Pedaling Through a City Reborn Mark Simon for The New York Times (August 5, 2007
Tue, Sep 4 2007 12:39 | biking
A SOLITARY clarinetist tweaked out a mournful melody on a lawn in front of the Federal Chancellery, a sleek marble and concrete construction that looms over the Spree River. It was an overcast morning, and I was bicycling along the Spreepromenade, a gravel path that curves through the legislative heart of Berlin, the German capital. On either side of the river rose some of the striking new buildings that have confirmed the city's place at the forefront of modern architecture: the glass-domed Reichstag building and the Paul-Löbe-Haus, an annex to the German Parliament.
As I pedaled under willow trees past a beer garden called Capital Beach and as tourist boats puttered along the Spree, it was easy to forget that the path had not so long ago formed a part of Berlin's infamous “death strip.” Then my eye was drawn to a set of unobtrusive crosses engraved on a marble slab at the edge of the promenade, each honoring an East Berliner, including one “anonymous victim” killed attempting to cross the Wall near this very spot.
Berlin is a city in transition, and there's probably no better way to observe the changes, and the ways in which the city's turbulent past shapes its development, than a journey by bike. The capital is full of hidden architectural jewels and little-known nuggets of history, as I discovered during a daylong 20-mile amble from the remnants of the Berlin Wall to the westernmost edge of Berlin. Many of these sights are not easily accessible via public transportation and too spread out to take in properly on foot, so biking offers an ideal solution.
Moreover, Berlin is made for two-wheeled traffic. The city is one of the greenest in Europe, and it's almost entirely flat. Clearly marked bike lanes run along many major streets, especially in the verdant and sedate neighborhoods of the former West Berlin. Riders thus can avoid the heart-quickening weaves through traffic that typify a bicycle trip through New York or Paris.
In the grittier former East Berlin, a ride can be an improvisatory ramble, a wander up blind alleys, past fragments of the Wall, gentrified patches and dust-choked construction sites and vacant lots still awaiting development. There are parts of this section of the city that can still seem disorienting and forbidding, like Alexanderplatz, dominated by a colossal television tower that soars over a vast expanse of 1960s Communist architecture.
The energy of Berlin however, has drifted eastward in recent years, and in some ways, the biking here is far more interesting than it is further west. A major face-lift has thrown the old and new together in dynamic juxtapositions. The exquisite new Dutch Embassy, for instance, designed by the Pritzker-Prize winning architect Rem Koolhaas, looms over a cobblestone alley and a lock on the Spree that has been in almost continuous use since the 16th century. Just upriver, past this faux Amsterdam, it is possible to follow the largest stretch of the Berlin Wall still standing: a mile-long row of concrete slabs that parallels the Spree and is now covered with graffiti and poster art.
During my ride I was struck by how much of the prewar city remains intact. True, around the Bundestag, Friedrichstrasse and Potsdamer Platz — the former heart of the Nazi regime and of the no-man's land between East and West — almost nothing has been left standing: the destruction by Allied bombs and Soviet tanks and artillery was nearly absolute. But biking west, toward the residential corners of Berlin, one encounters increasing vestiges of the grand Central European metropolis that once existed here.
The Südwestkorso, a leafy boulevard that cuts diagonally across the city from Schöneberg, is lined for a mile with elegant prewar apartment buildings adorned with filigreed balconies, turrets and cupolas. These well-preserved structures are interrupted occasionally by unattractive cottage-cheese-concrete apartment blocks, constructed on the cheap by the Berlin government in the 1950s. It is a safe bet that each marks a place where an Allied bomb hit.
The city is also awash in parks, but for nature in its pristine state, nothing in Berlin can match the Grunewald. Created as a hunting ground for the Prussian emperors, Grunewald is a vast expanse of dense oak and pine forests, countless hiking and biking trails and a string of lakes that extends to the western edge of Berlin.
The loveliest part of Grunewald, to my mind, are the twin lakes, Schlachtensee and Krumme Lanke, each surrounded by a bike and jogging path and with the Fischerhütte, an idyllic biergarten, smack between them. On balmy summer weekends and evenings, when the outdoor cafe is packed, Fischerhütte becomes a modern version of the 19th-century Grande Jatte, a scene that captures Berlin's prosperity and confidence.
Some of the best biking in Berlin, I discovered, is also — paradoxically — the most unsettling. At the far western edge of the city lies Wannsee, a popular recreational spot for the Prussian kings and later for wealthy Berliners, including many Jews. But in the 1930s and early 1940s, Wannsee became a Nazi playground, and since then the name has been indelibly linked with the Holocaust. In January 1942 the Wannsee villa was the site of an all-day meeting of Nazi leaders, including SS chief Rudolf Heydrich and Adolph Eichmann. It was here that the Nazi conspirators drafted the plan for the extermination of Europe's Jews. In the early 1990s the mansion was turned into a memorial and museum, known as the House of the Wannsee Conference, featuring both permanent and temporary exhibitions relating to the Final Solution.
Today, Wannsee is a popular weekend destination for sailors, rowers, swimmers — and bikers. A dirt and asphalt promenade beginning just beyond the Wannsee villa follows the southern edge of the lake, meandering through different periods of German history. Pfaueninsel, a wooded island reached by a one-minute ferry ride, conjures up the glory and vanity of the Prussian kings. Amid groves of pines and rose gardens, Frederick William II built himself a miniature palace here, a toylike construction that resembles the Magic Castle at Disney World.
Beyond the Pfaueninsel, past beer gardens and magnificent vistas of the Havel River, which flows into Wannsee, stands a steel bridge known as the Glienicker Brücke. In a way, this last image of my cross-city journey brought me full circle from my start beside the Berlin Wall. For a quarter of a century, this bridge across the Havel, between West Berlin and Potsdam, was the main spot for spy swaps between East and West. Like so many of the sights on a bicycle tour of Berlin, it is redolent of menace and drama. It serves as a reminder that, until 1989, West Berlin was a city surrounded — an island in the Communist East. Today it is a busy crossing point for tourists and bicyclists bound for a weekend outing in Potsdam, and a potent symbol of a capital reborn.
• Call A Bike (www.callabike.de) is a bike rental service provided by Deutsche Bahn railway company. Pick up a bike or leave it locked to a traffic sign or bike rack at major train stations or within 30 yards of major streect intersections. The fee is 0.08 euros (about 11 cents at $1.41 to the euro) a minute, up to 15 euros for 24 hours. Seven days is 60 euros.
• Bikes & Jeans in Mitte (Friedrichstrasse 129; 49-30-447-6666; www.fahrrad-countrybar.de.vu) rents bikes for 15 euros for 24 hours.
• Fahrradstation (Bicycle Station), Dorotheenstrasse 30; 49-30-2859-9661; www.fahrradstation.com) is near S-Bahnhof Friedrichstrasse. Other, smaller locations: Trek Pro-Shop (Leipziger Strasse 56;49-30-6664-9180); Mitte (Auguststrasse 29A; 49-30-5996-61; Kreuzberg (Bergmannstrasse 9; 49-30-2151-566); Charlottenburg (Goethestrasse 46; 49-30-9395-2757). Rentals are 10 euros for three hours, 15 euros for one day, with a third day free.