The Walled City – tips for cycling the 165 km Berliner Mauerweg

All along the Mauerweg, there are monuments for the poor souls who lost their lives trying to cross from East to West.
All along the Mauerweg, there are monuments for the poor souls who lost their lives trying to cross from East to West.

Did you know that there’s a cycle path that follows the full length of the Berlin Wall? The most dramatic part of the Wall surely was the 40 km inner-city section that divided West and East Berlin. But a much longer stretch, 125 km long, ran around the whole of West Berlin, separating it from the surrounding GDR countryside. Apart from keeping GDR citizens from entering West Berlin, it also caused a kind of claustrophobia in many West-Berliners, who could not easily leave the city. You can try to get some idea of what life was like outside and inside the Wall by taking the Berliner Mauerweg, or Wall Trail, a fully signposted cycle and hiking path that follows the course of where the wall used to be – all 165 kilometres of it.

I cycled the path in two days in September 2015, starting at the former Chausseestrasse border crossing, continuing south through the city, and following the trace of the Wall clockwise. On the first day I cycled 72 km to Potsdam-Griebnitzsee, and took the S-Bahn back to Berlin-Mitte. On the second day, from the same S-Bahn station I continued clockwise for another 95 km back to Mitte.

East and West

These signs are placed along Berlin's boundary. Each shows the exact date and time that this particular border crossing opened.
These signs are placed at most roads leading out of (west) Berlin. Each shows the exact date and time at which that particular border crossing opened.

Cycling the Wall 25 years after German reunification is a strange experience. First of all, it’s astonishing how little there is left of it. There are information panels on the path that show aerial photos of what the border strip looked like in the 1980s – sandy wasteland, watchtowers, outer wall, inner wall… almost all of this has gone. On 125 km of Mauerweg outside the city, I’ve spotted two remaining watchtowers, and a few slabs of inner and outer wall – that’s it. (If you’re looking for that kind of thing, you might as well stick to the inner city). The no man’s land of the death strip is either overgrown, built up, or otherwise disguised. Again, there’s only a few places where it is immediately recognisable.

Sign shown the original layout of the inner and outer walls and the death strip.
Sign shown the original layout of the inner and outer walls and the death strip.

What’s also strange is how hard it has become here to tell East from West. If you’ve been to Brandenburg towns outside Berlin (Oranienburg, for example), you probably agree that they still look very “GDR” in places. But on my clockwise run down the path that straddles the West-Berlin border, I had to keep reminding myself that “left is East” and “right is West”. The bits that run through nature of course look neutral. And in the parts where you ride through built-up areas, the houses on the eastern side are often just as nice (often because they’re newer) as the ones in the former West.

Cherrypicking or the Full Monty?

Obviously, doing the full Wall ride is satisfying in itself. The trouble is that if you want to do it justice, and also take some time for photography or reading the many explanatory signs, you’ll need three, maybe four, rather than just two days.

So if you have limited time, or are not keen on two full days of cycling, or want to experience more of what you see en-route, I would recommend cherry picking some stretches. Here’s the two that I liked best: one is the inner city bit that many guided tours also follow (partially or fully): starting at Bornholmer Strasse crossing in Prenzlauer Berg, the first border crossing to open on the night of 9 November 1989, and continuing as far south as, let’s say, Treptower Park.

In many S-Bahn stations (like here at Griebnitzsee), you have to carry your bike to the platform!
In many S-Bahn stations (like here at Griebnitzsee), you have to carry your bike to the platform.
The Mauerweg takes you right past the Heilandskirche (Saviour's Church), built in 1844 after sketches by King Frederick William IV of Prussia
The Mauerweg takes you right past the Heilandskirche, built in 1844 after sketches by King Frederick William IV of Prussia

As for the country part of the Mauerweg, my favorite part starts at Potsdam Griebnitzsee S-Bahn station, which is right on the Wall Trail, and can easily be reached from Mitte on S7 and S1. There’s a bike (and canoe!) rental place right at the station. Continue northward, and you’ll cross Glienicker Brücke (famous for its Cold War spy exchanges), and ride through the park of Cecilienhof Palace. It’s a great way to explore the UNESCO Potsdam Havel area. The path traces the Havel lakes, past the lovely Heilandskirche (Church of the Redeemer), and then there’s a long forest ride. The first opportunity to put you and your bike back on a train to Mitte is at Berlin-Staaken railway station. The distance is roughly 35 km. Or you could turn around at the church and make your way back to the bike rental place at Griebnitzsee.

What bike?

Tree roots have caused the tarmac surface to break up, causing a bumpy ride.
Tree roots have caused the tarmac surface to break up, causing a bumpy ride.

Some people say you need a mountainbike to ride the Mauerweg. That’s not strictly true, although if you have one, go for it. The thing is, the path is quite good (for a 165 km initiative), but not that good. The tarmac, for example, is broken by tree roots in many places which makes for a very choppy ride. There’s stretches of gravel, which I like, some sand, which is OK depending on recent weather and your tyres, and a few kilometers of cobble stones, which are terrible. All of these problems are ok for short distances but if you want to complete the loop they can get very tiresome.

The southern half is not very hilly, but I did about 400 metres of climbing on the northern section (mostly short, steep hills). So if you can get your hands on a bike that has front suspension (for the bumps) and gears (for the hills) that would be good. Unless you have the stamina of a Paris-Roubaix racer, road bikes (Rennrad in German) are not suitable, not to speak of fixies (but then, they’re not actually for riding, are they?) Obviously bring a tyre repair kit (Flickzeug, one of my favourite German words) as most of the time, it’s a heck of a long walk to the nearest S-Bahn station or bike shop.

Catering

This little bakery in Zehlendorf was the first eatery I came across, 40 km after leaving Berlin at Treptow.
This little bakery in Zehlendorf was the first eatery I came across, 40 km after leaving Berlin at Treptow.

Which brings us to food. My app says I used about 4000 calories for the whole ride (with a 20 km/h moving average, which is not that fast). That’s the equivalent of 40 bananas or 8 Big Macs, none of which you can buy on the trail. There are some shops and cafes here and there, but outside the city, there are many stretches where you can ride for 30-40 kms without getting to a food outlet.  You could interrupt your ride and cycle into the city to find food, but it’s probably better to bring lots of fruit and sandwiches.

Navigation

The official Mauerweg signs put up by the Berlin Senate. They even have official Umleiting (deviation) signs, bless them!
The Mauerweg signs put up by the Berlin Senate. They even have official Umleitung (deviation) signs, bless them!

To find my way around, I mainly just used the official signs. I also had a GPS on my handlebars, which was nice as a backup, and as a warning for upcoming turns. You can download my gps .gpx track here. A map is great for getting your bearings in the grander scale of things (the Mauerweg has so many twists and turns that it’s easy to get disoriented). The PublicPress map  is cheap, durable, and, importantly, clearly shows S-Bahn stations, so you can always find your way back home. One side of the map shows the full Mauerweg, the other side shows an enlarged segment of the city centre. It’s also got some text explaining the sights along the way. Highly recommended.

The Berlin Wall Trail near Hennigsdorf. One of the few places where the former death strip still looks original.
The Berlin Wall Trail near Hennigsdorf. One of the few places where the former death strip still looks original.

So – the only thing left to do is actually do it. Stock up on food, pump up those tyres, and off you go. Just start riding, see how far you get (there’s plenty of S-Bahn stations in the first 20-30 kilometres to cut your ride short if you want to). There’s space in the comments for your experiences!

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The Müstair Monastery – Charlemagne’s gift to a Swiss valley

 It’s a convent now, not a monastery. It’s been a nunnery for much longer than it ever was a monks’ place. But it’s the word monasterium that lent its name to the town of Müstair, and to the valley it lies at the end of. It’s the easternmost municipality in Switzerland, located in the southeast corner of the canton of Grison (Graubünden in German).

Even though there’s a through road into Italy, and bikers, cyclists and sports car drivers all vie for road space further up the valley as they blast their way up the Umbrail and Stelvio passes, this place today feels like a dead end, and it’s all the better for it. A rare thing for an Alpine valley of any significance, it has no railway, and the valley stream, the Rum, or Rom, or whatever other vowels the local languages and dialects can throw at it, is left completely unchannelled and undammed.

When Charlemagne traversed this valley in 776, after defeating the Northern Italian kingdom of the Longobards, it was very much a crossroads of civilizations. To the south lay Italy, to the west Charlemagne’s traditional power base, the Frankish Empire, and to the north and east the Duchy of Bavaria – whose rulers, like the Longobards, were linked to Charlemagne by marriage, but all the same found themselves at the receiving end of his strategic planning not much later.

Christ the Saviour. 8th century fresco in the central apsis of St. John’s at Müstair

The founding myth of St. John’s monastery at Müstair says that Charlemagne got into trouble in a snowdrift on his descent down Umbrail pass, and when he finally made his way down to the valley floor safely, he thanked God by pleading to found an abbey. St. John’s perfectly shows the dichotomy that is Charlemagne: a brilliant and often brutal warlord, the monastery’s strategic location certainly wouldn’t have escaped him. Yet it is also a key example of the Carolingean Renaissance – the focus that King, and later Emperor, Charlemagne placed on education, unification of the Christian faith, the arts, and the rule of law.

 The valley may be remote, but its beauty and significance are getting noticed. The monastery, of which church and chapel date back to the 700s, is a Unesco World Heritage site, and the whole valley, along with the Swiss National Park further up the road, has been declared a Unesco Bio Reserve.

A popular day hike in the Swiss National Park takes you along this ridge to Margunet summit

The Swiss National Park – the country has only one, so that’s what it’s called – was created just over 100 years ago to preserve the Alpine ecosystem, not to showcase any particular bit of scenery. The authorities probably nominated this remote chunk of the country as the rest was already overtaken by mass tourism – Matterhorn was first ascended in 1865, and the opening of the narrow-gauge railway all the way inside and to the top of the Jungfrau (which ironically means virgin) in 1912 may have confirmed the decision.

A postal bus depot high up the mountainside in lovely little Lü

The result is a pristine Alpine valley. The National Park, and areas beyond, offer great day hikes. The Müstair valley focuses on sustainable tourism and the network of postal buses that serve trailheads offers lots of one way hiking opportunities. Hiking signposts out in the woods even indicate which destinations are served by bus. The valley appears to have relatively little holiday apartments owned by absentee city dwellers, and many of its inhabitants run bio-responsible farms.

Goats and cattle are sent high up the mountain to summer pasture in the traditional way

Judging by the number of “Gruezis” and “Allegras” (Allegra is the cheerful Romansh greeting) you hear on the trails and in the towns, this part of Switzerland is not yet overrun by package tours from overseas , but mainly serves the Swiss themselves. You could do worse than take their hint – the Swiss know a thing or two about natural beauty.

Müstair town and valley by night

Added bonus in the lower part of the valley around Müstair is that all your pictures will be photo bombed by the crenelated silhouette of St. John’s monastery, and that the progress of your hiking will not only marked by the bells hung around the necks of cattle and goats, but also by those of the abbey.

Another lovely dayhike: Müstair’s waterfall

Thank you #SED and #GDR – for restoring #Dresden

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We went to see the sights of Dresden yesterday – the famous riverfront along the Elbe that has been so wonderfully restored after the devastation by the Allies in February 1945. At first sight, the beauty looks only skin-deep. The restored strip of historical buildings is really only the river front and a few hundred meters behind it. Behind that, 1960s modern, functional, GDR era Plattenbau starts – a stark contrast and a bit of a disappointment at first (such as when you look northward from the terraces of the Zwinger at the Ostra-Allee and the Postplatz).

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But then you think again – and you realise that what the communist regime in fact did restore, starting with the Zwinger palace just after the war, and up to the Semper Opera House and the Residential Palace in the late nineteen eighties, was a tremendous economical effort for a regime that even had difficulty keeping its population properly supplied with toilet paper, vegetables and tv sets.Image

So next time you see buildings such as the 1968 Kulturpalast (Culture Palace) right next door to the beautiful Frauenkirche , don’t scorn the communists. Despite all their other faults, they did the best they could.