Alongside the railway tracks at Warschauer Straße, in the Friedrichshain neighbourhood of Berlin, is a former railway repair yard that has been turned into a post-industrial cultural oasis, with bars and clubs, a skatepark and a climbing centre, amongst many other small and medium sized projects. This is the “RAW-Gelände”, from the wonderfully German word “Reichsbahnausbesserungswerkstatt” – the repair yard of the national railways.
This was the oldest company Friedrichshain, founded in 1867 for the Prussian railways and in particular, the “Ostbahn” which ran from Berlin to Königsberg and East Prussia (present day Kaliningrad). By the end of the nineteenth century the repair yard was employing over 1000 workers, and it continued operations through the GDR years when it was named for the Bavarian communist Franz Stenzer, who was murdered by the Nazis. In 1991, following reunification, the yard was closed, and since the end of the twentieth century it has begun its new life as a cultural hub, although walking through the complex you still get a sense of what it used to be – which is part of the attraction.
No, this post is not about the Botanic Gardens of Berlin, so wonderfully captured recently on the überlin blog. The reason for this post is somewhat more personal, as I caught the S-Bahn this morning from Bornholmer Straße south to Steglitz and the Botanischer Garten stop. This was my first neighbourhood in Berlin, back in the winter of 2001/2. Having moved to the city without a place to stay, one of my colleagues who was also studying at the Free University offered me a room in his apartment. The flat was on the ground floor, which made it a little dark – and happily cool when it came to the summer – but this was made up for by the fact that we had an overgrown garden out the back door that only Thomas and I had access to.
Altogether I lived down by Botanischer Garten for about nine months, before Thomas returned to Australia and I moved north, to Prenzlauer Berg, Mitte and, eventually, where we are now in Wedding. But I have very strong memories of that time, perhaps because it was my first months in the city. We would travel into the city on the S-Bahn, although if we were caught in town after the last train we would catch a night bus that took us on moonlight ride through deserted streets for over an hour, from Hackerscher Markt through Checkpoint Charlie to Kreuzberg and Schöneberg, before finally stopping in the shadow of the Rathaus tower in Steglitz. Sometimes, when Thomas had worked late and I was on an early shift, we would meet on the platform of the Botanischer Garten station, both of us bleary-eyed at opposite ends of our respective days.
Since I moved to Germany I have made a handful of trips south to Dresden, that grand old city on the Elbe with its beautiful Altstadt and bustling and buzzing Neustadt on opposite banks of the river. The first time we went there we caught the train sometime in January, walking through the snow past some suitably eastern bloc socialist modernist architecture before we reached those buildings that made the city famous and that can, with a squint and a bit of imagination, return us to the city as painted by Bellotto during the 18th Century, a period when Dresden was renowned for its art and architecture, and which inspired Schiller to write his Ode to Joy, his poem celebrating brotherhood and unity of all mankind.
The wide sweep of the river separates the old and the new towns – and the flood meadows that seem to stretch almost as wide as the Elbe itself highlight the sense of distance between either side. On another visit I came south with a friend to play Petanque, tossing those boules along pathways in the manicured gardens of the Japanese Palace on the northern bank, our view back across to the old town distracting in its beauty. It was around about then that they finished the reconstruction of the Frauenkirche, and it is at this point we come to the unavoidable fact about Dresden and one which cannot help but shape your view of the city however many times you visit.
The tours that we have started running over at Slow Travel Berlin seem to be taking off in a big way, and if you go to this page you will see many different fascinating tours coming up in the next few weeks. I have another cultural-historical neighbourhood tour of Wedding next Sunday (19th May) which I am really looking forward to, and a week later on Sunday 26th May I will be heading south with a small group to walk a 12 kilometre stretch of the Berlin Wall Trail, between Griebnitzsee and Wannsee.
Last summer I did a test walk of this route, which I wrote about here, and it is one of those walks that proves that the very edge of the city can be as interesting as the centre. The walk begins with the villas that housed Churchill, Truman and Stalin during the 1945 Potsdam Conference, takes us past enclaves completely surrounded by the Berlin Wall, old royal palaces and a bridge where spies were exchanged during the Cold War, before a beautiful walk along the banks of the Havel towards Wannsee – West Berlin’s “beach resort” where, in a shady villa at the end of a leafy street, leading members of the Nazi government met to discuss plans for the “final solution” and the murder of six million Jews in Europe.
The walk will take around four to five hours, and there are still a few spaces left. The best place to book is on the tour page at Slow Travel Berlin. And please take the time to look at some of the other tours that are happening over the next couple of weekends… a great way to explore some different corners of the city, and to hear some stories you might otherwise have missed.
A few miles north of Amherst we found Montague, driving slowly through the sleepy town to try and find the Book Mill, a bookshop that we had heard about that claimed to offer the winning combination of “books you don’t need, in a place you can’t find.” In the end it was not too difficult, as we followed the map until we reached the point where it crossed the Sawmill River and there it was, painted red and clinging to the embankment above the rapids that rushed beneath the road.
Stepping inside we found a treasure trove of used books, in a number of different rooms that all seemed to be on different levels, with low ceilings and reading corners tucked away on window ledges or under the eaves. There were tables, where people spread out their papers and got on with some work surrounded by millions and millions of words, and when they were stuck, or in need of sustenance, they headed down to the pub on the downstairs level, for a sandwich and a beer and a view over the river. The selection is large and varied, and it would take days to really work your way through the shelves. It is hard to imagine a more perfect bookshop.
The first section of our walk took us along the busy road from Waidmannslust S-Bahn station and into Hermsdorf, past garden centres and discounter supermarkets, a couple of rough and ready corner pubs and an organic grocers, before we ducked through the railings where the Tegeler Fließ passes beneath the main road and within a handful of footsteps we had left the traffic behind and were left only with the sound of birds singing in the trees. We had been here before, a few months ago in fact, when it looked as if spring was upon us as we explored the old village of Hermsdorf before picking up the trail down by the river, but this time we really had moved beyond winter, and our walk would take us further as well.
We made our way alongside the Hermsdorfer See before the path became a wooden walkway along the bottom of pleasant gardens, raised on stilts above the soggy bog of the wetlands that spread out from the river bank in either direction. Here the Tegeler Fließ is two things… it is incredibly bendy, twisting this way and that, and it also happens to be the border between Berlin and Brandenburg. From the division of Germany after the Second World War until the events of 1989 and the reunification of 1990 this was an international border, although the planners building the Berlin Wall obviously did not fancy doing battle with the swamp and so set their fortifications further to the north, which left one bank of the river and its wetlands technically part of the German Democratic Republic, but sitting on the West Berlin side of the concrete and barbed wire barrier.
In December 1886 Captain Daniel O’Neil climbed aboard his ship, the “Annie Maguire” for a voyage north from Buenos Aires to Quebec. With him for the voyage were thirteen crew, two mates, his wife and his twelve year old son. Caught in bad weather just off the coast of Maine on Christmas Eve, O’Neil was aiming for Portland Harbour in order to take shelter and ride out the storm. On land, in the Portland Head Lighthouse atop the rocky cliffs of Cape Elizabeth, lighthouse keeper Joshua Strout was keeping watch as the clock approached midnight. It may have been Christmas Eve, but it would not be a quiet shift.