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Scene in Berlin

The healing power of Berlin's River Spree

Ignored, used and abused for centuries past, the river Spree has quietly found a place to stay in the hearts of Berlin's inhabitants.

Scene in Berlin

A few years ago I remember a Berliner telling me that his forebears had never had much time for the river that snakes through their city, and by way of proof he cited a list of important architectural landmarks - including the imposing Dom cathedral - built on its banks with their backs to it.

I've often thought about that statement and wondered if the layout of Berlin's buildings really does reflect an indifference to the river they adorn. It would seem strange to me, quite simply because the Spree is such a serene, pretty waterway. Whereas its portly siblings, the Rhine and the Elbe, surge forwards, the Spree moves at the kind of gentle pace that suggests it is in no dirty hurry to prove anything.

It starts almost 400 kilometers (250 miles) south-east of Berlin and meanders slowly, narrowly through villages, forests and industrial wastelands of eastern Germany before arriving in the capital, where - unlike the Thames or the Seine - it does not offer preferential treatment to those who live or hang out on one of its banks in particular.

Bundeskanzleramt on the river Spree in Berlin

The Spree flows through the government quarter in Berlin

On the contrary, this is a river that connects rather than divides, almost as if it were trying to make up for all those years it was used as a natural border between East and West. These days it is there for everyone, and everyone goes there. Myself included.

Paradise for one and all

The other night I went to Bar25 and watched as the in-crowd sprawled in the early evening sun drinking beer, rocking on long swings strung from branches right at the water's edge, and enjoying being where they were as much as who they are.

The same was true of those gathered at Kiki Blofeld on the far bank. During the summer months, they are to be found, toes in water, eating pizza and waving at the boatloads of tourists shipping along in front of them. It's a warming sight and is repeated over and over again as the Spree crawls north. Albeit with a certain degree of nuance.

Where the river passes through the Friedrichshain district, the bars and beaches that line it have an unmistakably Berlinesque look of improvisation about them. They are the stuff of mismatched seating on patches of sandy dirt, urban disrepair and makeshift terraces which can only be accessed by climbing out of windows.

They are "anything goes as long as it goes against the flow." Or at least appears to, because in Berlin "against the flow" has long been a flow in its own right. But that is not the issue here.

Not 'in' doesn't mean 'out'

A couple sits in a beach basket on the river Spree in Berlin

Not everyone turns their back on the Spree

Further upstream, the haphazard gives way to the orderly and the picture becomes generally more sedate. Scruffy teens on that sandy dirt are replaced by 30-somethings on uniform deckchairs, pizza on a paper plate becomes salad at a table, and electro becomes tango. And so it goes on.

But for all their differences, these waterside bars and beaches and restaurants have tapped into something, and that is life.

It struck me as I was wandering along the Spree a couple of days ago, that it brings out the best in Berliners and they bring out the best in it. I sat down on the grass near the Bode Museum, which sides rather than fronts onto the river, surrounded by people sipping their drinks and chatting their chat. Except they weren't just people, they were happy people - and anyone who has spent any time in Berlin will tell you they are not a given here.

I stayed on the river bank until the sun had dipped below the horizon and the conversation around me had hushed to suit the gathering darkness. When I finally got up to leave, I looked back at the riverside scene illuminated by strings of fairy lights. It was by no means a picture of city folk who turn their backs on their river. Quite the opposite, in fact. If they got any closer, they'd fall in.

Author: Tamsin Walker

Editor: Kate Bowen

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