Cycling through History on the Berlin Wall Trail

In Berlin, History seems everywhere. I enjoyed a 4-days bike ride on the route along the former wall that divided the city during the cold war. On this tour, I discovered symbolic places of the German History.
Rounded rods on the Berlin wall memorial

A wall divided the city from 1961 to 1989. Even if today very few fragments of the Berlin wall remain, you can learn about stories and facts from this period on the bicycle path that follows the wall.

While I lived in Hamburg, in North Germany, I could travel to the German capital by train in 2 hours and take my bike with me.

Berlin wall bike trail map

Guide for a bike tour on the Berlin Wall Trail

  • Distance: 160 km.
  • Duration: 4 days if riding slowly or making breaks.
  • Start and finish: Potsdamer Platz.
  • Which bike? The itinerary is easy because the ground is flat and there is a paved road almost everywhere. A trekking bike or a city bike is sufficient. A road bike is suitable but in that case, it would be difficult to carry many bags.
  • When? The best time of the year is from April to September. In July and in August, the heat is bearable.
  • Where to sleep? Many youth hostels and hotels are located along the path, except in deserted natural areas. My tip: don’t book the accommodation in advance. Instead, make the reservation on the same day, depending on the progress of the day, in order to be more flexible.

Riding through Berlin’s city centre

After I arrive in Berlin central station, I get back on my bike, pass by the Reichstag and the Brandenburg Gate and then reach the Potsdamer Platz (Potsdam square). The dimensions of the Potsdamer Platz are impressive, and you can’t miss the three innovative-shape high buildings. They are the symbol of the transformation of the square during the period after the fall of the wall. During the 1920s, it was Europe’s busiest square. Its palaces and cabarets made it the centre of libertarian Berlin. At the end of the Second World War, the square was almost totally destroyed due to the fighting. From 1961 to 1989, the wall divided it into two parts. It was, on the west side, a wasteland and on the east side, it was a no man’s land as part of the border’s watching zone. The start of the bicycle route, the Berliner Mauerweg, is marked by remains of the original Berlin wall. Information boards tell the story of the wall and the context in which it was built.

At Postdamer Platz, remains of the Berlin wall surround information panels
Remains of the wall on the Potsdamer Platz

The history behind the Berlin wall

In 1945, at the end of the Second World War, Berlin was ruined. The victorious powers decided to divide Germany and Berlin into four occupation zones for the USSR, the United States, the United Kingdom and France. The growing differences of opinions between the Soviets and the western powers led in 1949 to the creation of two German states. The Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) in Western Germany, supported by the United States, was capitalistic and democratic. On the other side of the border, the German Democratic Republic (GDR), supported by the USSR, had a communist economy and a dictatorial regime.

Following the creation of the GDR, many East Germans running away from the regime’s repression and from poverty emigrated to West Germany. A few years later, to avoid its people from fleeing, the government of the GDR imagined the construction of a wall in Berlin. The East German leader at that time, Walter Ulbricht, declared a few weeks before the construction of the wall that it wasn’t planned. However, on August 12, 1961, the construction of the ‘antifascist protection wall’, its official name in East Germany, started. Overnight, the city is divided into two. Even though it is called “Berlin wall”, there were actually two walls, separated by a no man’s land watched by East German soldiers. Several watchtowers were used to spot people trying to flee to West Berlin. Many people tried to cross the wall and among them, over one hundred lost their life.

On November 9, 1989, to everyone’s surprise, the borders suddenly opened without any violence. During the following night, Berliners start to destroy the wall. Thousands of East Berliners visit West Berlin within the hours following the borders’ opening. The East German government’s decision not to control the border crossing anymore followed peaceful protests in the GDR and escapes of East German people in the previous months. Less than one year after the fall of the wall, on October 3, 1990, Germany was reunited.

Near the Potsdamer Platz, on the Leipziger Platz, I visit the German Spy Museum. Its location is due to the fact that Berlin was and still is considered as the world capital of spies. The activity was the most intense during the cold war because the city was at that time the center of the East-West confrontation. The museum traces the history of espionage and the methods used by spies. The stories of spying and intelligence operations during both the two world wars are very captivating because it seems like they come from a movie. The dark rooms and the story of famous spies take me to a universe of secrets, undercover agents, and intelligence. The museum is pleasant to visit because there are many games, such as codes to be deciphered.

At the German Spy Museum, a mannequin wearing a diving suit is equipped with a turbine
A diver in the Spy Museum

By following the well-marked Berlin Wall Trail with the “Berliner Mauerweg” signs, I pass by a cylindrical building hosting the exhibition “The Wall”. Projectors display the static panoramic image of a Berlin neighbourhood at the time when it was divided by the wall. The exhibition describes Berliners’ state of mind while their day-to-day life was influenced by the wall. The artist Yadegar Asisi, the author of the exhibition, explains on a video shown outside the projection room that back then, seeing the wall just a few meters away was normality for Berliners. It sounds absurd to me to separate a city into two parts by a wall preventing its inhabitants from communicating with each other.

The route of the Berlin wall passes by the Checkpoint Charlie, one of the three checkpoints on the border between West Berlin and the GDR. Many tourists take selfies in front of the remaining checkpoint because it’s the most famous one. The reason is that, on October 25, 1961, American and Soviet tanks gathered on both sides of the checkpoint. The American troops had forced their way through to the Eastern sector a few days before and the East German Ministry of the Interior replied by ordering the control of American soldiers dressed as civilians. No armed confrontation happened, whether there or anywhere else in Berlin while the city was divided.

A few dozen meters away from Checkpoint Charlie, I find myself in front of the stately and rectangular building, the Abgeordnetenhaus von Berlin, the Chamber of Deputies of Berlin. Each German Land, similar to a French administrative region, has its own parliament whose deputies are democratically elected. As Berlin is a city-Land, it has its own parliament. The building was, from 1903 to 1918, the Prussian parliament’s seat and then, until Nazis came to power in 1933, it was Berlin parliament’s seat under the Weimar Republic. From 1949, as it was located in East Berlin, the building was the seat of the government of GDR, of the State Planning Commission and it hosted the bugging devices of the Stasi, the State security services. The German movie The Lives of Others shows the covert bugging of opponents in the GDR. The story of the movie transfers oneself in the atmosphere of Berlin in the 1980s and makes discover the surveillance procedures used by the Stasi. Since 1990 and the German reunification, the building has been the parliament of the Land of Berlin’s seat.

While riding along the Spree River, it’s hard to miss the East Side Gallery as it attracts many tourists! The open-air gallery entertains visitors and challenges the public to think about freedom and the history of the cold war. On this section of the wall, street art created by international artists can be visible. The works of art created during the months following the fall of the wall were restored in 2009. They are very diverse: some are funny, others are politically conscious, and others are simply beautiful. My favorite ones are the “Curriculum Vitae” and the one inspired by Edvard Munch’s painting “The Scream”.

Discovering an important crossing point

By riding away from the city center in the direction of the South, I reach the border between Berlin and the Land of Brandenburg. The course of the wall was following the border. Between the neighbourhoods of Teltow and Wannsee, I pass nearby Checkpoint Bravo, a crossing point for West Berliner travelling to West Germany and for West Germans visiting West Berlin. The border crossed there the highway on which travellers were driving. There were often long lines of cars, and travellers had to wait for several hours because they were checked and the cars were searched.

Before crossing the pedestrian bridge that spans the highway, I stop by the panzer memorial (Panzer Denkmal), an odd pink snow plough. Like in many other places along the path of the wall, some information boards trace the history of the place.

About 80.000 Soviet soldiers fell in April and May 1945 during the battle of Berlin, in the last days of the war. In the following months, the Soviets built several memorials in Berlin to pay tribute to their heroes. A memorial showing a tank, the Panzer Denkmal, is built in Zehlendorf, not far away from Checkpoint Bravo, in the future American occupation zone. The monument was degraded by inhabitants of West Berlin as a sign of opposition to the Soviet blockade of West Berlin and to the repression of political opponents in the GDR. In 1954, the memorial was moved to a location on the territory of the GDR and in 1969 it was moved again to its current site. The Soviets chose this location because of its strategic position at the East-West border. The monument was supposed to be accessible to the greatest possible number of people but actually nobody could access it as it was located in the wall’s safety area. On November 10, 1989, one day after the fall of the wall, the border between West Berlin and the GDR opens at Checkpoint Bravo, and the memorial becomes accessible to the inhabitants of West Berlin again. The Soviets take the tank off its base and, since 1992, a pink snow plough has been there. It’s a work of art that has been registered on the list of historical monuments. The Berliner artist who got the idea to put a snow plough wanted to spotlight a forgotten place and remember what the original monument stood for.

At the panzer memorial in Berlin, a pink snow plough
The panzer memorial

The beautiful lakes and forests surrounding Berlin

I reach Potsdam at the end of the first day of my trip, as the sun goes down and after visiting Potsdam for a day and a half, I continue my journey along the Berlin Wall Trail that follows the Havel River. The shores of the lakes formed by the river are very quiet and restful. I arrive at the ferry wharf to go to Pfaueninsel (peacocks island), accessible only by boat, and I find myself surrounded by tourists and above all Berliners who are waiting to board. I cross the river in just a few minutes and then I head towards the paths on the small island. The Pfaueninsel was bought by a king of Prussia who built a castle there. It’s white and adorned with two towers, which makes it pretty well visible when landing on the island. I couldn’t visit it though as it wasn’t open while I was there but then a stroke of luck happens: I meet a peacock with beautiful green and blue feathers. The island is aptly named! The path on the island may be hiked in about one hour. The wild nature reminds me of a left abandoned Treasure Island. Small white sailboats and canoes silently and slowly glide over the surrounding Havel River. The view on these small boats strengthens the calm and the harmony. While walking through this tranquil haven, I understand better why the place is so valued by Berliners wishing to escape the bustle of the city during weekends.

In the neighbourhood of Wannsee, a ferry crosses the lake of the same name in about 20 minutes. After the crossing, I get back onto the bicycle path of the wall. The section of the road that follows the former border west of Berlin passes through forests. In some places, I get off my bike to read the orange information boards that tell how the borders opened in November 1989. I skip the portraits of people who lost their life while trying to cross the wall. Even if it’s important to not forget these people, I find it scary to read these stories.

White sailboats sailing on the Wannsee Lake
On the ferry crossing Wannsee Lake

Close to Hennigsdorf, the route follows the Havel and passes by the Nieder Neuendorf Border Tower (Grenzturm Nieder Neuendorf). It’s one of few remaining border towers in Berlin. From there, the East German border guards were watching the banks of the river. The free visit gives information about the border guards’ living conditions. On the last floor of the tower, I observe the river and the houses on the shore on the side which were previously located in West Berlin, like the border guards used to see. They were using a projector to watch the area.

After crossing the Havel, at the border north of Berlin, I enter a wild and natural zone, the Tegeler Fließ. The pine forest and the areas covered by sand are ideal for a walk or a bike ride and it’s difficult to realize that you’re only a few kilometers away from the bustle of the city centre of Berlin. The vegetation and the calm remind me of the Landes forest in the South West of France. At the end of the crossing of the deserted forest, I cycle fast to arrive at my hotel before sunset.

Visit of the Schönhausen Palace: from Prussia to GDR

As I leave the natural area, the environment urbanizes and I make a quick shortcut to visit Schönhausen Palace. Located in the neighbourhood of Pankow, the small palace shows various periods of the German history.

Built during the 17th century by Frederick William III, who became in 1701 the first Prussian king with the name of Frederick I, it acted as the summer residence of Frederick II’s wife, the Prussian Queen Elisabeth Christine. The layout and the decoration of the palace in the rococo style are attributable to her. The ground floor reflects the queen’s decoration tastes. The palace remained a possession of the royal family until 1918 and, from 1933, the Nazis used it as a depot of forbidden works of art before their resale. While visiting the first floor, I travel back in time and land in the cold war times since the palace was the official residence of the most important statesmen of the GDR. Wilhelm Pieck, the first president of the GDR, and later on Walter Ulbricht, the president of the state council, lived there. Wilhelm Pieck’s office is comfortably and elegantly furnished but without luxury. The simple decoration aimed at giving the impression that the most important man of the state was closed to the people of the GDR. From 1964, the palace hosted statesmen and political men from the GDR’s allied communist countries during their official state visits, such as Fidel Castro and Mikhail Gorbachev. The latter stayed there just a few weeks before the fall of the wall.

Unified Germany: the Berlin Wall Memorial and the government district

I cross the Mauerpark (the wall park), where many Berliners meet between friends and enjoy the sun, and I reach the Berlin Wall Memorial (Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer) in the Bernauer Straße. This outdoor site is the main commemoration place for the separation of the city during almost 30 years. On several tens of meters of grass and concrete, very detailed information about the partition of Berlin and of Germany are available. I walk along the remaining section of the wall. The memorial also reconstitutes the zone formed by two walls and the no man’s land with a watch tower.

The Berlin Wall Trail then reaches the very center town. After passing ahead of the central station, I cross the Regierungsviertel (the government district). The Reichstag, the Paul-Löbe-Haus, and the Marie-Elisabeth-Lüders-Haus are the German Parliament’s seat and the offices of the Members of Parliament. This architectural complex has been modernised and rebuilt after the German reunification. According to me, its appearance is very beautiful. After pursuing the path of the sad “shame wall” 4 days long, my route ends on a positive note in the center of reunified Germany’s political power.

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