It takes a slightly elastic imagination to think of Berlin in the same terms as Venice, but that’s what many Berliners do – and they like to do it while basking in the sunshine next to one of the city’s many canals.
Whenever a native Berliner and a visitor come together for the first time, the Berliner will inevitably state at some point that Berlin has “more bridges than Venice.” It’s a claim that Berliners never tire of making, but it’s never been clear what it’s meant to prove.
In case you’re wondering, it is true. According to the self-appointed bridge-counting authority brueckenweb.de, Berlin has around 2,100 bridges, while the jewel of Renaissance-era Italy can only muster a feeble 426. Of course, Berlin is rather larger than Venice, but when a Berliner is in the middle of a favorite boast he doesn’t stop to consider subtleties like bridge density or inhabitants-per-bridge.
Also, it’s probably not a good idea to interrupt his flow to point out that Berlin doesn’t even have the most bridges among German cities – Hamburg has close to 2,500.
I’ve never heard a Berliner elaborate on the Venice brag, but presumably it is meant to highlight the city’s extensive system of water ways, both natural and man-made. Berlin may not seem like a particularly maritime city, but it’s affinity to water is clear whenever the summer comes into bloom.
That’s when Berliners feel an urge to sit next to the nearest stream, pond, puddle, cup of water – or, in fact, canal. Not to swim, obviously. If you want a day at the beach, with kids, ice cream, picnics, volleyball and naked people, the city is ringed with plenty of picturesque lakes.
In the city center, though, there are only canals, and the canals are not for swimming. They are for jogging along, lounging next to, staring at, knocking beer bottles into, or sitting on the edge of and dangling your legs over.
While in other cities, canals can be lonely, secluded places – perhaps winding through an industrial estate, where an old man walks his dog, or a jilted lover comes to be alone with his or her inner turmoil – in Berlin they have become central party locations.
Who needs a beach?
The most obvious example is the Landwehrkanal, which bisects the center of the city from west to east. Sprouting from the River Spree in Charlottenburg, it runs through the bucolic serenity of the Tiergarten, saunters merrily through Kreuzberg and Neukölln, and would wander straight into Treptow, except that it bumps into the Neuköllner shipping canal and takes a sharp left back into the Spree, as if it was frightened of being mugged.
On this amiable bummel, the Landwehrkanal runs right through the heart of “Kreuzkölln” – the border area between Kreuzberg and Neukölln that has become the latest ghetto for Berlin’s dissolute youth.
During any summer’s day, the Landwehrkanal is thronged with young people drinking, talking, playing boules, taking mild drugs, singing, shouting, cycling, and playing guitars. Pretty much in that order.
Roughly the halfway point is the Admiralbrücke (Admiral Bridge), which has developed into a sort of outdoor pub for these happy people. They have to bring their own beer, but in recompense they are entertained long into the night by local street musicians. Over time, the cobblestones on this bridge have been almost entirely replaced by bottle-tops.
The slightly richer dissolute youth sometimes repair to the Ankerklause a little further along the canal, a bar that self-consciously, and bizarrely, tries to emulate the atmosphere of some kind of dock-side sailor’s den.
If you continue along the Landwehrkanal, you end up at the above-mentioned conjunction with the Neuköllner shipping canal, where the water opens out into a generous, reservoir-sized expanse, and the banks – which until now have been steep concrete – become grassy slopes populated by swans and yet more people, lying around on blankets, drinking, not swimming, and generally taking the afternoon off. Though most of them didn’t really have the morning on. It’s one of the most peaceful spaces in Berlin’s central area.
Behind this canalophile behavior, there is a deep yearning embedded in the city’s DNA. Berlin secretly wishes it was by the sea. After all, it was founded by fishermen on damp land at a point where three rivers meet (the Spree, the Havel and the tiny Panke).
A few centuries later, when the city became an industrial hub, these rivers were connected to the surrounding lakes by a sprawling network of canals that stretched out to Hamburg in the west, and the River Oder – the border with Poland – in the east. They crisscrossed the city, and back in its heyday, Berlin used to have seven dockyards to export the many industrial products manufactured here.
Now only three of them are still in use, and the main export is scrap metal. Like quite a few Berliners, the docks have adopted a life of ease.