Where the wall was the water, Berlin
Yesterday I headed south to walk a stretch of the Berlin Wall Trail, between Griebnitzsee station and Wannsee. Heading south first by U-Bahn and then by S-Bahn we rocked along through the city in full train carriages, as people made their way to school, university or work. I was amazed at how many people disembarked at Griebnitzsee, but at the bottom of the steps down from the platform they turned right towards the University of Potsdam buildings, and within a matter of seconds I was standing virtually alone down by the water’s edge.
This footpath was once patrolled by East German border guards, and where a hotel now stands a watchtower gazed out across the water towards the thick trees of West Berlin on the opposite bank. Like along so many stretches of the Berlin Wall Trail, a cluster of cherry trees – a gift from the people of Japan to the people of Berlin – cast some shade across the footpath.
“You should see them in blossom,” a gardener said, who had followed me down the steps. “Beautiful. It makes a mess, but it is beautiful.”
In the ground floor conference rooms a man in a suit pushed his floppy hair out of his eyes and gesticulated at a flip chart. The assembled men and women nodded in response. As with the journey south it reminded me that it was a normal working day. At moments like this it almost feels as if you have stolen something, to be enjoying a walk on a mid-week morning.
I walked along tree-lined streets, past villas that once housed the delegations of the Potsdam conference and now are home to television stars and software millionaires. The path along the river bank is currently blocked by the gardens of these villas, an ongoing dispute between landowners and the Potsdam city council. Many other residents have signs in their windows, claiming the embankment for everyone but for now fences and hedges block the way.
It was a fascinating walk with many reminders of history, from the palaces of Babelsberg and Glienicke, to the former East German exclave of Klein Glienicke that was once enclosed on three sides by the Berlin Wall and on the other by water, and accessible only by a single track bridge. I crossed that bridge and made my way to another, the famous Glienicke Bridge where spies were once traded on frosty, foggy mornings and now tour buses cross from Potsdam just on the other side of the water.
From here the walk changed in character, as the path followed the banks of the Havel north towards Wannsee. There were long stretches with nothing to see but the same, only ever-so-slightly changing view across the water and the trees of the forest. I stopped thinking about my surroundings and began to go over different ideas and projects, enjoying the time and the peace to get certain things straight. In the shade of the trees it was quite chilly, the wind whipping off the water and rattling the reeds. The first signs of autumn, in both the slightly chilled air temperatures out of the sun and scatterings of brown and yellow leaves on the path in front of me. I don’t mind. Autumn always feels like a new beginning, a mental legacy of football seasons and academic years. September is the true New Year, even if only in my head…
I paused for a break by the ferry to the Pfaueninsel (Peacock Island), and watched the ferry make two short crossings before strolling on, around the final headland towards Wannsee. I was walking along the Großer Wannsee now, an inlet of the Havel, with the famous bathing beach on the opposite shore. Soon the forest gave way to the first buildings, a collection of huts by a marina, before the next colony of villas came into view. The very first is one that has long become infamous, as the site of the Wannsee Conference in 1942, where high ranking Nazi officials were informed of the plans for the “Final solution to the Jewish question.” It was another reminder of how walking in Berlin can sometimes cause you to pull up short, faced with a site or monument that breaks you out of all reveries or internal dialogues and causes you to deal with some of the most brutal and tragic moments in history.
Twenty minutes later I was sitting on a bench with the old folks who were waiting for the ferry from Wannsee to Kladow. Four hours after setting off from Griebnitzsee I had reached my destination. The S-Bahn would whisk me back towards the city centre, but I wanted to enjoy the sense of stolen escape for just a little longer, until the ferry arrived and I was left alone, the wind too cold and the promenade too lonely, and it was time to head for home.
Words & Pictures: Paul Scraton