Berlin’s 37km-long Ringbahn was inaugurated in 1877. Built ostensibly for freight, it was soon afterwards made accessible to a general public – who initially spurned it based on the service’s high prices and the fact that most inhabitants of the city more or less lived, worked and socialised in the same neighbourhoods.

At the time of building, the Ringbahn circumvented the city outskirts on what was then more or less blank land. The city grew exponentially between the 1880s and the first World War, and though the Ringbahn still forms the A (inner city) boundary of the BVG’s transport zones, it now cuts through many expanded inner-city districts, such as Treptow, Neukölln, Schöneberg, Wedding and Charlottenburg.

Yet to walk the Ringbahn is still to trace the urban fringes of the city. While it crosses parts of the Spree and the Landwehr Canal in places, as well as a couple of major parks (Schloss Charlottenburg and Treptower Park) and quite a few residential areas, many of the latter feel run-down and peripheral, and much of the scenery is distinctly Ballardian: disused freight yards, industrial factories, looming concrete underpasses and roaring multi-lane autobahns.

Nonetheless, it made for an educational romp. To those who would say ‘why walk 40 kilometres over several days when you could have taken the train in an hour’, I would reverse the question: why experience your city, at speed, through a window, when you can enjoy lots of fresh air, discover parts of it you never knew, and be forever proud that you walked the exact shape of a dog’s head in Berlin? 

This post records the first half of the journey, from S-Bahn Prenzlauer Allee to S-Bahn Schöneberg. The second part can be found here.

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I start my walk at the station closest to my house, the Prenzlauer Allee S-Bahn. The large dome of the Planetarium opposite, part of the sprawling GDR Ernst-Thälmann Park is, as always, a vivid reminder that I’m in the former East – as is the shifty-looking Vietnamese chap clutching a bag of contraband cigarettes outside the station.

Vietnamese workers came to East Berlin as Gästarbeiters in the 60s and 70s, and large communities still exist in Prenzlauer Berg, Lichtenberg and Marzahn (as well as some parts of West Berlin). Inside the station foyer, another Vietnamese man tends to a makeshift flower shop – possibly also semi-legal. The colourful blooms feel beautifully in synch with the station’s neo-Romanesque brickwork, even if they’re distinctly at odds with the cold winter temperatures outside.

My only rule for this walk is to stick as close as I can to the Ringbahn tracks. I head northwest along Wichertstrasse, the first street north of Mitte that hasn’t succumbed to P-Berg’s apparently ceaseless demand for bio-stores, indie coffee outlets and organic children’s clothing shops. Indeed, the street’s entire commercial infrastructure consists of what must be Berlin’s only garlic-themed restaurant and the occasional Imbiss and Kneipe.

Turning left at Stahlheimerstrasse to look out over the railway bridge, I spot a swathe of derelict wasteland behind a recently-built Netto supermarket. No doubt it’s already earmarked for development, but right now it’s a trashy concrete gash in the built environment, complete with what looks like an abandoned railway building full of rubble, beer cans and other evidence of at least part-time occupancy. A small gap in the fence lets me right onto the railway embankment, where a plastic bag flutters noisily in a tree and a small mud pathway has been carved by dog walkers.

The path quickly hits a dead-end, so I return and pass through the S Bahn Schönhauser Allee, where the usual throng of families, unemployed drunks and elderly folk mingle around the station and the nearby Schönhauser Arkaden (mall). I rejoin the tracks at Dänenstrasse, separated from the Ringbahn tracks by just an iron fence that’s intertwined with locked bicycles, brittle bushes and occasional advertising plaques for a new gym (“HARDCANDY FITNESS WOMEN – FOUNDED BY MADONNA”). At Seelowerstrasse, a Saturday neighbourhood food market is in full swing.

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It’s not long before the quasi-derelict residences along Kopenhagener Strasse, on the other side of the tracks, hove into view. I’ve always loved these houses, which enjoyed some passing fame in the East Berlin classic movie Solo Sunny, for their refusal to gentrify and lingering GDR-atmosphere. A young couple on one of the bridges – one that’s usually locked but easily traversed – are enjoying the view from both directions while sipping a beer. A Berlin moment if ever there was one.

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Rising from behind a broken, graffitied wall at the end of Dänenstrasse, partly covered by a squatter-style banner bearing its name – Hausprojekt 29 – is an architecturally unique building. Despite also declaring solidarity with  Linien 206, one of the last remaining squats in Mitte, it looks too posh to be a squat. Intrigued, I climb the metal stairs and ring the doorbell.

A studious young man with curly hair comes to the door and happily explains all: a collective Baugruppen project; twenty co-dwellers bought the land and built the house with the help of an architect friend; all perfectly legal and with full consent from the neighbours, who appreciate the open community room that hosts local-leaning meet-ups, music lessons, film screenings and other non-commercial events. The man, Luke, is so pleasant, that I’m secretly hoping he will ask me in for a look around and some Kaffee-und-Kuchen. He doesn’t. I say thanks and move on.

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A gap next to the house leads to the rail embankment. I step through and follow as far as I can go, but end up semi-trapped in a wild tangle of bushes, shrubs and trees. My reward for this intrepid off-piste expedition? An apparent eulogy to the toughness of the East – “Ready To Mess / Osten Macht Stress” – that seems like it could be the work of the OMS Krew.

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Scrambling back through the gap, I make my way to Behmstrasse and The West. The wall here still contains parts of The Wall, as well as a Recycling Station and the arched suspension bridge known as Schwedter Steg, built in 1998 as a replacement for a larger a bridge destroyed in WW2. I’ve often crossed this bridge on the way home from Wedding, enjoying the superbly lengthy and historical Schwedter Strasse – Verlorener Weg as it was romantically called in the 19th century – and the un-refurbished houses that once abutted the Wall, some of which still have fixings on the wall that were once used to hold a ‘protective’ electric fence.

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Walking along the Behmstrassenbrücke – rebuilt in the late 90s since it was decommissioned during the GDR era – I admire the view West, where a glorious tangle of railway lines and pylons lead the eye to the historic Bösebrücke, a primary East-West border which 20,000 East Germans crossed, joyously unimpeded, on the evening of 9th November 1989.

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I’ve always been astonished how sharply the demographic changes between Prenzlauer Berg and Wedding make themselves felt – the largely white, middle-class environs of the former giving way almost instantaneously to the working-class, ethnic culture-clash of the latter. My first sight on leaving the Wedding side of the bridge and passing through through a quiet housing estate near the Ringbahn tracks, are Turkish kids hanging out on a playground.

On the other side of the estate lies busy Bellermannstrasse and the schizophrenic Gesundbrunnen station, which always feels like it’s trying to aim for some New Berlin chic but failing miserably. The adjacent ship-shaped Gesundbrunnen Center has 25,000 square-metres containing over 100 shops; I skip all of them and head to the toilet.

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Around Böttgerstrasse, the Humboldthain Park flak tower looms into view. The only one of three left (the others were in Volkspark Friedrichshain and Tiergarten respectively), it not only defended the city from Allied air raids with its heavy-duty flak guns, but also contained a bunker for some 15,000 people. Parts of it were also blown up after the war, but the remains proved too wieldy to destroy.

The top of the tower offers excellent vistas and the base is often used by climbers and abseilers in warmer months. The inside can be toured with the non-profit Berliner Unterwelten (who also run a tour inside the nuclear fallout shelter at nearby U-Bahn Pankstrasse and another bunker back at S-Bahn Gesundbrunnen). Pankstrasse’s heady parade of social facilities and sex shops, casinos and kneipes are broken only by the neatly landscaped Brunnenplatz and its striking gothic courthouse (Amtsgericht Wedding).

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Lindowerstrasse takes me to S-Bahn Wedding, where I cross busy Müllerstrasse and follow the tracks along Lynarstrasse. The residents around here seem to be a mix of African and Turkish. Many of the walls are daubed with graffiti (TKDKE, THATZ, JOE), and along the tracks side of the street are rows of garden allotments – a common characteristic of the Ringbahn route. On the other side of the street, I pass a group of adults playing football on a slightly submerged community pitch, as well as numerous car dealers.

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A short-cut through a playground that’s rammed hard against the tracks brings me to an inaccessible concrete bridge that carries trains across the Spree but leaves me gazing at a curious ensemble of ‘found objects’: Turkish graffiti on the bridge, a nearby bench strewn with discarded clothing, and one of the city’s many curiously-located gumball machines.

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The only option, apart from swimming across, is to walk north along the Nordufer and cross another bridge further up. Managing not to be semi-blinded by the garishly-painted apartments at the end of Lynarstrasse, I follow the mud-path that hugs the river bank and admire Westhafen’s industrial scenery.

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The industrial vistas includes a plastics factory, brick chimneys from Franz Schwechten’s old Kraftwerk Moabit, positioned right on the river in the 19th century so that coal to fuel the power station could be delivered straight there by boat. Plumes of white smoke still rise above the site, emanating from the modern  buildings of new inhabitant, Vatenfall. Though the remnants of the original Kraftwerk are now listed, aside from a gorgeous historical red-brick façade that faces the street, the rest is off-limits aside from special heritage days.

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The historical Behala/Westhafen building complex across the road from the Kraftwerk has always been of interest to me; at one point in the early 20th century this was one of the most important harbour areas in Germany, though the war put an end to that. Despite everything looking quiet and my ‘innocent tourist’ speech well rehearsed, I’m unceremoniously turfed out by a friendly-but-firm security guard after just a couple of photos.

I explore the Pulitzbrücke instead, which connects Wedding with Moabit. To the east, the train-tracks stretch to infinity, foregrounded by what seems to be an island of gardening allotments, some of which are apparently in use even in these cold climes.

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On the other side of the bridge is a large memorial that pays tribute to the some 30,000 Jews deported from S-Bahn Pulitzstrasse (now S-Bahn Westhafen) just below it. The victims were marched here from the Levetzowstraße synagogue, often beaten with truncheons and whips en route, and packed off to the death camps. Further along the bridge, the remains of one of the deportation platforms is still visible (there are plans afoot to turn it into a memorial too), along with a rubbish-recycling centre and an enormous Asian food retail warehouse.

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Quitzowstrasse and Siemenstrasse offer views across to the Behala complex and a vast swathe of wasteland that’s yet to be developed. Further along is the recently established Stadtpark Moabit. Opened in 2012 after active campaigning by local residents, it’s built around a former goods depot that now houses the ZKU – Zentrum für Kunst und Urbanistik – where individual artists, practitioners and urban researchers make use of 13 self-contained units as well as a lovely wooden terrace.

The surrounding 15,000 sqm garden has communal vegetable plots and orchards as well as fruit trees and playgrounds. I have a walk around and chat to a couple of 20-somethings sharing a spliff. They tell me that even though there are no decent bars or clubs in Moabit, they’re proud to be ‘21-ers‘ (21 being the district postcode for Moabit). I push on to the bridge that crosses to S-Bahn Beusselstrasse, whose views to the east span the ubiquitous Behala buildings and an old, possibly abandoned, railway control tower.

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The street I need to follow though, is the strangely named (to English ears) and largely nondescript Sickingenstrasse (the name actually refers to a famed German knight). Car dealers, warehouses, the occasional brothel. I get glimpses of the tracks along the way, but they’re mostly lost to me until, passing through a residential estate, I emerge at the somewhat sorry-looking S-Bahn Jungfernheide.

Just beyond, a sign tells me I am in Charlottenburg and a bridge leads me above the busy Tegeler Weg – and the Spree – and up to the elevated Ringbahn section. I pause to watch the seagulls enjoying the watery terrain and appreciate the rare proximity to the tracks (just a wire fence between us – the thrill!), before descending to the eastern periphery of the Schlosspark Charlottenburg.

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There’s no way to keep to the tracks here, so I enjoy the break from the industrial scenery and stroll through the park. It’s officially winter but there are still plenty of joggers, strollers and families around, and the park’s streams and trees still work their charm.

The grandeur of the park and associated Schloss contrasts with the social residences (which line the Ringbahn) and poke their roofs above the western side of the park (which surely they would have been beheaded for in former days). The roaring, ramshackle Spandauer Damm breaks the park’s quietude definitively, and hustles me towards S-Bahn West End.

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The busy Ringbahn station and endless thrum of the A100 Stadtring (Autobahn) create a quintessential urban interzone cacophony, which I escape via a quiet old cemetery, the Protestant Luisenfriedhof III. The graves of Georg Bleibtreu and Karl August Möbius, among other 19th century luminaries, are here, along with a lovely red-brick chapel.

All too quickly I’m thrust back into the huge, traffic-heavy streets that lead down to the ICC Messe: an architectural eyesore – and a pretty filthy one at that – redeemed only by its funky, orange-coloured underpass, which is also covered with trash and shows clear evidence of being used as sleeping quarters by the city’s homeless. So much for being a ‘corporate landmark’.

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There’s no other way to describe the route to S-Bahn Westkreuz than ‘fucking awful’. Shapeless concrete underpasses and thronging multi-lane traffic form a kind of Autogeddon where humans have no place.

Every car’s vibration / Magnifies an all-pervading impregnation of information-free sound-porn / A universal base line, whatever the tune / Transforming the brains of its audience into double-glazed mulch / Their attention span whittled down to the length of a passing car / The infra-sound / Exuded by compressors in ‘air-conditioned’ (and air conditioning) model / Will deal with those who shruggingly claim to be unaffected / As their cerebral pre-capillaries silently pop / And turn into varicose veins – Heathcote Williams, 1987

From S-Bahn Westkreuz’s dismal entrance, the concrete edgelands continue. I pass Berlin’s biggest sex club, quasi-modern office buildings and Wolf Vostell’s perfectly-located Two Cadillacs in the Form of the Naked Maja sculpture at RathenauPlatz – installed in 1987, it was ahead of its time in exploring the German fetishisation of the automobile (and America in general).

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From the impressively resilient neo-Baroque facade of S-Bahn Hohenzollerndamm, things gradually quieten again to a more human scale. After the sprawling square of S-Bahn Heidelberger Platz, the streets become narrow and cobbled, lined with town-houses and furniture shops. Tellingly, I pass an Irish pub and a Russian supermarket in the same square mile.

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No sooner am I reconciled to the familiar symbols and conveniences of the inner-city, than the route – just after S-Bahn Bundesplatz – abandons me to the treacherous edges of the Stadtring (Autobahn). For a short section there is literally no footpath at all, and I scramble along the embankment, hemmed in by honking, speeding traffic.

Heart beating, I reach the safety of S-Bahn Innsbrückerplatz and, slightly further on, S-Bahn Schöneberg, which has – and this is a miracle of sorts – a pub! I celebrate the halfway mark of the journey with a beer and something called Red Curry with Noodles, which, this being Germany, is not served with Asian noodles but Italian spaghetti.

This misguided but ultimately endearing global mash-up, along with a lovely winter sunset as I climb exhausted onto the train home, provide a more than adequate ending to the day’s explorations.

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