Afternoon in Johannisthal; the summer sun beats down through the trees on a quiet residential street. A man in a wheelchair watches me from an open doorway and an elderly lady peers suspiciously from her balcony as I snap pictures of a block of flats. Its grey-rendered neoclassical exterior marks it out from the surrounding buildings, more ornate, with a certain grandeur in its tall windows and floral decorations, which could only be the 1950s East German ‘national style’. Were this a side-street off Karl-Marx-Allee, it wouldn’t seem at all unusual, but here in the seemingly less exceptional surroundings of Johannisthal, even its best attempts to hide behind a line of trees can’t disguise the fact that it’s something unusual.

This building was part of an experiment which would change the face of the GDR, the foundations of something which would come to form the backbone of East German housing policy: this was the GDR’s first Plattenbau (panel construction - see below for more on the word).

The concept of building housing from precast concrete panels wasn’t a new one; it was developed by John Alexander Brodie in Liverpool around 1905 and it was first employed in Berlin for the Splanemann-Siedlung in 1926. It’s often said that the flagship building projects in 1950s East Berlin employed traditional materials on ideological grounds, but this is not the case. Even when introducing the five year plan at the third Socialist Unity Party conference on July 22nd 1950, General Secretary Walter Ulbricht was calling for the development of “standardised heavy and light concrete parts” for use with “industrialised building techniques.”

A steel embargo and a shortage of cement were among the reasons that the showpiece buildings on Stalinallee (now Karl-Marx-Allee) were built mainly with brick and stone, much of it recycled from bombed-out buildings. Reinforced concrete parts did, however, form the frame to Hermann Henselmann’s towers at Strausberger Platz and parts of those at Frankfurter Tor.

With roughly 600,000 homes destroyed and the labour force depleted by World War II, the need to build quickly and cheaply with a minimum of manpower was clear. The 16 Principles of Town Planning, produced on July 27th 1950 after a visit to Moscow by prominent planners and architects in April that year, further reinforced what Ulbricht had declared a few days previously, stating that cities were predominantly “built by industry for industry.”

Ulbricht made quite clear at the 1950 conference, however, that he did not appreciate the modernist style of building, which he said was “not in accordance with the national character, but rather, the formalistic thinking of a number of architects who transferred the primitivity of certain factory buildings to residential buildings,” and that these “American boxes” (the phrase ‘American egg boxes’ often attributed to him was not used on this occasion) could just as easily be placed in the African landscape, so little did they have to do with the traditions and character of Berlin.

Everything was instead to be constructed in the new ‘national style’ as exemplified by the Stalinallee project, taking hints from the greats such as Karl Friedrich Schinkel and Carl von Gontard, but also making a rather heavy nod to the ‘Socialist Classical’ style that had developed under Stalin in the Soviet Union.

The task of employing the Plattenbau technique in the context of the new architectural tradition was given to the architect Carl Fieger. He was called to work at the Bauakademie by Richard Paulick, director of the institute for residential construction, who had known Fieger from their days at the Bauhaus in Dessau, working in the office of Walter Gropius. Fieger began work at his research post in late 1952 and the experimental building in Johannisthal which resulted was built from 1953 to 1954.

The death of Joseph Stalin in March 1953, and his eventual replacement by Nikita Khrushchev, is often seen as a turning point in building practice, with a push towards more pragmatic, industrialised forms of building. However, though building of the Johannisthal Plattenbau began after Stalin’s death, it was before Khrushchev’s speech at the All-Union Conference of Building Workers in Moscow on November 30th 1954, where he signalled the change in direction in the Eastern Bloc. The Johannisthal Plattenbau was to be one of a number of experiments in industrialised building taking place in place in Berlin in the early 1950s, many of them decidedly less ornate than the ‘national style’ seemed to dictate.

In the case of Fieger’s Plattenbau, there is nothing about the building’s external appearance which would give away its construction and it adheres closely to the National Style. Fieger also made sure that the interior was of a high standard, with marble in the stairwells, ornate banisters, and parquet flooring in the flats.

The panels which make up the building - each one equating to one wall of a room and weighing between 2.5 and 3 tons - were cast on site, in a small factory on what is now the building’s back garden by workers from state-owned building firm VEB Bau (VEB standing for Volkseigener Betrieb - publicly-owned operation, Bau being ‘construction’). Casting was done in wooden frames, using cement mixed with crushed bricks, which both provided the concrete with a good aggregate and proved a good way of recycling the huge amounts of rubble left by the destruction of World War II. Conduits for cabling and pipes were made during the casting process, by laying inflated rubber hoses in the wet concrete. The panels were then left to set, before being plastered and fitted with windows and doors, while still on the ground. They were then assembled to create 19 flats over 4 floors.

The whole exterior is rendered, and the steel plates which hold the concrete panels together are cleverly concealed by decorative elements, making it impossible to tell how the building was constructed. However, one of the two relief carvings above the main doorways, by the sculptor Karl Felzmann, holds a clue, showing builders assembling a building from concrete panels. The second relief hints at the buildings roots in past architectural traditions, depicting a group of architects at work, with the central figure measuring what appears to be the stylised ground plan of a three-wing baroque building in the vein of the Palace of Versailles.

The topping out ceremony was held on 19th March 1954, with a speech from Bauakademie president Kurt Liebknecht. He predicted that the use of this technique would, once the process was fully industrialised, lead to a sinking in building costs of around 25 percent. While the technique did eventually yield great economies of scale for the GDR, it was many years before the savings could be realised.

For his work on the project, Fieger was awarded a certificate for outstanding achievements by the Bauakademie, on May 1st 1953. It was to be the last building that he worked on, as he suffered a stroke in November 1953 and retired, aged 60. He died in Dessau in 1960. His work, however, paved the way for a huge industrialisation of home building in the GDR, which left its mark over much of East Germany and gave Berlin developments as diverse as the satellite town of Marzahn-Hellersdorf and the ‘old town’ areas of the Nikolaiviertel and Gendarmenmarkt.

Notes on the word 'Plattenbau'

A combination of the words ‘Platte’ (best translated here as ‘panel’) and ‘Bau’ (construction), the word is today used to describe buildings constructed from prefabricated concrete panels. In the days of the GDR, the technique was referred to as Großplattenbauweise (large panel building method) and the buildings were simply ‘Neubauten’ (new buildings). The word ‘Plattenbau’ seems to have developed, at least in print, since the fall of the wall. The first reference recorded by the system is in the West German magazine Der Spiegel on November 13th 1989. There are some who feel it is a politicised term used by Westerners who look down on the Eastern housing developments as being inferior; others use it with a certain pride, and it is often also used in the positive marketing efforts of property management firms such as WBM.

For many years, I’ve made a pilgrimage every summer, out to Wannsee, buying a cone of delicious home made ice cream at Faustmann’s Kleines Café by the station, then sitting by the lake shore, taking the ferry across to Kladow, or walking in the woods. That was until I read that Faustmann’s Kleines Café was being forced out of its premises and so would be shutting up shop after 60 years. What would become of my summer tradition?

The answer found me on the X69 bus from Köpenick S-Bahn station, heading out into the wilds of south-eastern Berlin. During the years of division, the Müggelsee was to East Berlin what Wannsee is to West Berlin.

A short climb from where the X69 stops at Rübezahl bus stop is the Müggelturm, an observation tower nestling in the woods on the Müggelberge hills. I am on familiar territory here, having visited back in 2010. The tower and restaurant building are still in the process of being modernised, but it offers great views over the area, and there’s a kiosk selling snacks and drinks, so it’s a great place to stop off if you fancy a walk in the woods. There's more information in German on its website if you're interested.

Further along the X69’s route, the bus winds its way through leafy village streets to its final stop at Odernheimer Straße. Carrying on down Neuhelgoländer Weg on foot leads to the terrace of the riverside pub Neu Helgoland. On the right-hand corner, surrounded by tranquil water dotted by lily pads is a tiny boat terminal, served by the F23 ferry.

Neu Helgoland is the mid-point on the ferry’s route; in one direction, it heads further along the river to Kruggasse in Rahnsdorf, but for now I’m more interested in the other direction, where it heads out across the mouth of the river on the Müggelsee, ending up at Müggelwerderweg. The ferry is run on behalf of the Berlin transport authority BVG, so you can travel using any valid public transport ticket (e.g. a Tageskarte - both stops are in zone B) - just show the ferryman your ticket as you get on, or buy one from him if you need one. If that doesn’t make it unusual enough, there’s also the fact that the F23 is a solar powered catamaran. Once cruising, the ferry glides almost silently through the water, and all without the stink of diesel fumes. It runs Tuesdays to Sundays, between Good Friday and October 31st.

The ferry cruises gently over the Kleiner Müggelsee and along the Müggelspree river, past reeds and tree-lined river banks with small cabins peeking from beyond the foliage. As it turns towards Müggelwerderweg, looking off the ferry’s port side gives you an expansive view along the length of the lake towards Köpenick, where sailing boats bob idyllically on the water. It’s possible to rent a wide variety of boats, including some which can be hired without a licence, from a number of places around the Müggelsee.

The ferry glides past more reeds into a small marina at Müggelwerderweg, where it’s roughly a fifteen minute walk to the number 61 tram terminus at Rahnsdorf Waldschänke.

While the ‘uferbahn’ segment of the number 68 route from Grünau to Schmöckwitz is more famous and covers a longer stretch, this stretch is just as pretty. When you’re used to looking out of a BVG tram window and seeing city streets, having green foliage speed by instead comes as something of a surprise and just adds to the fun feeling of having escaped the city without actually leaving it. The tram line was opened in 1929 and the stretch between here and Friedrichshagen came close to being shut down by BVG in 2014. It was given a reprieve after public outcry, but its future beyond 2020 is unclear, so it’s worth enjoying now while you can.

The first stop on the route is Strandbad Müggelsee, a bathing beach which is currently free to use. The beach is kept open by a local citizens’ group, as the beach has seen plans and investors come and go. Though the buildings are mostly empty save for a sauna, the neighbouring windsurfing and sailing school has a small ‘beach bistro’ which sells soups and stews, if you fancy something to eat.

Friedrichshagen was founded under Friedrich II in 1753 as a home to protestant spinners from Bohemia fleeing religious persecution. Its convenient transport connections, fresh air and lakeside location led to Friedrichshagen being designated as a ‘climatic spa’ in 1880. With its proliferation of older buildings, it still retains a strong spa town feel, and even if you’re not here on holiday, a stroll along the main street of Bölschestraße should leave you feeling like you are. Mulberry trees still grow along the way, a throwback to Friedrich II’s desire to farm silk worms here, though all but one of the trees (outside the wholefoods shop at 63) are modern re-plantings. The street is lined with cafés, bakeries, restaurants and other tempting shops, and seems like the perfect place to end the trip around the Müggelsee. I think it’s time for that ice cream…

Heading south towards where Bölschestraße meets Müggelseedamm, there’s a point where the street seems to suddenly fill with people sitting on steps, leaning against walls and generally standing around. What are they doing? Eating ice cream!

Inside the Da Dalt ice cream shop, 24 different flavours are laid out like an artist’s palette. I feel particularly drawn to the fruity flavours - like the tangy mandarin, zingy lemon and velvety blackberry - but there are all sorts, like ‘open sesame’ (Sesam öffne dich), dark chocolate or walnut and fig.

The shop was opened here at Bölschestraße 94 by Fabio da Dalt, who comes from what amounts to an ice cream dynasty. His uncle Luigi opened his first shop in West Berlin in 1966 and, though he is no longer in the business, there are still shops run by other family members in other parts of the city. Fabio has brought this great wealth of Italian ice cream tradition to his business in Friedrichshagen, with him and his wife starting work at 5 every morning to make the shop’s range of roughly 24 different flavours (the selection varies) from a wide array of ingredients, many of which they get from Italy.

A 15 minute walk to the end of Bölschestraße and off to the left down Josef-Nawrocki-Straße gets you to a small park on the edge of the lake where you can sit on a bench and look out over the water. There’s also a number of restaurants and bars nearby, including an open-air beach bar and a restaurant boat directly on the water. If you don’t feel like staying, the S3 line will take you from Friedrichshagen S-Bahn station back to Ostkreuz, where you can easily get back into central Berlin.

Star shaped lanterns on sale in Berlin

Now minty (or should that be cinnamon?) fresh and ready for Christmas 2016! I keep the information on this page as accurate as possible, but please do double-check things if there's something you especially want to see.

I may be offering some special tours in the first week or so of December 2016; I'm still working on the details, but please do get in touch if that sounds interesting to you!

When to go

The major Christmas markets in Berlin open in the last week of November and are open right up until Christmas itself, with some open into the beginning of January (Berlin's also a popular destination for New Year's Eve celebrations, though bear in mind that some accommodation prices go up quite a bit at that time).

December 6th in Germany is Nikolaus - St Nicholas's Day - when children traditionally put out their boots to be filled with goodies by St Nick...though if they've been bad, they may get a stick (called a Rute) for their parents to beat them with instead! If you're staying in a Berlin hotel on the night of the 5th, you may find you get a small gift, like a chocolate Weihnachtsmann (Father Christmas) left for you by your door. I've not noticed them giving out sticks, though...

A traditional German nutcracker

What to expect

The Christmas markets have stalls selling a variety of traditional (and less traditional) gifts and decorations. Particularly common to see are wooden ornaments from the Erzgebirge in the east of Germany, like Nußknacker (nutcrackers, like the rather fearsome fellow in the picture up above - not things that are really designed for actually cracking nuts with) and Räuchermänner (smoking men - wooden men which you put an incense cone inside, making smoke come out the mouth). Also common to find is Glühwein (mulled wine), and its rum-laced cousin Feuerzangenbowle - perfect for the cold days!

There'll usually be food stalls too - you'll most likely find at least one selling Bratwurst, often alongside the Berlin speciality the Bulette (which you could either see as a big flat pork meatball, or a bunless pork burger). Gulaschsuppe (goulash soup) is worth looking out for, as is Berliner Kartoffelsuppe (Berlin potato soup), both of which are usually not particularly expensive, but very filling.

If you're after something more on the sweet side, you'll usually find a stall selling Schmalzkuchen, which could be literally translated as 'lard cake' which sounds disgusting. It's actually small squares of deep fried dough, almost like little doughnuts. It's served in a cone of paper, covered with icing sugar, which means it can be hell to eat if you're wearing dark clothes (but very entertaining for the stallholder who's just emptied half his pot of icing sugar onto your Schmalzkuchen). Another thing you'll probably see are the round balls of deep fried dough known as Quarkkeulchen which, when they've been freshly fried and are still warm, are great on a cold night.

What to wear

The weather in Berlin does get quite cold during winter. It's common for temperatures to drop to well below 0°C in December, so it's worth packing plenty of warm clothes...or buy some in Berlin - the Germans know a thing or two about winter clothes! Either one thick jacket or several layers is a good idea, and I always like to have a nice pair of gloves and a warm hat too.

Snow isn't unheard of either, especially later in the month, so you might get at least a small taste of a white Christmas on your guarantees, though! Beautiful though snow is, it does mean it can get a bit slippery underfoot, though pavements on larger roads tend to get swept and gritted quite regularly. Packing a nice warm pair of shoes or boots with good grips is a good idea!

On the flip side, in a milder winter, it can rain - I like to keep a small umbrella in my pocket just in case.

The Christmas Markets (see Christmas markets map)

There are markets right across the city centre - amongst others, there's one on Alexanderplatz, one in front of the Rathaus, one by the Opernpalais on Unter den Linden, one on Potsdamer Platz and one on Breitscheidplatz (around the Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche). Those ones are all free to visit; there's also one in Gendarmenmarkt which charges a small entry fee. They generally stay open until well after the shops have closed (often around 9 - 10 at night), so it can be a nice way to end the day, plus the atmosphere is just that bit more special (and the Glühwein seems that extra bit more warming) after dark.

Of course there are many more all over the city (between 50 and 70, depending on who you believe), but hopefully this small selection will serve as a taster (plus they're good if you're only going for a short time and want to see all the sights as well). If you're viewing this via the front page, you might want to click the article's title to take you to the single page view, where you'll be able to see a whole set of handy Google Maps links at the bottom to help you find these markets, of you can follow this link to see them all on one handy map.

The Alexanderplatz market has the advantage of being very close to the station, as well as being close to the shops around Alexanderplatz, which you might find useful for Christmas shopping (and I personally prefer the Galeria Kaufhof on Alexanderplatz to KaDeWe, if I'm wanting a big department store).

It's open from November 21st - December 26th 2016 (some of the food/drink huts and the skating rink until January 1st).
Open daily from 10am - 10pm (but 10am - 4pm on December 24th).

Almost blending into the Alexanderplatz market is the 'Wintertraum am Alexa' (winter dream at Alexa), which stretches along Alexanderstraße to Jannowitzbrücke, along the side of the Alexa shopping centre (the bizarre pink building on the southern side of Alexanderplatz). There's also a big funfair at the back of it.

It's open from November 21st - December 23rd 2016.
Monday - Friday 2pm - 10pm, Saturday and Sunday 12pm - 10pm.

Alexanderplatz is a major transport hub, so there's a huge choice of ways to get there - S-Bahn (S3, S5, S7/75), U-Bahn (U2, U5, U8), tram (M2, M4, M5, M6, M8), bus (TXL, 100, 200, 248) and regional trains (RE1, RE2, RE7, RB14).

The Christmas market at the Berliner Rathaus

The market by the Rathaus, known as Berliner Weihnachtszeit, is of course also close to Alexanderplatz, so you can always visit the two, plus take a wander through the nearby Nikolaiviertel, which you might also find good for gifts. I've noticed it getting very crowded on some nights (Fridays and Saturdays in particular) and the organisers have been warning of pickpockets in recent years - something to be wary of in any crowded area in a big city like Berlin. Even when crowded, the atmosphere has remained good natured, so it depends what you prefer - if you love it when a place is really bustling, a Friday or Saturday here will suit you perfectly. If you prefer things a bit quieter, you might want to try it at another time, or head for somewhere that's generally quieter like Schloß Charlottenburg.

The Rathaus market also boasts a 50m high ferris wheel, which promises impressive views, though stood next to the 368m high Fernsehturm, it's hard not to think of it as rather small! If you prefer to stay on the ground, there's an ice skating rink too.

It's open from November 21st - December 29th 2016.
Monday - Friday 12pm - 10pm, Saturday and Sunday 11am - 10pm (closed all day December 24th, then open 11am - 9pm on the 25th and 26th, and 12 - 9pm on the 29th)

The Nostalgischer Weihnachtsmarkt at the Opernpalais

The The Nostalgischer Weihnachtsmarkt (nostalgic Christmas market) is, in turn, not all that far from the Rathaus. It's now on Schloßplatz, having moved from its previous regular location by the Opernpalais because of building work. It's not really as atmospheric a location, and hopefully it'll be able to move back to its old location once the building work on the opera house has finished. It's not a bad place to get a close-up look at the new replica of the old city palace which is currently under construction on Schloßplatz, though.

It's open from November 23rd - December 26th 2016.
Monday - Thursday 12pm - 9:30pm, Fridays 12 - 10:30pm, Saturdays 11 - 10:30pm, Sundays 11am - 9:30pm (closed December 24th, then open 11:30am - 9pm from the 25th and 26th).

I've mentioned the Weihnachtszauber market in Gendarmenmarkt before. Unlike most markets, they charge an entry fee (though still only 1 euro) and a lot of the things on offer are more expensive, but it's free on weekday afternoons - no bad thing, as I've found it getting rather overcrowded on some evenings. It's particularly good for arts and crafts, and a lot of the food stalls are run by nearby restaurants and hotels. Of course, it's within walking distance of the Opernpalais, so if you fancy doing a market crawl, you can go all the way from Alexanderplatz to Gendarmenmarkt and not be away from a Christmas market for more than about 5 minutes! If you don't fancy the walk, the U-Bahn stations Stadtmitte (U2, U6), Französische Straße (U6) and Hausvogteiplatz (U2) are all close by (the exit from the U2 platform at Stadtmitte is the closest of the lot).

It's open from November 21st - December 31st 2016 - they also hold a New Year's Eve event there.
Open daily 11am - 10pm (closing at 6pm on December 24th and 31st; entry to the New Year's Eve party on the 31st, from 7pm - 1am, is €12). Entry is free Monday - Friday 11am - 2pm.

At Potsdamer Platz, there are a number of events including a selection of winter sports activities.

The 'Winterwelt' (winter world), which offers a toboggan run, skating rink and curling, is slightly separate from the market, opening on November 4th and closing on January 1st. It claims to have Europe's largest mobile toboggan run, which is free to use, as is the skating rink. There's also free skating tuition for children aged between 4 and 7 years old.

It's open daily from 10am - 10pm (10pm - 2pm on December 24th, closed all day November 13th and 20th).

The Christmas market offers all the usual fare, and of course is well placed for combining with a trip to the shopping centre at Potsdamer Platz, or to one of the cultural establishments at the Kulturforum, such as the Philharmonie or the Musical Instruments Museum

The Christmas market is open from November 21st until December 26th 2016.
Open daily 10am - 10pm (but 10am - 2pm on December 24th).

Inside the Sony Center, there's a 'Fabelhafte Weihnachten' (Enchanting Christmas) display, with light figures and Christmas trees, plus a daily dance show (Monday - Thursday 5-8pm, Friday & Saturday 4-9pm, Sunday 4-8pm). Opening dates have not yet been released for 2016, but is likely late November until the beginning of January.

I feel like the area around the Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche has taken a bit of an upward turn lately, particularly with the newly refurbished 'Bikini Haus', so the Christmas market (called Weihnachtsmarkt an der Gedächtniskirche) is worth a look. It's very close to Zoologischer Garten station, so like with Alexanderplatz, there are plenty of options for getting there. It's got a selection of the usual sorts of food stalls, plus the 'Hirschstube' pop-up restaurant run by top chef Matthias Buchholz.

It also has a small Santa's Grotto at the base of the giant Christmas tree, where Father Christmas gives out presents to children between 4 and 5pm every day (12 - 1pm on the 24th). There's also a stand run by the 'Backmäuse' (baking mice!) where children can go to bake Christmas biscuits.

On December 31st, there are fireworks at 6pm, 8pm, 10pm and at midnight.

It's open from November 21st 2016 - January 1st 2017.
Open Sunday - Thursday 11am - 9pm, Friday - Saturday 11am - 10pm (but 11am - 2pm on December 24th, 1pm - 9pm on December 25th and 26th, 1pm - 9pm on January 1st, and there's a special late opening from 11am - 1am on December 31st).

If you want to venture ever so slightly further from the city centre, the Schloss Charlottenburg Christmas Market is nice. Like I mentioned in my piece on it, the setting is particularly atmospheric. Along with a nice selection of things to buy, it has three restaurant tents, one selling local dishes from Brandenburg, one selling Austrian specialities and one selling mainly duck and goose-based dishes.

It's open from November 21st - December 26th 2016.
Open Monday - Thursday 2pm - 10pm, Friday - Sunday 12pm - 10pm (but closed on December 24th, open 12pm - 8pm on December 25th and 26th).

The Berliner Dom in winter

Other Christmas activities

If you want to enjoy the more religious side of Christmas in Berlin, the Berliner Dom has services and other events (including performances of Bach's Christmas Oratorio) throughout the period. For Catholic services, you may want to try St Hedwig's Cathedral.

You might also like to look out for the traditional Christmas meal of roast goose, something you'll find in a lot of the restaurants that serve more traditional German food.

December is really a lovely time to visit Berlin (if you like wintry weather, at least!), so if you like the sound of what you've read here, then now's a good time to start planning your trip - you can get some great deals by booking early, and some travel agents, hotels and airlines put on special Christmas offers.

Don't forget to take a look at the Christmas markets map if you want to see where they all are!

You might remember from my explorations of the former death strip how the Berlin 'wall' was in fact quite a sophisticated double-layered border fortification. In some places the border exclusion zone extended even beyond the wall itself, into what they designated the 'Grenzgebiet' (frontier area).

These existed in areas where the border was more vulnerable for some reason, like when it was harder to watch over it, when the walls of buildings formed part of it or where the wall was vulnerable in some other way. The zone was then declared part of the Grenzgebiet and access heavily restricted.

Only people considered not at risk of trying to escape were allowed to live in any housing that remained within these areas and they were only allowed guests with the permission of the authorities. Similarly, where the Grenzgebiet included cemeteries, those visiting family graves were only allowed in if they had a 'Grabkarte' (grave card) which allowed them permission to do so.

This rail on Schönholzer Straße might at first seem like something purely to chain bikes to, or to stop pedestrians from wandering into the middle of the road, but it's actually connected with the Grenzgebiet here.

The 'Hintere Sicherungsmauer' or 'Hinterlandmauer' (the eastern side of the border fortification) ran along the northern side of the pavement here, where the grass is in the first picture. The poles served both to highlight to pedestrians that the area behind them was out of bounds and to remove any chances of cars straying off the road and hitting the wall. Signs reminded citizens that anyone entering the area could only do so with the correct permission (and, of course, papers to prove it).

Where there seemed to be more danger that a vehicle could be driven head-on into the wall, they often put out things like these:

While I can see how the plants might once have made these mildly more attractive, they don't go a long way towards disguising the fact that they're fairly brutal chunks of concrete. Certainly in their current overgrown state, I can't imagine many people being convinced of their decorative value.

Making them hollow would have made them lighter (and therefore easier to transport and manoeuvre) though, as well as cheaper - they could then just be filled with soil to bulk up their weight once they were in place. They're sometimes known as Blumenschalensperren (planter barriers). These particular ones are on the corner of Esplanade and Dolomitenstraße in Pankow.

The picture above is taken looking away from where the wall would have been. You can just see the road Esplanade leading into the distance to the left of the picture - the fact that both Esplanade and Dolomitenstraße led towards the wall here would have been the reason for these being put where they are. There's a third one, which you can see in the picture below, and I imagine there would have been a fourth one where there's now a gap for a cycle path.

This view - looking towards the former death strip - also gives you an idea of how thick the concrete in these planters is. The one in the foreground has a circular hole in it for the plants, so the corners are rather thicker than some of the others, which have square holes.

Either way, the concrete's a good 10cm thick even at its thinnest point. It would certainly take rather more than a daredevil driver in a speeding Trabant to break through these. The fact that your death as a result of that would have been reported as the result of criminal actions intended to harm the stability of the GDR rather than just that you rammed into an overgrown flowerpot would probably have been little consolation.

August 13th 2011. 50 years since the day in 1961 when East German troops began building what was to become the Berlin wall.

While the great and the good are all making their appearances in the city centre, I decide to head out to Eiskeller, a former exclave of West Berlin. It was the source of a curious story, of schoolboy Erwin Schabe who, in September 1961, came home complaining that he'd been sent back by East German border guards while on his way to school along a narrow path that was surrounded by East German territory. His complaints ended up having rather wider consequences than he imagined. Today, of all days, seems like a good day to visit the place where it all happened, as well as a good chance to tell the story of what happened next...

It's 2:30 in the afternoon when I arrive in Schönwalde, the village to the immediate north of Eiskeller. It's a warm day, with a blue sky punctuated by occasional fluffy white clouds. The village is so idyllic that it's hard to imagine the shock which must have rocked it on this day 30 years ago, when villagers awoke to find themselves separated from the West Berlin bezirk of Spandau.

I follow along the canal which formed the defensive border with West Berlin. The actual border was a few hundred metres away, but running the wall along the canal to leave a large 'no man's land' in between clearly made more sense to East German authorities.
The path is lined with yellow flowers and every now and then, a shiny black beetle scuttles out in front of me. On the other side of the canal, large fields stretch out towards the trees that mark the edges of Schönwalde village.

I'm hoping to be able to get through from here to Eiskeller but, seeing there's no easy way through, I turn back towards the main road.

Coming to the end of the path, I find that a number of cars have arrived and parked where the path meets the main road. A lot of people seem to be milling around and I get the feeling it's some sort of event, though I can't work out what. It becomes more clear as I turn the corner and see a podium has been erected next to a wall memorial. Even though I'd decided to avoid commemorative events today, it seems that one has found me.

I wander over to the information posts next to the memorial. A blond haired man in a suit comes over and shakes hands with the woman next to me. "Hi, good to see you" he says. I start to move away as they exchange a few more words, partly to carry on reading the post and partly to avoid being mistaken for this woman's entourage.
"Hallo" says the man, offering his hand as he turns to me.
"Hallo" I reply cautiously as we shake hands. I have no idea who this man is, but now we've shaken hands, I figure I ought to at least stick around to find out, plus it feels like joining in this village's commemorations might be an interesting way to mark the occasion.

The man turns out to be Bodo Oehme, mayor of Schönwalde, who gets up at the podium and introduces the event with some thoughts on the way Germany has changed since the days of the wall. Then hands over to the woman I'd been standing next to. She is Saskia Ludwig, the CDU leader of the opposition in the Brandenburg Landtag and she carries on in a similar vein. It seems to be as much political posturing as commemoration and I have to admit my eyes glaze over a little during both their speeches. Then the researcher Klaus Schröder gives a speech on the history of the wall.

At the end, Herr Oehme announces that they're going to the local pub, the Schwanenkrug, for a drink. It sounds strangely tempting, if only because I'm curious about what characters I might get to meet, but having come all this way, I really want to get to Eiskeller.

I go along the Berliner Mauerweg, trying to orient myself to where the path would have been that Erwin Schabe took to school. I turn onto a small track leading towards the woods, where a man is sitting on a large Peugeot scooter.

"A man with a camera!" he exclaims as I go past, "What are you going to photograph?" I start to explain about the path and the wall. He interrupts. "Yes, the wall came along here" he says as he gestures across the field, "The path is just in the woods there."

He munches on a half roast duck as he talks, picking at the flesh with his fingers.

"A lot of this land was exchanged, you know?" he says. I say how I'd read about it. "Yes, you're from the generation that reads these things," he says, "we saw them".

He asks how old I think he is. Not wanting to create an awkward situation, I hazard a guess that he might be in his 60s.
"71!" he says proudly, before returning to his reminiscences. "The farmer up there" he continues, pointing vaguely, "runs everything on oil. No electricity at all! There are a few around like that. His son," he adds, "used to be escorted to school by a tank for a long time, along the path there."

And so we come back to what brought me here. Erwin Schabe's complaints, it turned out, were taken very seriously. When news got round that the border guards had been blocking Eiskeller's children on their way to school, the British military decided that an example had to be made. Erwin Schabe found himself being made the poster boy for Western freedom of movement, with newsreels and papers the world over showing him on his way to school accompanied by heavily armoured vehicles (they were, in fact, not technically tanks).
At the time, Eiskeller was more like a pair of exclaves, connected together by tracks, with another track connecting them to nearby Spandau. Eventually, like with Steinstücken, territory was exchanged so that Eiskeller was more solidly part of West Berlin.

The man, meanwhile, drifts onto other subjects. He asks where I'm from then, on finding out, tells me of his travels in the UK, visiting family and sightseeing. "I know where the Queen's father is buried, that I know!" he says with pride.

A woman with a husky comes past. "Ah, a husky!" he says. He offers the dog a piece of his duck leg, but the owner thinks it's a bad idea. She walks off towards the woods. The man turns his attention back to me.

"Do you want anything to eat?" he asks. I say I'm ok. "Do you want an apple?" he asks, switching to English. I say I'm ok. He pulls one out and gives it to me anyway. "Or maybe you want a banana" he suggests, as he switches back to German. I say that the apple is plenty, but he pulls off a banana from a bunch and gives me one of them. "You like strawberries?" he continues, pulling out a punnet. "Fresh from the field!" he says with a smile. I've already started to eat the apple and I have the banana in my other hand. "Go on, please, have some!" he insists. I see that he's not going to be satisfied until I've had a strawberry too, so I put the banana in my pocket and take some strawberries with my free hand.

A couple come past us on the track. "Hallöchen!" he says as they pass.
"Hallöchen" they say in return, as they carry on down the path towards the woods.
They come back the other way a short while later.
"You weren't gone for long!" the man says.
It turns out they went for a smoke. A conversation about smoking ensues.
"I used to smoke 100 a day," the man reveals, "but I gave up! Nicotine patches, that's what helped me, couldn't have done it without them."
He goes on to talk about his diabetes and the huge syringe he carries on his bike for emergencies, so that the insulin can be administered through his clothes.

The woman with the husky comes back. The dog sniffs at the banana that's still in my hand.
"He'll eat anything" the woman comments.
"Would he like a strawberry?" the scooter man asks. He'd locked up his box in preparation to leave before the couple arrived, but now he opens it again and takes out a strawberry. The dog looks at him expectantly for a moment before the man feeds it to him.
"How about a banana?" he says, peeling a banana and breaking off a piece for the dog. The dog is not so impressed.
"He spat it out!" laughs the other man.

With that, both the husky woman and the couple make their getaway. The man closes the box on his scooter again and gets ready to head off.

"What is it they say in America - see you later alligator?" he says before continuing "I saw alligators, in the USA. Not in Florida, in South Carolina." It almost seems like he's going to launch into another story, but no, he's really going. He wishes me a pleasant trip home, then puts on his helmet, gets on his scooter and rides off down the track towards the road.

As for Erwin Schabe, boys will be boys. Years later, he admitted that he'd made up the story about being bothered by the guards because he didn't want to go to school. Of course, having a pair of armoured vehicles waiting for him every morning no doubt meant that skipping school suddenly got a whole lot harder. Fate works in funny ways sometimes.

To me, the atmosphere of Berlin's Imbißes is as important as the food. For all the heated debate over where to go for the 'best' currywurst, I have to say that I suspect a lot of it is as much to do with fashion as anything else. There's a lot of decent currywurst (or whatever else tickles your fancy) out there, if you look around.

A lack of fashionability is exactly what brings me here, to the perhaps not so snappily titled "Currywurst Berlin & Friends" on Bundesallee. Though it's not among the currently trendy ones, it does have a claim to fame, being the favourite Imbiß of film director Wim Wenders. In fact, he liked it so much that he used it as the location for a scene in Wings of Desire, where Peter Falk meets Marion (Solveig Dommartin). "If you come to Berlin, you should try a currywurst here," he says in his commentary to the film. That sounds like an excellent plan...

So, to answer the question that's probably on every reader's lips right now: the currywurst is good. The wurst isn't too salty (something which some places are guilty of) and the sauce has a nice tangy taste to it. Is it the best currywurst in Berlin? I find that harder to say without going on a huge currywurst binge and trying all of them one after another...but it's certainly good!

What happens after I order the currywurst is what's going to cement this Imbiß's place right at the top of my list of personal favourites, though...

An old woman comes up to the Imbiß, pushing a three wheeled walking frame. She wears a dark red jacket, her hair covered by an almost matching burgundy beret.

She asks for a beer, pauses for a moment, then adds that she'd like a currywurst too.

"A what?" asks the man serving.
"A currywurst" she replies.
"Do you want a roll with that?"

He hands her the beer and she sips, waiting while he prepares the currywurst. After a moment, he pushes it over to her and takes her money. She prods at it for a moment.

"Don't I get a roll or anything with this?" she asks.
"I asked if you wanted one and you said no!"
She mutters, adding "Well I want one"
He fetches her a roll and takes the extra money.

As she prods at the currywurst some more, the couple who are eating on the other side of the Imbiß finish their currywurst and walk away.

"You could throw your things away when you're finished!" he shouts after them.
"Are you getting angry because I've started complaining?" asks the woman with a grin.
"What?" he says, baffled by her false-teeth-inflected Berlin dialect.
"You're getting angry" she says, the remains of a cheeky smile still sparkling in her eyes.
He grunts.
"Could you pack all this up for me?" she continues.

With a surly flourish, he produces a bag and packs up the woman's currywurst and roll. He hands her the bag and she hangs it from the handles of her walking frame, before shuffling her beer ever so slowly along the Imbiß counter. She settles round the corner, looking through the glass at me and the man like an Edward Hopper figure. She sips her beer.

"Have you got a newspaper?" she asks him.
"What?" he asks again, his frustration growing.
"Have you got a newspaper?"
"No! This isn't a newsagent's!"
"I just wondered if there was a newspaper I could read"
"No, go and find a newagent's if you want a newspaper!" The woman returns to her beer.

It's only when I turn around to head off that I realise there was a newspaper on the counter behind me the whole time...

I walk away, my face carrying a smirk not too dissimilar to the woman's. If life in Berlin is a cabaret, it's places like this Imbiß which are its stages. Like Wim Wenders says, come here and try the might get some entertainment thrown in for free.

Tucked away in a corner of the Humboldt University's campus at Adlershof is a strange collection of sci-fi-like structures. So sci-fi, in fact, that parts of them were among the settings for the 2005 film Æon Flux. Of course, as you might have guessed from the university campus setting, they're actually part of science history rather than science fiction.

Right from the days of Otto Lilienthal Berlin played an important role in the history of aerodynamic research. As gliding gave way to powered aeroplanes, Berlin gained a new airfield dedicated to the new aircraft in 1909, out here at what was then known as Motorflugplatz Adlershof-Johannisthal (later just Flugplatz Johannisthal, with Flugplatz translating nicely as 'airfield' and Motorflugplatz perhaps best translating as 'airfield for powered flight').

In April 1912, the Deutsche Versuchsanstalt für Luftfahrt (German Research Institute for Aviation) was established on the south side of the airfield. As the nature of experiments became more and more advanced, the site began to become populated with esoteric buildings to house the test facilities, the ones we're looking at here being the work of architects Hermann Brenner and Werner Deutschmann.

Now, four key structures are preserved as protected monuments and the area has been named the Aerodynamischer Park (aerodynamic park) in reference to the aerodynamic research which went on inside them.

The first of the structures you'll come to if you've walked up along Rudower Chaussee from Adlershof S-Bahn and turned onto Newtonstraße will be the Großer Windkanal (large wind tunnel).

Built between 1932 and 1934, the Windkanal was constructed using the Zeiss-Dywidag System - a thin shell reinforced concrete building process that had originally been developed for building lightweight planetarium domes. The thickness of the tunnel's walls is, as a result, only around 8cm thick.

The wind tunnel is folded into a rectangular space and the diameter gradually increases along its length, from 8.5 to 12m. An 8.5m fan would have been at the narrower end, driven by a 2000kW electric motor, generating wind speeds of over 200km/h (124mph). Aircraft parts were placed in a measuring chamber, in the path of the stream generated by the fan, to test their aerodynamic performance.

On the side of the Großer Windkanal is a small piece of graffiti, protected by a glass panel. In fairly large, capital cyrillic letters, it says "Проверено. Мин нет" - Checked. No Mines. This is a relic from the days when the Soviet army were beginning to capture Berlin in the final days of World War II in Germany. Important buildings were sometimes booby trapped, both to injure the forces capturing the facility and to render it useless to them afterwards. The hand painted note on the Windkanal assures Soviet soldiers it's safe to go inside.

The Soviets took extensive amounts of war reparations from their sector and the facilities at Adlershof were no exception. All of the equipment was taken to the Soviet Union to be used in aerodynamic research there, leaving only the structures behind in Adlershof.

The Trudelturm was built between 1934 and 1936, to research a type of stall phenomenon in aircraft known as a spin. In a spin, one wing stalls (that is, loses lift due to a too high angle of attack) more than the other, leading the aircraft to rotate as it falls, spinning out of control. Research into the phenomenon was vital, both to help improve aircraft designs to make them more resistant to and more recoverable from spins and to help improve understanding of how to bring aircraft out of a spin once they'd entered one.

The Trudelturm was essentially a wind tunnel turned on its end. A fan at the bottom blew air upwards and aircraft models could be placed into the resulting stream of air and allowed to enter a spin. The air speed could be adjusted to match the fall rate of the model, so that it would remain suspended at a point in front of an observation platform, allowing it to be filmed by high speed cameras to enable detailed observations of the model's behaviour.

A similar facility still in operation today is NASA's 20 Foot Vertical Spin Tunnel, which was opened in 1941. You can watch a video of a model being tested in it on YouTube which ought to give you an idea of what went on inside the Trudelturm.

The Schallgedämpfter Motorenprüfstand (soundproofed engine test bed) was built between 1933 and 1935. It was used for testing aircraft engines - in particular, the propellers, which were often pushed to the point of disintegration in efforts to find their true limits. Propellers of up to 5m in diameter could be tested within the safe confines of the soundproofed building, which proved resistant not just to noise but also the bits of propellers which occasionally came flying off into the walls when the parts being tested reached breaking point.

The construction of the main part of the building is actually similar to the Großer Windkanal (the temporary scaffolding in the picture hides its shape slightly), with the outside walls only around 8cm thick. Soundproofing was achieved by the clever direction of airflows around the inside of the building, along with the use of sound damping materials. A ventilation system driven by a 500kW electric motor helped prevent the tested engines from overheating.

It now serves as a meeting point for the university's students, centered around a student-run café.

The Motorenhöhenprüfstand (engine altitude test bed) was used to test how engines would perform at different altitudes. It allowed engines to be run under differing air pressures and temperatures. The information gleaned from this testing could be used to inform estimates of fuel consumption, and lubrication and cooling requirements. It was built between 1932 and 1936.

It now houses laboratories and offices belonging to the university.

Dotted around in the grass of the Aerodynamic Park are these odd UFO-like objects. Every now and then, they'll start making UFO-like noises too. They are in fact an art installation called AIR BORNE, created by Stefan Krüskemper, with sound by Karlheinz Essl. It uses sounds from the Deutsches Rundfunkarchiv (German Radio Archive) which have been processed using software programmed by Essl, to form a composition of what he and Krüskemper call 'remembrance images'. According to the project's website, because of both the distance between the ellipsoids (that is, the UFO-like objects) and the amount of silence between the sounds, hearing the entire composition would take many years. If you plan on staying to listen to the whole thing, it may be worth making a sizeable donation to the student café up front so they don't kick you out for hogging the chairs and taking all their coffee.

Whether on a warm summer's evening or a crisp winter night, there's something cosy and inviting about the Nikolaiviertel (Nicholas Quarter). What could be nicer than a stroll through Berlin's authentic old town? Well...old anyway. The thing is that the Nikolaiviertel isn't quite what it seems...

The Nikolaiviertel was indeed right at the historic centre of Berlin, facing its twin town of Cölln on the other side of the river (on what's now known as Fischerinsel). At its heart is the Nikolaikirche, Berlin's oldest church, parts of which are thought to date back to around 1230.

It's worth taking a closer look at some of the other buildings, though, as they point to a rather different heritage. Look up above the shops and you'll see that the facades of many of the buildings are not the coloured stucco you might have expected but rather, painted concrete. The architectural curiosity that is the Nikolaiviertel was actually almost entirely constructed in the mid 1980s, completed in 1987 for the 750th anniversary of the founding of Berlin (the date being taken from the first written mention of Cölln in 1237; the settlement was likely founded quite a few years before that - current archaeology points back to at least 1183). The development included the restoration of the Nikolaikirche and the reconstruction of a number of historic buildings which had originally been found in other parts of Berlin.

If all this seems hard to believe, it's worth taking a look at this picture taken by Günter Bittner in around 1970, from the fairly recently opened Fernsehturm:

As you can see, there's not a whole lot there - there's still a small collection of buildings on the Spree side, plus the ruins of the Nikolaikirche, but a large amount of what's now filled by the Nikolaiviertel's shops, pubs and restaurants is just empty waste ground. This, looked at together with the following picture from 2009, shows just how much was built from scratch in the 1980s.

As with many of East Berlin's redevelopment projects, architects were invited to submit suggested plans for the redevelopment to a competition in 1979. The winner was the plan by Günter Stahn, who had previously been involved with the rebuilding of the Berliner Dom (which, it's interesting to note, also involved a combination of straight restoration and the introduction of modern elements).

His plans reflected a change in the attitudes to architecture and town planning in the GDR, a move towards greater acceptance of traditional town structures and building forms. Instead of being driven by a need to pave a new route into a socialist future, the building of the Nikolaiviertel was driven by a need to route the new socialist state in the German past.

At the same time, there were very real practical issues which had to be solved, not least the GDR's chronic housing shortage and its shortage of funds for addressing it. It was necessary for the new Nikolaiviertel to provide much needed housing, but it also needed to fit the state's budget.

The solution was to use the exact same technique that had been used to build much of East Germany's new housing: Plattenbau. Using pre-cast concrete parts, Plattenbau (otherwise known as large panel system building) meant buildings could be put together quickly and cheaply, the parts being produced in a factory and slotted together on site to form the finished buildings. Using this method, Stahn managed to build 780 flats in the Nikolaiviertel without breaking the budget. More than that, he seemed to be quite a fan of the technique, being quoted in a Spiegel article from March 24th 1986 saying that "Die Platte ist nun mal der Stein unserer Zeit" (the [concrete] panel is just the stone of our era). He wanted the development to contain elements of both modern and traditional, which he executed in a way that shows its most modern face on the side that looks out onto Marx-Engels-Forum, taking on more traditional elements as you work your way into its centre.

The word Plattenbau tends to be associated with the grey, angular developments which line streets like Leipziger Straße, but the buildings in the Nikolaiviertel used panels cast specially for the development. This helped them take on a more individual character, blending more readily with the reproduction and genuine old buildings which they rub shoulders with. Look closely at the facades, though, and you can quite easily spot the joins between the panels.

If you walk into the Nikolaiviertel from Spandauer Straße, along Am Nußbaum, you'll find a gateway on the right hand side which leads into a courtyard behind the shops. Here, you can really see the buildings' Plattenbau heritage in all its undecorated glory:

Critics tend to not have many kind things to say about the Nikolaiviertel - the word 'Disneyland' tends to pop up quite often. Looking at tourists' comments reveals a different view, though. Some don't even realise that they're not walking through Berlin's old town (or at least a restored or rebuilt version of it), let alone that they're walking through what's partly a 1980s Plattenbau development. Even some of the reconstructed historic buildings are ones which wouldn't actually have been there before World War II (though that's another topic in itself).

It was Stahn's intention to create a "vibrant central area with high experiential value". The majority of tourists' comments seem to suggest he succeeded with that, though it does seem to be tourists rather than locals who are most drawn by its 'experiential value'.

The Nikolaiviertel has a definite tranquil air about it, sheltered from the bustle of the nearby main roads. Entering it does feel a little bit like you're stepping into a bygone age...even if that age is more 1987 than 1897.


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