Kevin Braddock and Paul Sullivan take on the Berlin equivalent of the Three Peaks challenge…
Successive waves of trauma, division and reconstruction have given Berlin’s outward character a dimension of the arbitrary that’s absent in cities with seemingly ‘finished’ centres like Paris, London and New York.
Such was the thrust of a topic embarked upon during a ‘Slow’ walk with the artist Stephen Walter not so long ago to the Borsigwerke above Tegel Airport.
Walter, who is in the process of drawing an impressionistic map of Berlin, pointed our that it’s precisely the incongruities in Berlin’s topography that defines its awkward, occasionally brutal mystique: the vast plains of nothingness abutting the corporate steel-and-glass stalagmites at Postdamer Platz, or the Chinese takeaway just round the corner from the site of Hitler’s bunker.
Tidiness and coherence can calcify a city’s atmosphere—Bath in England springs to mind. No, cities don’t need to be finished, and neither need walking nor – if you’re inclined to the psychogeographic cast of mind – require a destination. Rather than the arriving, it’s the walking, looking and imagining on an incoherent stroll through an arbitrary landscape that’s the point.
Perhaps the diametrical opposite of an arbitrary stroll is the mountaineering challenge, popular among British adventure masochists, called the Three Peaks, which involves launching yourself bodily up Snowdon, Scafell Pike and Ben Nevis within a twenty-four hour time frame. Scarcely a past-time for flâneurs or loafers, it could indeed be the ideal way to remove all enjoyment from three fantastic days out: a kind of forced march (speed-travel?) with all the enjoyment and charm of, say, a 2 Para training yomp.
Nevertheless, noting the city’s triumvirate of Bergs (i.e. hills or mountains) on a map of Berlin one day, it was difficult to stem the rising tide of an idea: a semi-arbitrary walk connecting the Kreuzberg, Prenzlauer Berg and Schöneberg—a Three Peaks challenge in Berlin, the most extravagantly flat capital in all Europe? It was just too ridiculous to resist.
Aiding the cause was the fact that we were approaching the nothingy time between Christmas and New Year, so one chilly day, the outlook subzero and the city daubed shades of white by the snow, we exited from Yorckstraße U-bahn and began the gentle ascent along Katzlerstraße towards the first non-objective.
Schöneberg, despite its name, doesn’t appear to have a hill, though it does have a barely perceptible rise (have a look on Google Earth if you don’t believe me), on top of which is the Alter St-Matthäus-Kirchhof.
Granted, wandering round a cemetery isn’t everyone’s idea of a great alternative to a rented DVD and opened bottle. But this was a Slow travel walk—and, with all due respect, you just don’t get much slower than a cemetery. The snowy weather gave the place a distinctly fairy-tale-esque, wholly apposite since we had since discovered the cemetery to be the site of the Brothers Grimm graves.
It took a while to find them: they’re less flamboyant than you’d perhaps expect from these towering figures of German folklore and linguistics, just four reasonably-sized black headstones (the two famous brothers, Jacob and Wilhelm, plus two other family members) erupting quietly from the floor like bad teeth.
We strolled next to Kreuzberg, which at sixty-six metres lays claim to Berlin’s loftiest of prominences. In terms of an ascent, Kreuzberg – named after the iron cross on top of the Schinkel memorial to King Frederick William III Of Prussia – is, literally, a walk in the (Viktoria) park. Making our way across the Monumentenbrücke, railway lines below stretching out languorously towards vague, spectral symbols of the city, we paced past whizzing sledges and –surprisingly quickly – gained the summit.
The radio dome of Tempelhof airport was visible to the southwest, a symbol of later militarism; while from the same vantage point Kreuzberg’s contemporary tableau of kebabs and bohemianism seemed terribly narrow. Strange to consider that the slopes of Viktoriapark are home to blooming vineyards in the warmer months, producing a modest surplus of Kreuz-Neroberger wine.
Back on the flat in the arbitrary city, the orienting vertical pull of two Bergs behind us, we traversed east across Mehringdamm, Gneisenaustraße Baerwald Straße and streets covered in every colour of ice apart from white—grey, black, brown, yellow and… how exactly does ice turn green?.
We drifted onto the Landwehr Kanal at Urbanhafen with its derelict party boat before angling north over the Admiralsbrücke and cutting through Kotbusser Tor, which is roughly where, as is supposed to happen, we got lost.
Lost in the sense of not worrying about maps and directions. We walked to Ostbahnhof without really knowing why, looked at the cadaverous Köpi squat on Köpenickerstraße (narrowly avoiding an altercation with a snow-sweeping punk who refused our request for a photo) and discovered that, according to graffitti sprayed on a wall adjacent to the Köpi, ‘the only good system is a suond [sic] system.’
In the anarchist purview, one can only infer, even correct spelling is a system that needs to be smashed.
We crossed Karl Marx Allee… or at least it seemed we did. There was a church, a hospital, the dim wink of Stolpersteine (those brass cobblestones commemorating Jews that disappeared to the death camps) revealing themselves; the interminable wait for the red to change green, and eventually, massing imperceptibly in the foreground, the final rise of the Große Bunkerberg, one of two hills constructed from World War Two rubble in the Volkspark Friedrichshain.
A winding path led to the top where we found, in deepest December on a bitter winter day, a tangle of trees and branches obscuring any real ‘view’. (At seventy-eight metres the Bunkerberg – known also as Mont Klamott – towers even above Kreuzberg, but if it’s a view you want, head for the latter.)
No matter: the purpose of our walk was merely to see rather than seek out prescribed ‘views’—and what better, more pedestrian vista could sum up a walk through Berlin on an oblique pretext than a street sign pointing up a nondescript shallow incline of a road next to a petrol station?
The district, somewhat further north, that it gives its name to comes freighted with another set of associations, yet the actual Prenzlauer Berg is no more than a street rising between Greifswalder Straße and Prenzlauer Allee. Just a street. We walked up it and down it and then went to a bar, and the Three Peaks were walked.
Like so much that’s great about Berlin, you’d hardly even notice they were there.