Berlin transforms in the summer and the River Spree becomes a magnet for leisure and entertainment. We live close to the river where it glides past the Fischerinsel, Fisher Island, and Berlin’s Historischen Hafen, where a collection of old tugs and boats remind passersby of the days when this was a busy inland port. This area is a remnant of Berlin that managed to survive the Second World War intact. It didn’t survive communist city planners and the area was flattened in 1957.
This was also the former border between Communist East Berlin and the Capitalist West. The area was a customs and border zone. The Berlin Wall used to run through here, and you can still see traces of it today. A walk along the river towards Treptow Park begins in the former GDR, before crossing the line of the wall back into West Berlin before crossing back into the East. It’s a route that highlights the absurdity of the divided city.
I hadn’t realised it at first, but our route along the river was redolent with Cold War history. The Wall may have gone, but you’re still not able to walk the whole way along the river. Occasionally you’re forced into the surrounding streets, which isn’t always a delight, and an eclectic mix of pre- and post-war buildings along Kopenickerstrasse. It’s not always easy to know which ideological area of Berlin you’re in, but from where we live, you’re firmly in the East until you hit the Schillingbrucke across the Spree.
Beyond here it’s the West for a few blocks, but on the other side of the river is another Cold War remnant, one of the few remaining stretches of the Berlin Wall. The East Side Gallery is a hugely popular tourist attraction with painted segments of wall that attract selfie-takers by the thousands. Which is ironic, this is probably the least original street art in Berlin. Still in the West, we passed the Oberbaumbrucke, the entire length of the bridge was East Germany, the southern bank of the river was in the West.
The Oberbaumbrucke is one of Berlin’s most iconic, a double-decker carrying trains, cars and pedestrians built in red brick Gothic and dating from the late 19th century. It was a critical border crossing between the American and Soviet sectors. Finally, you cross the Landwehr Canal and it’s back to the East again. Today the area along the river here is home to a cluster of painfully hip nightclubs, bars and restaurants. It’s all very un-Soviet and grungy.
Glinting in the sun in the distance is a towering 30 metre high sculpture, the Molecule Men. This striking sculpture was installed in 1997. The work of American artist, Johnathon Borofsky, the three shiny aluminium men are meant to represent unity, yet look like they are locked in a three-way struggle. Ironically, in a city that trades on its originality, they’re not unique. First appearing in Los Angeles in the 1970s, there’s even a version in Yorkshire, England.
They are, however, strategically located in the middle of the river at the intersection of three Berlin districts. Kreuzberg, Treptow and, over the river, Friedrichshain. Our goal was Treptow Park, where you can visit a Soviet war cemetery. We had other ambitions – a beer garden on the Insel der Jugend, or the Island of Youth, with its famous bridge, the Abteibrücke. This is supposed to be the oldest composite steel bridge in Germany, something only a dedicated steel bridge enthusiast could get excited about.
Our walk was about 7km, enough to justify a couple of hours watching the world go by on the river from a deckchair – in the company of a cold Berliner Kindl.