TRAVEL: So easy if you have a Plan

It's the only way to see Berlin, James Woodall was told. So he hired a bike, bought a map and pedalled off
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The Independent Culture
A FRIEND gave me some advice before I left for Berlin: hire a bike, it's the best way to get around. Well, it's not the fastest. The U- and S-bahns that slice through both sides of the reunited city are terrifyingly efficient, leaving London's Underground feeling, as ever, like a coalmine on the verge of closure.

But Germans take their urban cycling very seriously. In most big German cities - Berlin is no exception - there are bike lanes etched into the side of the road, or sometimes into the pavement; woe betide pedestrians who inadvertently stand in one.

There was one vital journey on foot to make first: to buy what my host called a "Radspore", a cycling map. In a bookshop just behind the famous Gedachtniskirche - the shell of a bombed-out church tower left as a memorial to the devastation of war - I failed to make this word understood. Having been offered first a cycling magazine, then a maintenance manual, I tried the word "Plan". This did the trick: the Stadtplan fur Radfahrer produced showed in remarkable detail every street in Berlin, with different grades of recommendation for cyclists. Green means "suitable", yellow "moderate," uncoloured "not suitable".

I hired a 10-gear ladies' cycle for the day and shot off down the Kurfursten- damm, western Berlin's overpriced main boulevard - definitely "not suitable" (no bike lanes) - towards the Charlottenburg Palace. With its sand-yellow facade and topped with a baubled dome, it is one of the most elegant buildings in western Berlin. The gardens, too, are a treat: excellent terrain for testing my pedalling muscles. Designed a la francaise in 1697, and remodelled a l'anglaise in the 19th century, the gardens reverted to their baroque form after suffering bomb damage. Today they're a cyclist's dream: a refuge from Berlin's fumey streets.

Still, there was no escaping the fumes: museums were calling. Dahlem, once a village, now a quiet suburb in south-west Berlin, is home to one of the finest museum complexes in Europe. Cycling there took half an hour. It was a gentle uphill ride, green and yellow on the map most of the way, bar one tricky junction over a motorway that threatened to wreck a perfect route; it meant going 100 yards down a one-way street.

The Dahlem complex includes one of the world's largest collections of Rembrandts, an exquisite Donatello frieze, superb Raphaels - and then there are the Van Eycks, Holbeins and Cranachs. If you want pure fun, the South Seas room is like a film set. Over the door of a lifesize island hut, a female figurine welcomes you in a split-leg position that leaves nothing to the imagination; nearby stands a flotilla of mini Kon-Tikis.

You need a few days for Dahlem. I snatched a few hours; darkness was falling and the bike had no lights. After an exhilarating ride back - downhill - to the centre, I topped the day's riding with a beer in one of the classiest watering-holes off the Ku'damm, the Literaturhaus in Fasanestrasse.

Day two was going to be serious. I was heading east. I found a bike-hire shop marked on my Plan, in the Kantstrasse, near where I was staying. A friend had told me these shops were run by eco-hippies who had colonised Berlin since the Sixties, but this was an orderly place with not a joss stick or a roach in sight: Gunter, the man in the shop, was a model of politeness and efficiency, and spoke rather good English.

The bike had a Winora frame, with upright handlebars, a Shimona light- action 14-gear system, and Top Touring tyres. At DM15 (pounds 7) a day plus DM300 (pounds 130) deposit - you can leave a Eurocheque - this seemed good value. When the chain came off within minutes, I was less sure. But it was nothing a full German breakfast of cheese, meat, eggs and fruit couldn't put right, so I went to Schwarzes Cafe on Kantstrasse, a famous joint from old West Berlin days. Revitalised, I remembered the simple technique I'd used as a teenager to restore chains to their sprockets.

There is no other way into the east than through the Brandenburg Gate. Riding up the flat, straight Strasse des 17 Juni (green the whole way) is an essential Berlin experience; and you can cycle under the arch, where cars are banned. Once through, taking Unter den Linden sedately on a bike, you realise how much of Berlin's finest building was once behind the Wall: the Humboldt University, the Deutsche Staatsoper, the Cathedral. A magisterial Germany emerges on this much-restored boulevard, like a huge history book opening.

In thick traffic, things get a little unnerving as you ride past Alexanderplatz and the cloud-piercing radio tower before turning left into the Prenzlauer Berg. Here, leisurely biking comes into its own. Uncrowded streets, relatively traffic-free, lined with cafes, boutiques and some sumptuously restored old facades signal a massive tidying-up operation in eastern Berlin. Some call it yuppification: in which case - aesthetically speaking - never has yuppie culture served a better cause. There are still plenty of crumbly squats to spoil the uniformity.

Reminders of old Berlin are everywhere. Just off Kathe Kollwitzplatz is the Museum Berliner Arbeiterleben, a shrine to working life in Berlin since the 19th century, with a worker's front room sweetly preserved, clogs, linen and all. South of the square is an impressive red-brick Wasserturn, a water tower, erected in 1875. Now, it is flats, though the inhabitants can be none too comfortable about its wartime use: the Nazis tortured prisoners in the basement.

Beside the tower is the old Jewish cemetery. Eastern Berlin was once full of Jews; today, there are fewer than 10,000. Looking at my Plan, I noticed another Jewish cemetery, well to the east of where I was. It looked like a good ride. It was certainly a long one. Landsberger Allee, uncoloured on the map but with an occasional trace of bike lane, felt as if it might lead to Poland. The road is a monument to Communism: rigid palaces either side rise up like sci-fi nightmares, pure Stalinist brutalism.

The Jewish cemetery itself is one of the biggest in Europe. It was established in 1886 when the Prenzlauer Berg one was full. Thousands of headstones and mausoleums testify to Berlin's once vast community of Jews. The peace and size of the place are inspiring, and pose a painful question. Berlin today is a civilised place: what, 53 years ago, did go so hideously wrong, in a similar Berlin backwater on the other side of the city, when the Final Solution was dreamed up in Wannsee?

Heading back west would take an hour. So I thought I'd cheat, and use the U-Bahn: outside rush-hour, you can take a bike on board. First came a sprint down Greifswalderstrasse, a long boulevard designed more for trams than bikes. I turned left at Friedenstrasse towards the Spree, the river that snakes almost undetected through Berlin, and hauled the bike on to the U-Bahn for an extra DM2.50 (pounds 1) at Schlesiches Tor.

As the train pulled away from the east, I saw two things that sum up modern Berlin; first, a segment of the Wall, one of the few bits remaining, which used to entrap the river inside the GDR; second, a bizarre castellated construction - a brand-new section of U-Bahn leading eastwards from Schlesiches Tor. Berlin is reinventing itself, above all through communications and transport - bikes included, of course.

Back at the flat off the Ku'damm, my hostess asked how I'd got on. I told her the bike had got me to all corners. Her husband chipped in: "You know something else? There's nowhere in Berlin you can't get to by waterway."

Now there's an idea. !

TRAVEL NOTES

GETTING THERE: Return flights from London to Berlin cost pounds 136 with Lufthansa if you stay over a Saturday night, available from Trailfinders (0171-938 3232). Travelling by rail from London costs pounds 213 from BR (0171 834 2345) or for students, pounds 116 from Campus Travel (0171-730 3402). Buses leave London Victoria at 7pm on Wednesdays and Fridays and arrive in Berlin at 6pm the following day; pounds 99 return, pounds 89 students.

FURTHER INFORMATION: the German Embassy (0171-235 5033), 23 Belgrave Square, London SW1X 8PZ.

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