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Berlin Christmas Hike

Mar 3

Having barely covered eight miles on my first day, it is with some relief that I start the second day with the cityscape behind me. Short immature trees, bumpy concrete slabs and isolated lampposts are a constant reminder that I am walking along the death strip. It suddenly seems perverse and surreal to be strolling peacefully within the very structures that divided loved ones so absolutely. But for the many thousands of Berliners out walking and cycling the trail every day, it may well be a way of taming the terror and coming to terms with the Cold War without forgetting about it. That’s the genius of the Berlin Wall Trail: it acts as both a fascinating memorial and an effective therapy. Continuing further south and west, the trail takes on an entirely different character, where it’s possible to forget about the wall altogether. 

In beautiful autumn weather, I stroll along the wooded shores of the Wannsee via Glienicke Bridge – once famous as a venue for exchanging spies – before catching the hourly ferry across the river to Kladow. Among the village-like feel of this district, a beer garden tempts me in for bratwurst and a generous stein of lager. From here on, the trail rarely leaves the deciduous woodland that now engulfs it. Large, secluded villas line the shores of the lake and, rather than relics of the Cold War, the signs in the forest warn of deer and wild boar. If the wall could be said to have a silver lining then it would be that the exclusion zones, so rigorously enforced by communist border guards, have allowed nature to thrive. And since the fall of the wall 22 years ago, nature has flooded in to recolonise even the death strip. I begin to appreciate now that, despite its careful construction and impregnability, the wall could never be a match for the power of nature or the human spirit. But while the former has all but erased it from the landscape here, the people of Berlin have chosen never to forget by maintaining this fascinating trail.

A sinuous line moulded in red clay grows out of the gravel floor and unfurls up to the very apex of the gable wall in graceful coils. The artist’s caption explains that the relief is meant to resonate with the meandering path we have just followed out of the valley.  Yet this was no hushed, climate-controlled gallery but a candle-lit mountain refuge with an unusual twist. Reinvented as a refuge d’art by the internationally renowned British artist Andy Goldsworthy, it is one of seven such bothies in the mountains of Haute Provence, south-east France, where walkers can travel and shelter in the company of art. 

My walk involved climbing a steeply winding path, and the dust clouds created by scuffing feet had – as predicted by the artist – formed an uncomfortable red layer on my clothes, boots and hot skin. But now, before preparing dinner or setting the fire, I was being asked to elevate my experience with a piece of art that had been purposely placed for the delectation of walkers.

With so much else to contemplate from my walk, the addition of art hardly seemed necessary. In the early evening cool I’d emerged from the depths of a narrow limestone gorge sliced open by the river Bès and, once clear of the restricted view, the brutal majesty of the mountains was revealed. The bare summits and mountainsides above the tree-line acted as a screen, on to which the sun projected its palling light. Going from pink to orange and then cool purple, there was just enough of a glow for us to locate the red-tiled refuge set in a high meadow. 

Here, in the predominately limestone mountains, where the temperature swings wildly between extreme summer heat and winter snow, life would never have been easy. The vegetation is stunted and contorted with thirst and it clings to the once-prehistoric sea bed like coral. The grassy meadow, although green, was brittle and coarse. Yet what the flora lacks in stature it makes up for in pungency, and the night air throbbed with the scent of pine, rosemary and thyme. In the absence of any human habitation, the night sky came alive with the afterglow of the galaxy. 

Formerly one of many derelict buildings in the abandoned village of Vieil Esclangon, it has now been given a new purpose as a mountain refuge. The roof has been replaced and there is a mezzanine floor with five bunks, a dining table and benches, a fireplace and that snake-like clay artwork – entitled La Javie – which is held together with donated human hair. Water, however, is nowhere to be found, and has to be brought with you. The bothy is free to use overnight and can be booked in advance with the Musée Gassendi in Digne-les-Bains, who will provide you with a key in exchange for your passport or driver’s licence.