main attractions properly!