Category Archives: Off Season

Notes from a Bohemian village

At the bottom of the garden, outside the half-timbered house on the old village lane, the stream rushes over pebbles worn smooth by centuries of continuous flow. From here it enters the woods, cutting deep gorges through the sandstone landscape and flowing beneath frozen ponds until it joins a bigger stream, and then a river, and then finally the Elbe and its long journey to the North Sea, on that short stretch where one bank is Germany and the other is the Czech Republic. This stream at the bottom of the garden does not look up to much, but it explains the village.

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Not far from here is an old trade route, for moving salt and grain through the forest between Lausitz, Saxony and Bohemia. Where the old ways crossed the stream, settlements were established. In the village, the business was wood and textiles, and one of the oldest glassworks in Europe, founded in the 14th century. Along the track that followed the path of the stream, houses were built, stretched out in four directions from a central square. Many of the village houses are wooden constructions, dating back to the 1700s. Others are more recent, with the distinctive style of a long lost empire that once stretched from the Balkans to Bohemia. At the start of the twentieth century, over two thousand people called this village home. They worked in the textile industry, and at the glassworks, but next hundred years left their mark. Different flags, different capitals. Ideologies imposed from far beyond the banks of the stream. In the cemetery of the Gothic church, a memorial to the 49 victims of WWI. In the upper village, a memorial to the mass grave of 22 who succumbed to a death march at the end of the next war. Outside the factory, two flags fly. The Czech tricolour and the European stars. The lorries lined up outside a modern-looking warehouse have Danish plates. The population of the village is no longer fixed. It swells and falls, with the season and the days of the week. I wonder what the local phrase for ‘up from Prague’ is, but on a Tuesday morning in February, there’s no-one around to ask.

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After the storm

(Or, the story of a Grey Sky Walk)

It was only a few days after the winds hit the city, toppling chimneys and uprooting trees, tragically taking a couple of lives. Despite the increased frequency of extreme weather – the summer was marked with floods from torrential rains and an overwhelmed drainage system – there is still something unsettling about experiencing a storm like that, one which had blue lights flashing and sirens sounding long into the night.

There was little indication of damage done as we headed north. The U-Bahn was running again and we could see, once the train emerged from its tunnel to the elevated tracks, the planes taking off and coming in to land at the airport. In Tegel, the Saturday shoppers were happily pounding the streets and down at the promenade there was no sign of the storm, except for the piles of fallen leaves that might have been larger than usual. It was only on the path that follows the river across the northern edge of the city we saw proper evidence of the power of the wind.

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Postcards from the Edge, Part Eight: Strandbad Wannsee

Over the next few months I will be walking around the outskirts of Berlin, starting each walk where I finished the last, until I complete a loop of the edge of the city. These walks will be written up for a new book project, and here on Under a Grey Sky I will publish some postcards from along the way…

From across the water the bathing beach is pretty much empty. No swimmers in the water or sunloungers occupied. No table tennis games played out on the terrace or beers served through the kiosk hatch. A solitary worker, climbs down from his tractor. There are a couple of piles of new sand on the beach. But that’s it. In a few months there will be thousands over there on the sands. Some will have packed their bathing suits with joy and anticipation. Others dreaming of Westerland. But from across Berlin they will head south, to Wannsee, and their beach.

The Strandbad Wannsee was born out industrialisation, of the needs of hundreds of thousands of city dwellers who moved to the metropolis by the Spree in the second half of the nineteenth century to turn it, by the 1920s, into one of Europe’s biggest cities. Most Berliners lived in small apartments in one became known, in the Berlin lexicon, as Mietskaserne – rental barracks. In the working class neighbourhoods of the city the apartment houses and the factories rubbed hard up against each other. These cramped conditions had catastrophic public health effects, not least in infant mortality rates. Health wise, things were worst in the summer. When the weather turned warm, the city stank. Air pollution above and an overwhelmed sewage system below. Through open windows across dank and dreary courtyards the noise of the neighbourhood filled the small apartments.

Psychologically too, things were difficult, for these were the first generations who had come to the city; from small towns and villages beyond Berlin and elsewhere in what was now the German Reich. They may have lived in the city, but many clung to the memory of the places they had left behind. An allotment garden provided a link. So did the lakes and forests on the edge of the city. So when the weather turned warm, the Berliners caught the train and headed out of the city. To the water. To Wannsee.

Technically, public bathing in Wilhelmine Berlin and its surroundings was illegal. But still they came, to this well-to-do villa colony by the lake, now linked to the stinking city by rail. In 1907 the local authorities came up with a solution, opening a stretch of shoreline at Wannsee to the general public. The industrialists and other villa owners put up a fight but it was to no avail. The Strandbad Wannsee existed, and would continue to exist through the Third Reich, the divided city and beyond. Today the beach might be empty, but give it a few months. The air is better in Berlin now. Apartments in the Mietskaserne of certain former working class neighbourhoods are some of the most expensive in the city. But Berliners still need that temporary escape. They will still come to the lake, and to the Strandbad Wannsee.

Postcards from the Edge, Part Four: The Müggelberge

walk4blogOver the next few months I will be walking around the outskirts of Berlin, starting each walk where I finished the last, until I complete a loop of the edge of the city. These walks will be written up for a new book project, and here on Under a Grey Sky I will publish some postcards from along the way…

The last time I walked these woods it was with friends and family, stretched out along the path as we crossed the small range of hills in the south-east of Berlin that separate the Müggelsee from the Langer See, the Dahme from the Spree.  Today, having not met a soul on that same path, I feel alone in the woods, although someone, somewhere, is using a chainsaw. I am aiming for the top of the hills, where a tower was built in the 1960s to replace one that burned down in the 1950s, although it will be closed when I get there, its panoramic views of Berlin and Brandenburg protected from me by a high metal fence and a padlock.

But in the German forest, even a small one like this, you are never really alone. As I push on up the hill, avoiding the path that is treacherous with ice, I am walking with the characters that live here in the Müggelberge – on the hilltops, the tiny valleys or in the depths of the Devil’s Lake. Fontane told me these stories; tales of the Wassermann and the ghosts that appear when nocturnal wanderers pass a certain stone by the path. There is also a Princess, whose palace was once swallowed by the marshland on the edge of the lake, who can take you and show you, or demand to be carried to the church in Köpenick, a few kilometres back down the track…

Fontane seems to like these stories, like he likes the Müggelberge themselves. More than any other collection of hills that rise modestly from the sandy soil of the Brandenburg plain, he thinks that these are the most like mountains in miniature, with their summits and their gulleys, their “high” passes and icy lakes. The Müggelberge are an artists’ impression sketched on a pad. An architect’s model, laid out a table. They are an experiment by nature, a first attempt, perhaps, before more ambitious projects down in the south.

Postcards from the Edge, Part Two: Blankenfelde

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Over the next few months I will be walking around the outskirts of Berlin, starting each walk where I finished the last, until I complete a loop of the edge of the city. These walks will be written up for a new book project, and here on Under a Grey Sky I will publish some postcards from along the way…

For what feels like hours I have been walking alone. Blankenfelde is Berlin’s most sparsely populated locality, once dominated by a wide expanse of sewage fields which are now farmed beneath big skies, all combining to make the solitary walker following the path between the monochrome fields and the iced-up drainage ditches feel small and insignificant. On the horizon, faded in the mist, a collection of tall structures that all help us keep warm and connected in this second decade of the 21st century: windfarms and electricity pylons, telephone wires and mobile phone masts. Some bare trees in the distance. A moody-looking church steeple. Otherwise, not much at all.

This is probably going to be the longest of my walks around the edge of Berlin, and probably the loneliest. There is little sound out here in the fields. The odd bird. The distant rubble of the cross-continental trucks on the motorway. A plane high and invisible above me. And then, all of a sudden, I get the sense that I am being watched. Observed. I turn and look behind me, across a rutted and snow-mottled field. Three deer have stopped in the open and are looking at me. They are standing about a hundred metres away, and the four of us stand frozen, staring at each other for a moment or two. Then I lift my camera from the bag and that is enough. They turn tail and run for cover, aiming for a small copse not far from where they had been standing. I watch the go through the lens, trying to capture their escape. Once they are out of sight I continue my walk, but this brief encounter is a reminder that when walking the outskirts I am never truly alone, not even in the emptiest corner of Berlin.

Postcards from the Edge, Part One: Tegeler Fließ

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Over the next few months I will be walking around the outskirts of Berlin, starting each walk where I finished the last, until I complete a loop of the edge of the city. These walks will be written up for a new book project, and here on Under a Grey Sky I will publish some postcards from along the way…

At the Heimatmuseum they tell me that the first human settlements in Berlin were here, eleven thousand years ago. Reindeer hunters who caught the migrating animals as they crossed the river on their back and forth journeys each year, before the planet warmed and they headed north, to the Arctic, for good. I stand on the path and look out across the reed beds, the alder marshes and the stream itself, winding this way and that. On this side of the path it is easier to imagine the reindeer hunters. On the other, a row of suburban gardens and their collection of trampolines, compost bins and patio furniture. Looking this way, the leap of imagination is further.

This contrast between the two sides of the footpath continues as I walk on, following the waymarked Barnimer Dörferweg across the northern edge of Berlin. Gaps in high fences offer a glimpse at neat lawns and greenhouses in one direction. Signs warning me to keep to the path because these wet meadows are the nesting ground for rare birds in the other. So I stick to the prescribed route, here at least, and the sound of my feet crunching on the grit and the ice, and the rat-a-tat-tat of a woodpecker hitting a tree. At least, I think it is a woodpecker. It might also be the sound of an early riser, lifting the shutters of their bedroom window, to let in the half-light of this January morning on the outskirts.

Words & Picture: Paul Scraton

The Invisible Border, Priwall

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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. Continue reading