Aside from the hum of spokes and the rattle of a loose fender, the forested hinterlands are quiet. The cycling trail I follow, dubbed the Berliner Mauerweg (Wall Way), often utilizes the “death strip’s” patrol roads alongside the notorious Wall—the bitter, iconic emblem of the Cold War. A mere two decades in time separate this pleasant bike journey from attack dogs nipping at my pedals and a hail of machine gun fire.
Berlin, once ground zero for testy spats between capitalism and communism, is celebrating twenty years since the dreaded “Antifascist Protection Rampart” (as East German officials called it) came crashing down. Berlin has always known how to party despite being in the middle of some rather horrific turns in history. Because of this, Berliners are pretty good at remembering, too. Which partly explains the 100-mile-long Mauerweg.—Text and photographs by Bruce Willey
Pedaling the Wall is one of the best ways—save from actually going back in time and getting shot at—to comprehend what it meant for the divided city. West Berlin was an island amid a red, communist sea. East Berlin was muddled in a draconian pond, Stasi officers and informants watching every move. Losing my way in the bustling district Kreuzberg, I stop for directions. Thankfully Yomo Wagner speaks English and grew up in Berlin. “ It was a lot harder to get lost back then,” he says.
Signs and plaques guide the way—usually. Those who would rather forget have vandalized some. Still, standing guard towers, former border checkpoints, victim memorials, and the next much-needed biergarten break up the miles.
Quiet forest gives way to tidy suburbs. Soon I’m deep in the middle of Berlin on a good bicycle lane. Here, it’s hard to imagine a Wall ever cutting through the heart of the city, through the hearts of its people. Winding down Bernauer Street a section of the Wall remains, looming large but useless. I’m reminded how East German dissident Henning Wegenbreth put it before the Wall’s joyous demise: “cyclists have nothing to lose but their chains.”
How to Cycle the Wall
Bicycles are easily rented from Fat Tire (www.fattirebiketours.com, 6-10 euros a day), or as I did, buy a used bike for cheap from Berlin’s many bicycle stores. Opt for a commuter or mountain bike. Much of the Mauerweg is paved, but there are long sections of bone-rattling cobblestone and dirt road. Though the trail is well-marked, it’s still easy to get lost. Get a radfahrplan (bicycle map) and Michael Cramer’s “Berlin Wall Trail” guidebook. Divide the ride into four or more sections. Excellent public transportation gets you on and off the trail with ease.
- Nat Geo Expeditions