Everything I Ate When I Cycled the Route of the Berlin Wall
The Berliner Mauerweg cycle path follows all 170 kilometres of the former Berlin Wall. But what do you eat as you attempt to cycle through history? Bread, bottles of Club Mate, Ritter Sport, and a lot of currywurst.
Looking out over the mists and fruit-filled backpacks leaning against my rear wheels, East Berlin's TV Tower just visible through the haze, chewing through a roll covered with lumps of salt, I wonder what exactly I've let myself in for.
Earlier in the week, in the sort of gung-ho move that also sees people shave their heads or paint their front door orange, I decided to cycle the Berliner Mauerweg—the cycle path plotted along all 170 kilometres of the former Berlin Wall. Much of the journey is along old German Democratic Republic border patrol roads, edged on either side by large oak trees and fenceless fields. But I was also to roll through small residential areas, over former motorway checkpoints, through a Nazi-built housing estate for injured World War One veterans, and into the eastern districts of Central Berlin.
But what exactly do you eat as you attempt to cycle through history? There would be bread—by God, there would be bread—but also apples picked from the side of old custom roads, bottles of Club Mate bought from biergartens in the middle of swaying corn fields, soft doughnut peaches, enough Ritter Sport to start our own Olympics, and, of course, for better or worse: currywurst.
As I begin the route, I find orange posts, mounted with photos and biographies of the East German refugees who lost their lives trying to cross into West Berlin—smart-looking, clear-eyed young men, many of them the age of my own boyfriend. Reading about their daring sprints through sand-covered tracks, chased by dogs and shot at by guards, it's hard not to be reminded that refugees are so often our bravest. The borders may have changed, but the stories are easily compared to those in Calais, Lesbos, and Jordan today.
I had set out—perhaps unwisely—at the eye-watering hour of 5 AM. (I wasn't sure how long it would actually take to cycle 170 kilometres on a pair of rented Deutsche Bahn bikes and didn't much fancy the last stretch home in the dark.)
So, tanked up on coffee, carrying breakfast in my bike's back basket, I head north, past the Brandenburg Gate, the Tiergarten, through the former East Berlin neighbourhoods of Prenzlau Berg and Pankow until, in a pinkish hazy dawn, I decide to stop for breakfast.
I'd wanted to kick things off with a ketwurst, a truly arresting vertical combination of sausage and bread that brings to mind a particularly inflamed medical condition, that was the Communist backlash to the hotdog. But sadly, at 5 AM there are scant few places even open, let alone selling this Soviet sausage throwback. So instead, I settle for a pretzel roll studded with salt like diamonds on a Paris Hilton phone cover, and two bananas that, after a couple of hours in a rucksack, have been battered and browned halfway into their own smoothie.
As I eat, two women in cargo shorts and sweatshirts stride past, their huge Rottweiler thudding along after a tennis ball with the sound of a stallion.
"Guten morgan!" they cry, as dog spit flies across my eyeline, before heading off down the hill, to disappear into the mist.
Breakfast finished, I cycle for hours through suburbs and winding woodland path. You see, much of the Berlin Wall wasn't the street-diving edifice we think of from the city centre. It actually ran along the boundary between Berlin and the surrounding region of Brandenburg. Much of the Berliner Mauer was, in fact, a rural wall plotted along fields and lakes, forests, and hay bales. Out here, the wall must have seemed as much a philosophical divide as a physical barrier between West Berlin and East Germany.
It's strange to think that picturesque little villages like Kladow were once on the hardline of one of Europe's most bitter borders. Today, Kladow is having a weekend fun fair and a man in a pair of tiny swimming trunks sits on a sun-doused bench, surrounded by people drinking Coca Cola and eating sausages. Middle-aged women hawk godawful leather jewellery and, right by the path, a teenager in full Adidas stands beside about 12 stacked cages full of extremely fluffy rabbits.
There is scant time to consider the changing face of this little border outpost, however, as I am furiously trying to meet the 1.20 PM ferry to Wannsee. That's right, out here on the North West edge, the Berlin Wall actually went through a lake. Wheeling furiously along sandy paths, swerving around children, gripping the handlebars like Harrison Ford in Cliffhanger, I ride like a demon to try and reach the pier in time. Because, you see, on the other side of that ferry is lunch.
Wannsee is in the former British district of West Berlin where in 1949, Herta Heuwer, who owned her own food kiosk, borrowed a packet of curry power from British soldiers to sprinkle on a sausage and thereby invented the currywurst.
If I hadn't just cycled 80 kilometres, I'm not sure the smooth, squeaking meat would have been quite so tempting. But, in the blazing heat, sitting at a rickety metal chair by a ferry terminal, I eat that sausage like a woman possessed. The man who made it is everything I'd hoped for: brusque, bald, holding the wurst with a giant pair of tongs in one hand and a quickly flicking knife in the other. It comes with a crusty white roll, of course, and I wash the whole colon-clogging thing down with an entire bottle of apfelschorle and two cups of coffee. The middle-aged couple sharing my table eat their bratwurst and mustard with a little more decorum, the wife's face actually puckering into horror as I wipe ketchup from the table and smear it into my mouth.
From Wannsee, I wheel along the southern stretch of the trail, my arse aching in a way I've never really known before. I had no idea there were bones buried deep within my buttocks but, now, I can think of little else but the twin buttons of wincing soreness beneath my knickers. The salt from lunch has dried my mouth into something like the Sahara, so the moment I see a somewhat unlikely sign for a biergarten, among the tall grass and tractors of this rural suburbia, I swerve off immediately.
What I find is a sort of community-hall-come-pub, where balloons line the ceiling and a group of men are watching a Huerta Berlin game on a huge screen. I order a bottle of Club Mate from a woman who has to ring up the price on her phone, apparently unable to do the mental arithmetic involved in 2 x €2.30.
Club Mate, if you haven't had it, is the fizzy mid-point of iced tea, bong water, and Champagne. It has more caffeine than a full cup of coffee and I love it with the fervour of a holiday romance. Standing beside two boys kicking a ball at a wall, I down the entire bottle in less than two minutes, then burp for about two hours as I cycle on to Schonefeld.
Completing the route anti-clockwise means that I come into Berlin from the south west side, past the giant Jacobs coffee factory in Neukolln and into the large, canal-side streets of my neighbourhood. I decide, somewhere around teatime, that the only appropriate way to end this epic adventure was, you've guessed it, with a kebab.
Luckily, there's a place at the top of Gorlitzer Park—right around the corner from where I'm staying and beside the bicycle return stand—that does the best falafel, best schwarma, best halloumi, and biggest portions I've found in all of Berlin. Lowering myself tentatively on one of the large wooden benches outside, the evening sun still hotter than mango chutney, I raise the paper-wrapped package to my nose and inhale deeply.
It is the smell of success.
As I eat, I take in the Kreutzberg locals. A woman in a headscarf smokes a huge, tar-scented cigarette to my left, a young British couple scroll through their phones over an enormous plate of meat and salad, and a bottle-swilling group of denim-clad drug dealers gather on a low wall beside the park. German families stroll past with buggies and babies.
And in the middle of it all I sit, legs aching, stomach swollen, thinking of woods and walls, boundaries and bravery, of Communists and currywurst.