As autumn approached, me and a friend set out on a bike ride to enjoy one of the last days of summer. With no real destination in mind, we headed southeast through Neukölln and ended up cycling along part of the Mauerweg: a 160km long route that traces the former path of the Berlin Wall. It was a route neither of us had taken before, yet one that turned out to be the most enjoyable I’ve encountered in the city.
We set off at Lohmühlenbrücke where two canals (the Landwehrkanal and Neuköllner Shifffahrtskanal) meet, an area popular with cyclists, joggers, and those just chilling out in the sun by the water’s edge. In the spring it bursts into colour as the cherry blossom trees bloom — another link to the Berlin Wall. In 1990 a Japanese TV channel raised money from its viewers to plant Sakura in the former deathstrips as a symbol of peace and to celebrate the reunification of East and West.
From here, the Mauerweg enters the district of Alt-Treptow. Following the two lines of cobbles that dissect the streets, marking the route, it’s hard to imagine that the houses on either side were once split between East and West, separating friends and families for decades.
Heading east along Kiefholzstraße things begin to open up, as the typical housing of Treptow gives way to the idyllic Kleingärten that exist here. Similar to allotments, they were first devised in the 1800s as a means for the poor, urban population to be able to grow their own food and experience a bit of nature. In the distance tower blocks, or Plattenbauten, rise up into the sky in typical Tetris-style, forming a stark contrast against the quaint little summer houses and gardens that blanket the area.
As soon as you start to enjoy the charming scenery you’re reminded once again of the path you’re traversing. Upon turning off the street a monument marks the place where two children of 10 and 13 years were shot dead by GDR border guards in 1966. Fifteen people were killed along the Berlin Wall in Treptow alone.
After this point, the traffic fades away and the smooth path winds its way through the luscious greenery of Südlicher Heidekampgraben, flanked by housing that once would have looked over the wall and into the opposing half of the city.
After cruising through this quiet area you arrive at the most beautiful part of the trail, where it meets the Britzer Canal. Although the Mauerweg veers off at this point and follows a road, it’s worth dismounting and carrying on south by foot, walking around another Kleingarten and then alongside the canal itself.
It provides one of those incredible moments where the noise and traffic of the city fade away and you find it hard to believe you’re still in the city at all; although shortly afterwards the illusion is somewhat shattered. The disparity between East and West that once existed here may be gone, but a new juxtaposition takes its place as the gorgeous canal and surrounding nature contrasts against the towering coffee factory and other industrial premises that rise from the northern bank.
From this point, the Mauerweg hugs the southern bank of the canal, and another monument soon appears along the water’s edge. This one is dedicated to Chris Gueffroy — the last person to be killed trying to flee to the West, in February 1989. After this solemn reminder, the path follows the canal for several kilometres with no hint of the city in sight: just the smooth asphalt, trees, and sky.
Eventually, the Mauerweg ends up alongside the autobahn. With the looming fence to one side failing to dampen the harsh sound of traffic, you’re sobered up to the reality that you are, in fact, still in Berlin. The calming greenery and sights and sounds of nature being, unfortunately, just a temporary reprieve.
It’s also at this point that scores of fast-paced, lycra-clad cyclists seemingly appear from nowhere, whizzing past and adding to the feeling of urban stress that comes rushing back along this stretch of the route. From here the Mauerweg doesn’t deviate in either direction or looks for quite a while, and so we headed back along a path that provides such natural beauty, yet also a sobering reminder of the division and anguish that once haunted the city of Berlin.
Words and photos by James Fancourt.