From Teufelseestraße the path leads through the winter woods for only a few metres before it begins to rise. Although we have come across to the other side of Berlin to climb a hill, in this the flattest of cities the steepness of the slope still comes as something as a shock to the system, not to mention the thighs. As we walk it is clear what this hill, the 99 metre Drachenberg, is made of. Beneath the young trees that guard its slopes, poking through the crumbly top-soil, is the rock of the mountain. Here it is granite. There it is marble. A slab of concrete. Red brick.
The Drachenberg and its neighbouring Teufelsberg (120m) were created out of the rubble of the Second World War. The latter hill is made up of an estimated 400,000 bombed houses, and buried underneath it all is the remnants of Albert Speer’s Nazi military training school. Pre-war Berlin is what these mountains are made of and as we walk towards the “tree line” and the open plateau at the top of the Drachenberg, it feels as if the history of those countless buildings is clamouring for attention at our feet and at the base of those bare trees.
Drachenberg means “Kite Hill”, and the open plateau at its summit is popular on windy but warmer days for kite fliers of all shapes and sizes (as long as they can reach the top). Today we have it to ourselves, although a few lost kites hang, trapped in tree-tops until the elements finally claim them. Beneath us as we look down to the valley between the two hills there is movement. A kestrel, lunch hanging caught and bloody in its talons, flies beneath us before disappearing around a corner. The top of the hill is a mess, strewn with the debris of New Year’s Eve. Sekt bottles and firework wrappers. Countless pieces of shredded red paper and the wooden sticks from rockets, fallen back to earth. But it is also peaceful, with a fine if foggy few across the city. Visibility is such that although most of the landmarks of West Berlin – the radio tower, the power station, the Olympic Stadium – are well within view, there is no sign of East Berlin’s TV Tower. It is out there, somewhere.
What we can see are the remains of the abandoned US Listening Station atop the neighbouring Teufelsberg (Devil’s Mountain), with its ghostly white domes and crumbling buildings. It was built at the height of the Cold War to listen in to what was going on across what was first the sector boundary to East Berlin and the Soviet zone of occupation, later to be fortified as the Berlin Wall. Beyond the high fences that protected the complex the West Berliners developed the rest of the hill for their own amusement, including a ski jump, toboggan runs, lifts and slopes. In 1986 the parallel slalom World Cup was held here, but unlike the spy station, nothing visible remains.
From the Drachenberg we drop down into the valley between the hills, where we come across the solid slabs of a climbing wall and numerous mountain bike trails, before climbing once more to reach the perimeter fence of the Listening Station. Through the wire and the overgrown plantlife we can see the buildings, the domes and what look like freshly painted artwork. It is apparently possible to pay to get in to take photographs or have a tour, but there does not seem much sign of life, so we follow the path all the way around until we find our route back down towards the Teufelseestraße and our way home.
Back home and I read up a little more on the Teufelsberg. Apparently David Lynch was interested in the site, with proposals to build a “Happiness College” with a 50-metre high “Tower of Invicibility.” Nothing came of the plans, and for a long time the site became the preserve of various (semi-) urban explorers, psychogeographers, and happy wanderers looking for a place for a beer and a view. Now the site is secured with what looks like a triple fence, and there is much debate as to what should be done with the site. But it remains one of those quirks of Berlin and a place that only exists, from the hill to the frayed flapping canvas on the side of the Listening Station tower, because of the history of this city over the past hundred years. And for the walkers that call Berlin home – even if they cannot quite substitute for the mountains of Snowdonia, the Yorkshire Moors, let alone the Harz Mountains – the Twin Peaks of West Berlin are better than nothing.
The best overview of the history of the Teufelsberg, with detailed information as to what has been going on in recent years and advice for anyone who wants to visit, can be found on the fantastic Abandoned Berlin website.
Words: Paul Scraton
Pictures: Katrin Schönig