We drove up the Vršič pass, that high mountain road built by Russian POWs during the First World War that crosses the Julian Alps and links the Soča and Sava river valleys of Slovenia. The road consists of a series of seemingly endless hairpin bends, back and forth, passing the Russian Chapel built in memory of those POWs killed by an avalanche during the construction of the road. Up we drove, this time beneath blue skies, the walls of the high peaks rising up above the autumnal colours of the trees that lined the road. I had that flutter in the belly, the sense of excitement that comes with arriving in a mountainous landscape. The anticipation of the walk ahead. Imagining the views from the top and how it would feel. The possibilities of what was to come.
“The remoteness of the mountain world – its harshness and its beauties – can provide us with a valuable perspective down on to the most familiar and best charted regions of our lives.”
– Robert Macfarlane, Mountains of the Mind
During the first years of the German Democratic Republic, the leading members of the Socialist Unity Party took homes in Pankow, in a crescent of villas close to the Panke river and the palace at Niederschönhausen. After 1953, when Soviet tanks rolled onto the streets of East Berlin to quell an uprising of the workers, and the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, which ended in much the same way, those head honchos, including Walter Ulbricht, Erich Mielke and Erich Honecker, decided things were not secure enough even in the leafy Berlin suburbs. Five years after Brecht had written his Buckow Elegies as a response to the events of 1953, the leadership – unable to dissolve the people / And elect another – moved north, to a fortified compound in the woods, just outside the town of Wandlitz.
They remained there until the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and the eleven-month transition that followed, resulting in German reunification on the 3rd October 1990. Not long after the Wall came down, at the end of November 1989, the first journalists were admitted into what had become known as Volvograd, after the Swedish cars the Politbüro members drove along their special motorway between Wandlitz and East Berlin. Although the myth and rumour of the GDR had created an impression of the leaders of the GDR living in unimaginable luxury in the Waldsiedlung (‘Forest Settlement’), the reality of life in the compound was, like so much in the GDR, a little more banal. Continue reading
Down by the lake there was nothing to see. The fog had descended overnight, filling the valley and hanging above the surface of the water. On the path along the shore runners and dog-walkers appeared as ghostly visions. Somewhere, out there, was the island of a million postcards, the castle on the rocky outcrop and the high peaks of the Julian Alps. Somewhere. But not for us, not yet.
We started to walk, following the shoreline path clockwise around the lake. The road was busy with tour buses travelling the short distance from the town to the place where the wooden boats are punted across to the island and its picturesque church. Above we could see the sun forcing its way through the fog. Visibility on ground level was barely fifty metres, and yet above there was already the first hints of blue sky.
I met him by the sea, at a place where the road ended with a turning circle and a neatly mown patch of grass and a sign that said NO BALL GAMES. It was to be the last of our meetings. I had everything I needed, everything I thought I was going to get, and had only come back to say goodbye.
I rang the doorbell of the holiday cottage but there had been no response. Only then, as I looked back across the grass and down towards the water, did I see him, standing on the coastal path with binoculars raised to his eyes. Beyond him the tide was low; an old ship’s boiler – the remains of a wreck – rested on the damp sands between seaweed covered rocks. Oystercatchers, gulls and cormorants. Out on the horizon a container ship. Otherwise just the expanse of water, waiting to be filled with thoughts and memories.
Photo: The Baltic Shore
Yesterday the publishers Influx Press announced the release of my book Ghosts on the Shore: Travels along Germany’s Baltic Coast, which will be published in June 2017. The book is an exploration of the shoreline between the old inner-German border just north of Lübeck and the boundary with Poland on the island of Usedom. The idea behind the book was to tell the stories from the shore, from folklore, art and literature to the history of the 20th century, as well as personal memories of Katrin and her family and their time living on the Baltic coast during the GDR.
So the subject of place and the importance of memory, particularly in this country I have now called home for fifteen years, has been consuming me for the past couple of years as I have been writing the book and it was therefore with great interest that I headed to the Martin-Gropius-Bau on Friday to see the exhibition Germany: Memories of a Nation. The exhibition, which first appeared in London alongside a Radio 4 series and an excellent book by Neil MacGregor, has been subtitled in Berlin as “the British view” because of its origins. On the day we were there our fellow visitors in the gallery were overwhelmingly German. I had already read the book, so most of the objects and the reflections in the accompanying text were not new to me, but nevertheless it was a fascinating exhibition that in its essence asks of us the question: what is a nation anyway?
We stopped at the village crossroads, a walker’s picnic on the bench of sandwiches and misshapen chocolate bars, while a pair of cyclists leaned their bikes against the stone wall and debated on which road they would do battle with speeding drivers next. A car stopped, its driver leaning out of the window to ask directions to a pub somewhere hereabouts. None of us could help, but a local woman in wellies could, sending him back the way he came. Summertime, lunchtime, in Conistone.
We had followed the river from Grassington, from the car park above Linton Falls and then upstream before taking a back road popular with speeding cyclists until we reached the village. After lunch our aim was upwards, following the path around the side of some cottages where family played cricket in the garden, right through the middle of their game. Around the back of the last house the limestone rocks from which this part of the world is built started to close around us. This gorge, formed most probably as a glacial drainage channel, was the aim of the walk.
There is no reason for this walk except for the locations of two appointments; one in Friedrichshain, the other in Hohenschönhausen. I call them both up on Google Maps and ask for the distance between them. A half second later and I have my answer: Six kilometres and an hour and twenty minutes when travelling on foot. Half an hour on a combination of trams. Fifteen minutes in a theoretical car. Outside it is overcast and blustery, but the forecast is that it should remain dry. Walking it is.
I start out from the RAW complex beside the railway tracks, below the bridge at Warschauer Straße. At home I have a reproduction of a 1902 street map of Berlin which tells me that this used to be a railway maintenance yard, part of a network of lines and stations in this corner of the city that linked Berlin with territories far to the east. Now it is a hub of cultural venues; of bars and clubs and galleries; a poster on an outside wall promises a swimming pool. Inside the walls appear to be held up by spray paint and fly posters.