Biking the 650k cycle-route from Berlin to Copenhagen takes you through Germany’s formative, yet cruel and brutal history. A landscape and people that have felt the brunt of successive regimes. Crossing the Baltic to Denmark, you arrive in a country distinct in its separation from time with its thatched-roof farm houses and 16th century baroque churches. In contrast, the Germany that sits on the other side of the sea is a land scarred by time, reshaped by early industrial practices and littered with ugly relics from periods of war and oppression. The bike route is not just a journey involving feat and dedication; it is one that also requires humility as you come to better understand the world around you.
The EuroVelo is a series of bike routes that run throughout the continent, connecting cities from as far as Ireland to Russia. Setup back in 1995, the EU funded route now operates 15 biking highways that connect Athens, Copenhagen, London and Berlin, Consisting of over 45,000 km of bike track. The EuroVelo7 is also know as the Sunshine Route, running from the tip of Norway in the Arctic, all the way to Malta in the Mediterranean. The fragment of which that runs between Berlin and Copenhagen is one of the most subscribed routes of the EuroVelo, with an average 7,000 cyclists making their way one every year. It’s a roundabout 700km trip between the two capitals, on mostly purpose-built cycle paths that take you through forest, fields and small villages.
Having lived in Berlin for 10 years, I had often seen the signposts for the EuroVelo7 when exploring the city. I wondered what it would be like to one day just carrying on to see where it would take me. That dream of just not-stopping. Earlier this year, after work had dried up I saw that I had a window to make this trip happen, and so I did it. I packed two panniers, one with a tent, the other a sleeping bag and some clothes, bought a map and set off. It’s advised you take 15 days to do this in order to take everything in. I wasn’t so interested in seeing all that Northern Germany had to offer. I was more interested on pushing my limits, to see how fast I could take this on, while also acknowledging I had work deadlines to come back to, so I set myself a target of five days.
It seems fitting somehow that the route from Berlin to Copenhagen starts at Brandberger Gate, the city’s most iconic landmark. Over the years it has functioned as the start and end points for many. Napoleon marched through these gates on his way to Russia. The Soviets marched through bringing the end to the Second World War. Today it symbolizes the divide that separated the city once during the Cold War. Should you follow the road straight on through the Gate, you would arrive at Brandenburg an der Havel, an old industrial hub a few kilometres beyond Potsdam from where it takes its name.
Nowadays the central area surrounding Brandberger Gate has become besieged by tourists, taxis and trinket salesfolk. Due to the congestion and poor sign-posting I struggled to find the allotted markers, and ended-up following the route through and alongside the famous governmental buildings, cycling waywardly towards the district of Moabit. Getting lost was going to sum up my first day.
Mis-queuing and cycling off into the unknown already felt like being somewhere new. The Berlin district of Moabit is a cosmopolitan hubris with leafy roads and a multi-cultural population. It reminded me of London with Indian restaurants, busy streets and African hair-salons. But the more I sailed on through, the more I knew I was getting further from where I wanted to be. I tailored a right taking me off Alt-Moabit and over the Westhafenkanal. Coming back to the official route, I went over the Berlin-Spandau Schifffahrtskanal, a 150 year old passage that connected The Haval with the old industrial sectors in Wedding and Mitte. It must be at least 30 metres in width with perpendicular banks so straight, they could only have been made my man. It’s so easy to imagine that at one point it, cargo ships were trawling up and down this body of water on a weekly basis, bringing in raw materials to the city, taking out whatever it was that was being fashioned at the time.
The EuroVelo route to Copenhagen follows the Haval for a large portion of the way. The river serves as Berlin’s gateway to the world. Through a huge system of interconnected tributaries and canals, The Haval allowed passage of goods to either the North or Baltic seas, by running off into either the Elbe or Oder Rivers respectively. A moment in time, when transporting on canals were essential to the order of things. Today, the Havel – and Schifffahrtskanal, serve more a recreational use. Lines of anglers perch against the water’s edge. A set of unused water polo goalposts indicate how clean the water has become, and the type of people that now use the waterway.
Lining the Schifffahrtskanal, creating the buffer between the water and the airport, is an area of classically styled East German ferienwohnungs – small, shed-like homes. A lot of Berliners use these as retreats, as places where they can grow plants in a garden and escape the inner city, apartment lives. These Schifffahrtskanal ferienwohnungs were very much more decadent than the ones you find closer to the inner city. Here you had little houses designed to look like alpine ski lodges, with refitted roofs and gardens so prim, it were as if they were competing for an award.
Even though it was already May, the weather was still refusing to acknowledge that summer was around the corner. Wearing just normal skater-shorts, and my Colombian-football tricot with a thermal underlayer, the cold for all its might, was not getting through to me. The dew pressed against my skin as I cycled forward. At the beginning, you know there is far to go. There’s no predicting how your body will fare, and how the strains will feel but already my mind was feeling open and balanced. Across the edge of the canal and heading towards Spandau, I was feeling meditative, balanced and strong.
And so when encountering some of the more brutal reminders of the harsh world we live in, it caused pain and sadness. In our daily lives, our eyes fail to see some of the things that scare us, but on the road, nothing can be ignored. Coming into Spandau, I pass my first camp. The first of many that litter this particular road through Germany. Although unlike the others, this serves a humanitarian cause – a refugee camp, built loosely around old shipping containers in a disused school playground. The camp stands out from its surroundings – plush maisonettes, with quaint gardens. Middle eastern men stand outside talking, smoking. There have been many reports of cramped conditioning and rioting over the past year in this camp, but with time, you can only hope these refugees find a better life.
This reminder of the modern day war taking place further afield detracts from the other vestiges of Geramy’s long forgotten past. Spandau itself housed many leading Nazi figures after the war, awaiting trial at Nuremberg. Moving on from Spandau and the EuroVelo route eventually unfolds onto the Mauerweg – a stretch of land where the giant wall separated West Berlin from the rest of the DDR. The old divide follows the Havel north, the water once acting as a natural barrier to separate the East and West. Just outside of Spandau there’s an old an old watch tower that used to patrol the old border – Grenzturm Nieder Neuendorf. Crowning over the river, the former patrol hut is now a tourist centre and is one of the last of its kind remaining. An old man looks after it all time. He’s very hospitable and as I look around he offers to watch my bike. You know when you’ve left Berlin; the local people are more friendly. It’s difficult to really articulate the general boorishness of Berliners to those who’ve never experienced it.
Through Henningsdorf and a different side of life starts to become visible. This is where some of the wealthier folk have settled down. River-side cottages, with long gardens, well-kept green grass and picket fences. The water is lined with private boats, and mini- yachts. Off the water and into the woods, and the air from the pine trees lines your lungs. It’s like entering a new microcosm, where the atmosphere and ambience is dictated by the trees. Through the small town, and down back onto the Havel and there’s an old timber mill. Lines of felled-trees await their fate and in the silence a rare, green woodpecker is making the most of the situation. If you keep your eye on the road you’ll see the road-signs that indicate you've crossed the old border – ‘Here Germany and Europe was reconnected at January 13th 1990, at 9.45’.
Through some small, non-descript villages of Brandenberg, and the route creeps up on Oranienburg. The outskirts of this industrial town, are bleak. Old apartment blocks, that look as though they are made out of corrugated plastic line the road into town. Warehouses, and factories next to people who look as equally displeased with their current meaning. It all reminds of the area of the UK where I grew up; the Midlands. A part of the country where old factories struggle to remain revelant. Into town I pass a football pitch where the grass is overgrown. Kids sit along the Oder-Havel Canal listening to music through their speakers. Oranienburg Palace sits in the centre of the town. It’s baroque façade and pristine gardens disgusie the town’s pains.
Oranienburg really got the short end of the stick for an extremely long time. It’s home to Sachsenhausen - one of the largest concentration camps in the region, where over 30,000 people died. The Russians came in and decided to use the location for a similar function, of which another 12,000 died in the space of five years. Oranienburg served as a vital industrial location for both the Nazis and the DDR, who had nuclear research facilities in the region, in addition to various brickwork factories, where the concentration camp prisoners were forced to work. When the Russians came in, they built upon what the Nazis had started, turning the area into an industrial hub. The area itself is also home to around 300 pieces of unexploded ordnance, a special type of bomb the allies used that had delayed explosive charges – that are still being discovered today.
The EuroVelo takes you through the town and back along the canal. Somehow I get lost and struggle to find Lehnitzsee. It’s a while before I can find the route again on the Oder-Haval Canal. Further outside the city, I cross the canal in a misty-dew and take the wooded bike route through Zehdenick, where more relics of the area's industrial past litter the surroundings. These small, satellite towns appear vastly empty. Ghost towns with memories of the past. Night begins to fall on and I push on to make it to the camp site. I leave the Havel which flows off to the east, and cycle alongside Wentowsee to Fischerwall when I pitch camp. It’s EUR 10,- for the night, and I am but one of three campers next to the lake. Having left Berlin at 9.30 in the morning, it’s 7 in the evening when I finally rest. I’ve done 110km in one day. There are no resaurants in the area, and no shops in site, so I have to do with the camping store – my dinner consists of a packet of jaffa biscuits and a beer. Not really a feast of champions, but for now it will do as Wentowsee becomes my home for the night.