Ghosts of the 20th Century

Hitler, Stalin, Kaiser Bill: see them all on a walk along the Berlin Wall Trail

Some of the world’s greatest cities are defined by a single building: Paris, for example, by the sleek elegance of the Eiffel Tower, Sydney by the brashness and sheer daring of its Opera House.

And then there is Berlin, a city whose most famous structure no longer exists but continues to nevertheless haunt the city, occasionally to materialize in brutal fragments …

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… or as an artfully conceived monument, seemingly at will and without warning.

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Mainly, however, the Berlin Wall has been erased from the face of the city, and all that remains is a double line of cobblestones that zigzags – apparently at random – through city squares, public gardens and streets.

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A structure that, by and large, has physically disappeared and must be conjured up from memory, would be a strange landmark for nearly every other city in the world.

But for Berlin, this feels uncannily appropriate: the Wall, after all, is just one more ghost among many in this most haunted of all cities.

The Wall may have largely disappeared in the wake of German re-unification, but you can still see the scar it has left behind. Since the end of the Cold War, the route of the Wall – which once entirely surrounded West Berlin over a total distance of 160 km – has been turned into a hiking trail. This trail runs mainly through the countryside around Berlin, but for 15 km or so, it passes through the heart of Germany’s capital.

This inner-city section of the trail is the one with all the historical interest, and therefore the one on which we will be concentrating in our next two posts.

A Walk along the Berlin Wall Trail

We start the walk at the city rail (“S-Bahn”) station at Eberswalder Straße. Turn right out of the main exit and cross the road into Eberswalder Straße, continuing past the stadium on your right hand side before turning into the Bernauer Mauerpark where you can catch a first glimpse of the Wall and familiarize yourself with its architecture.

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The section of the Wall that has been preserved here is a reminder that the world-famous “Berlin Wall” was much more than the single line of brickwork which was put up in a single night (on 13 August 1961) by communist East Germany.

This was never more than a preliminary structure, more a statement of intent (to stem the flood of migration from East to West, whatever it took), which was later extended on the eastern side into a complex arrangement of inner and outer walls with electric fences, spotlights and trip-wires that triggered automatic gun fire.

This eastern “death strip” was in places up to 150 m wide, while in the West, houses and – as here – public gardens were allowed to stretch all the way to the Wall. And it was only on the Western side, of course, where anybody would have been able to come close enough to the Wall to decorate it with graffiti.

Return to the entrance of the Mauerpark and turn right into Bernauer Straße, always looking out – on the left hand side of the street – for the double row of cobblestones that marks the course of the Wall.

East Berlin would have been on your left hand side, West Berlin on your right, and you can still see how close the Wall would have run in front of the houses, closer than almost anywhere else in Berlin. It was actually here on Bernauer Straße where some of the great dramas of the early days in the Berlin Wall’s history took place, with people jumping out of East German houses into the street below which was already located in the West.

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Soon, however, all the houses near the border in East Germany were forcefully evacuated and torn down – also to make it impossible for people to dig tunnels for their escape to the West (this, too, had happened, but only in the early years of the Wall).

In a delicious historical irony, this was also one of the first sections of the Wall to come down during Germany’s “Glorious Revolution” on the night of 10 November 1989.

The stretch between the Bernauer Straße subway station and the Nordbahnhof main line station, just under a mile long, has been dedicated to the Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer, a huge Wall Memorial with exhibits, memorials, authentic pieces of East German military hardware and an old border guard watchtower.

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It is also here where you can find the rebuilt Reconciliation Chapel: its predecessor had stood right at the Wall on the eastern side and found itself isolated, entirely surrounded by no man’s land, when the area was gradually evacuated in the mid 1960s.

The building remained there as a disturbingly painful memento until the East German government finally grew tired of the church’s reproachful symbolism and blew it up in 1985. The cast-iron cross on top of the tower was blown off by the explosion and, bent from its force, salvaged by East German Christians who then kept it hidden for years – until it could once more find its place on the site.

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The Nordbahnhof across the street, now merely a station for Berlin’s city rail system, was once one of the city’s mainline terminals. Only “ghost rails” now point in the direction of the towns that could once be reached from here: Szczecin, Koenigsberg, Gdansk (or “Danzig” in German) …

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… now all located in Russia or in Poland – appropriate for a terminal that was a “Ghost Station” for more than 20 years.

In East Germany, the Nordbahnhof was off-limits to ordinary citizens, and the only people allowed in were heavily armed border guards who made sure that nobody tried to jump on the western subway trains which passed through here – without stopping – on their way from one West Berlin station to the other. (A permanent exhibit in the Nordbahnhof is dedicated to the strange phenomenon of Berlins’s Ghost Stations.)

Follow the Wall down Gartenstraße and (after a left turn) Liesenstraße across Chauseestraße to the Spandauer Schiffahrtskanal. This Berlin waterway, which feels almost bucolic (in a post-industrial sort of way) …

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… provided the backdrop for some of the most dramatic escape bids in the history of the Wall. It was here where Günter Litfin became the first east German citizen who was shot trying to escape to the West, a few days after the Wall was built. He was killed trying to swim across the Canal. The old border guard watchtower has since been converted into a memorial for this event.

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A little further, where the Wall cuts right through a cemetery …

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… another incident in May 1962 led to the first – and only – shootout between East German border guards and West German police officers.

The guards had opened fire on a 15-year old boy who was trying to swim through the Canal, when the German policemen fired back – either to protect the boy who had obviously been hit several times or in self-defence after they themselves had come under attack, having tried to pull the boy ashore: this was never fully cleared up. What is certain, however, is that one of the East German border guards was hit and died (while the young fugitive survived). The West German press called the border guards “child killers”, while East German papers talked about a “fascist attack”.

Ultimately, there was no appetite on either side for a major armed conflagration over this sort of thing. Berlin’s rivers and canals were always hotspots for trouble, because there was a lot of uncertainty on both sides where exactly the course of the border was, in the middle of the waterway or on the bank. This was the last time that West German forces lifted a gun in defence of an East German fugitive.

After you have crossed Invalidenstraße, Berlin Central Station comes into sight.

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We will continue our walk on the Wall Trail from here next time and, for now, suggest a visit of the near-by Government quarter, with the historical Parliament building  – built for the Kaiser in 1894 and now topped by Norman Foster’s glass dome – as its centrepiece.

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Don’t miss Part 2 of our walk when we follow the Wall from the Brandenburger Tor past Potsdamer Platz (the heart of Nazi Germany’s government) all the way to Checkpoint Charlie. 

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Different Layers of British History

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… including some that you can eat and drink: A walk through the Cathedral town of St Albans, 20 miles north of London Towns and villages near London are engaged in a constant battle for their soul: most have succumbed a long time ago and been gobbled up by the near-by metropolis, suburbanized and converted into dormitory towns with – at best – a few old churches or timber-framed Tudor mansions, now invariably reinvented as pubs or local museums: ghost-like appearances, empty shells of the lives that these towns once led.

This death zone around London extends for about 10 to 20 miles, and one of the nearest towns that have preserved something approaching a “character of their own” is St Albans in Hertfordshire, north of London on the railway line to Luton.

Since St Albans is a small but pretty Cathedral town which also has

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Modernist Architecture in London – Part 2

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A themed walk through the “Florence of the 21st Century” The City of London is where most of the capital’s truly iconic works of modernist architecture are concentrated, but West London, too, has many fine new buildings.

The big difference is this: while London’s business district provides a homogeneous context of brashness – big and high “cathedrals of capitalism” vying with each other and encouraging the construction of ever bigger and higher buildings –, the significantly more varied architectural landscape of the West End enforces second thoughts and compromises.

It is also fair to point out that the City of London is, economically speaking, a monoculture: its business is business and nearly all of last week’s buildings were commissioned by the financial services industry, while today’s group is much more mixed batch, with buildings that were constructed for the government or retailers, as museums and as

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Modernist Architecture in London – Part 1

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A walk through Skyscraper National Park: the world’s most exciting collection of modern architectural masterpieces There are many good reasons to visit London: for its world-class theatres, its magnificent pubs, or to pay a visit to the Queen. Here is another one: the town’s unique collection of modern architecture.

This has not always been so. Until fairly recently, say the mid 1980s, there were not a great deal of interesting new buildings around. Paris was where all the cutting-edge stuff was being built (the new Opera, the Centre Pompidou, the Louvre pyramids).

Since then, however, the tables have very much been turned, and London has, virtually by stealth, become the world’s capital of modern architecture – even though, in many people’s minds, it still is a Victorian city with some old and some new bits thrown in.

In fact, this

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Summer Reading for Easy Hikers

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Summer is not only a great time for travelling, but also for reading all those articles you missed – or did not have the time for – earlier in the year. Here is a small selection.

Are you sitting comfortably, in your sun lounge on some foreign beach, or in your favourite chair, in your garden or on your balcony? Good, because here is something travel-related that you can do without any need to get up. All you have to do is lift that proverbial finger, click on the link – and read. Has there ever been a lazier way of entertaining yourself on a hot summer day? (Hey, we are not called Easy Hikers for nothing, you know!)

Generally speaking, there are two types of enjoyable travel writing: there is travel writing that gives you the itch, that makes you fall in love with the

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