The newsreaders on the breakfast radio swung between breathless excitement and dark warnings of incinerated retinas. Television crews headed to our daughter’s school where, an email assured us, all the kids would be supplied with the proper eyewear. Our Hausmeister patrolled the central reservation – normally reserved for doggy toilet runs and the rumbling trams – waiting for the moment. I went for a run.
The fisherman sits on a squat stool, rod resting on a stand between his legs, his hat pulled over his head. He looks at peace, eyes cast forward across the calm waters of the canal, his thermos flask of coffee on one side, a cool box filled with supplies on the other. I can see him an hour or so earlier, stepping out from his nearby apartment, walking along the river to his regular patch on the canal bank. He’s been coming here for years, since a time when no-one came to this corner of the city, when the neighbourhood was enclosed by the Wall and he could feel the eyes of the East German border guards on his back…
My new book is an essay based on a walk along the Panke river, upstream from where it tips into the Spandau Ship Canal in the heart of Berlin (and not far from my apartment) to its source in the town of Bernau, just beyond the city limits. Along the way the walk takes in city neighbourhoods and the path of the Berlin Wall, stories of would-be Kings and other wannabe royals, suburbs and edgelands, nature reserves and farmer’s fields, and the line of commuter towns stretched out along the S-Bahn that shadows the river for much of the way.
The book was released this month as part of a series of four mini-books published by Readux. Three times a year Readux publish such a series, of short stories and essays, often in translation. My book is part of the fifth such series, titled Urban Voids: Paris and Berlin, and we launched it last week at an event in Berlin-Kreuzberg with three writers and three translators, including readings and conversation (and a few drinks afterwards).
For my part I was joined on stage by my fellow walker-writer Marcel Krueger, and in order to prepare for the event we met a few days earlier to walk half of the thirty kilometre length of the river from Karow in the north of Berlin to Bernau. Walking it again I was struck once more by how much you can discover about a place through its more forgotten and ignored corners, and even though I have spent a lot of time on the banks of the Panke before before and during this particular project there were still more things to stumble across with each new walk along the path.
The Idea of a River: Walking out of Berlin
Print and EBook editions available
A guest post from Silver How, by Chris Hughes:
You could see the snow coming
across the ridges to the north.
Long lines streaking the sky,
falling onto the orange bracken
and colouring the fell-sides grey.
But when it hit us
it struck with hard-edged suddenness
stinging faces and rattling on our clothing
pushing us quickly onwards
to the top of the hill.
Quickly over to the other side
to find the shelter of the rocks
and watch the snowstorm pass over.
And calm return.
The sun once more beamed out
of the clear blue sky.
But the hills had changed
now clothed in a thin mantle
of fine white lace,
over the shoulders of deep green
and rust-red growing up from the
gun-metal grey waters of the lakes.
The bare trees glow stark and silver
in the strong searchlight beam
of the fierce winter sun.
As we carried on down the streaming hillside,
soaked by the overnight rain
and the melting snow
we could see the spring struggle
to overcome the winter.
Buds and catkins,
and singing birds
led the way and we were pleased with our
short adventure over the
well-named hill of
Words & Pictures: Chris Hughes
The rain started to fall as I waited for the car ferry to take me from Travemünde across the mouth of the river that gives the town its name to the village of Priwall, on the opposite bank. Priwall sits at the end of a peninsula that belongs to the city of Lübeck. The hinterland to which the peninsula is attached belongs to the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. None of this really matters, except for the need to use the ferry if you want to stay within the limits of the Lübeck transport system. But from the end of the Second World War until early 1990 it did. Priwall was cut off by the inner-German border, surrounded by water and wire, and gazed down upon by watchtowers. The ferry I am waiting for was the only connection to West Germany, of which Priwall was a part. For the best part of half a century, the peninsula was – to all intents and purposes – an island. Read more…
The road to Heiligendamm takes us through a snow-covered landscape rendered white and shades of grey because of overcast skies. A few kilometres inland from the Baltic shore and the villages betray the poverty of places with nothing to offer the weekend visitor or the summer holidaymaker. No access to the sea here. No promenade or spa hotels. A place to pass through, barely glimpsed at, as you make your way to the White Town by the Sea.
You could always take the train, the narrow-gauge steam railway called the “Molli” that will deliver you to the station of Heiligendamm as if the twentieth century never happened. Walk across the fields between the towns of Kühlungsborn, Heiligendamm and Bad Doberan, and you will come across Molli’s tracks. In 2007 hundreds of protesters used them to navigate their way as close to Heiligendamm as possible, where Merkel, Bush and the rest of the G8 leadership met at a Grand Hotel transformed into a fortified compound.
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.