I took the bus north, from the shabby concrete concourse of the Berlin ZOB. Waiting for the bus reminded me of travels that seem a long time ago now, catching the bus from Zagreb to Sarajevo or along the Croatian coastline, the entire series of Rocky films dubbed into the local language playing above my head as some of the most spectacular landscapes in the world passed by in darkness. As I stood in the cold with my fellow passengers I thought of Cape Town to Durban and the loss of feeling in my legs after thirty-odd hours, and the longest journey of all, from Berlin to Ormskirk via Hannover, Amsterdam and London. I have never been particularly fond of long distance bus travel.
We started the walk at Grünau S-Bahn station where the huge tiled mural on the wall reminds you that this is the very edge of Berlin and a land of villas, lakes and forests. On a Sunday morning Berlin is a quiet city, and Grünau especially so… the only signs of life came from the bakery open for bread rolls and weekend tabloids, and a malfunctioning pay-toilet whose doors were opening back and forth.
We walked down to the ferry, and waited for the short journey across the lake to Wendenschloß and its villa colony and out-of-season bathing beach. This stood at the end of the road, where the tarmac turned into a dirt track which led us along the lake past abandoned boat jetties and the foundations of lost buildings before we headed in and up, into the Müggelberg hills that (at around a hundred metres) are the highest natural elevation in Berlin.
In Las Vegas, European cities are recreated as mega casinos. In Dubai, the canals of Venice are reimagined as a shopping mall with a view of the Persian Gulf. And in Potsdam, in northern Germany, there are a couple of streets that would make you think you were a few hundred kilometres to the west, in the neighbouring country of the Netherlands.
As with the more modern examples in the deserts of Nevada and the Arabian peninsula, the Dutch Quarter of Potsdam was built on the whim of someone with enough wealth to shape his city any way he chose. That man was Friedrich Wilhelm I, soldier king in Prussia who, as well as resettling the lands to the east following devastating plagues and establishing primary schools in his domain, also wanted to shape Potsdam. Unfortunately there was a distinct lack of qualified craftsmen in Brandenburg, and so he looked to his neighbours for help.
Today is the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp in German-occupied Poland. As events are held across the world to commemorate the anniversary, I dug out an article I wrote based on a visit to Krakow in the early months of 2006. Katrin was pregnant, and we had travelled to the Polish city to scout locations for an international hostel conference she was organising. A few months later, when the conference took place, we had to travel overland as Katrin was no longer allowed to fly, but on the first visit we landed at the airport and were driven into town through socialist-era suburbs that reminded us of Berlin to the beauty of the old city centre:
On a clear winter’s day, with a light mist hanging overhead, weak sunshine bathes the Old Town of Krakow in a gentle, almost dream-like light. It softens the cobbled streets, the towers and spires, the market square – a more beautiful city in Europe is hard to imagine. In the bone-chilling cold people move at a brisk pace. Young women students scurry between university buildings wrapped in heavy scarves and jackets, hats pulled low, their round, pretty faces open to the elements. Only tourists loiter – that’s what tourists do – framing the city through digital lenses. But in January they are few in number. As the city ebbs and flows, people go about their daily business. For them beautiful Krakow is commonplace; while visitors gaze in wonder, local eyes rarely rise above street level.
Sunday morning in the north of Berlin, starting out along the Panke and through the Soldiner Kiez, the last of the remnants of the New Year’s Eve fireworks – wooden sticks and tubular casings – mingle with the gravel of the footpath. Prinzenallee is quiet, the shops shut and the cafes not yet open. A woman in a headscarf is sweeping the floor of a shisha bar. There is a small queue outside the bakery. A fellow runner nods as he passes. Secret club. Under the bridge and I step over the line of cobblestones. West to East. Welcome to Pankow.
The writer Hans Fallada, perhaps best known in the English speaking world for his 1947 classic Alone in Berlin, was born as Rudolf Ditzen in Greifswald in 1893. He died, fifty three years later in the year Alone in Berlin was published, at the age of 53. The headlines of his biography suggest an extremely eventful, often tragic, half century of a life:
Sustains injuries, kicked by a horse
Kills friend in a duel as part of a suicide pact
On the first weekend of the year we decided to escape not so much the madness – for that was all reserved for New Year’s Eve and the early hours of the following morning – but the debris and the feeling of the morning after the night before. Outside our apartment on Osloer Straße the street was strewn with firework casings, empty and smashed bottles, piles of grit from the snow flurry earlier in the week, and first of the abandoned Christmas trees, branches drooping and the needles scattered across the pavement.
We caught the S-Bahn from Bornholmer Straße, that famous bridge where the Berlin Wall was first opened and – with its dramatic views south towards the city centre – the venue for one of the larger impromptu firework displays on the 31st December. The half-empty train took us north, through Pankow and towards the suburbs, always close to the Panke river that flows, mostly hidden, by the raised railway tracks. At Karow – still Berlin and yet, with its detached houses and neat village centre, feeling like a place apart – we sought out the river and the route to the Karow ponds.