With spring weather (hopefully) here to stay, there has never been a better time to walk Berlin. Walking, after all, is not just good for your health. It gets you thinking; it helps you rediscover your city – and it’s even better with a literary guide. Berlin can’t quite compete with Paris when it comes to literary flânerie. But the Weimar years saw intellectuals like Christopher Isherwood, Walter Benjamin and Franz Hessel record the city’s vivid life by walking it, day and night. Berlin’s top literary walker must surely be the Austrian feuilletonist Joseph Roth. Cantankerous, idealistic and inexorably drawn to the underdog, Roth found inspiration in Berlin’s most ordinary sights. “Confronted with the truly microscopic, all loftiness is hopeless, completely meaningless,” he wrote in a 1921 essay collected in the translated volume What I Saw. “The diminutive of the parts is more impressive than the monumentality of the whole.”
The literary walk is just as well suited to today’s Berlin – with its complicated past, its multifaceted present and its drive towards the future – as to those days of yore. British-born Berliners Paul Scraton and Paul Sullivan, for instance, have written many excellent essays tracing the path of the Panke, the Ringbahn and the Mauerweg among others. Perhaps our finest present stroller is the mutitalented Annett Gröschner. Her genre-bending Berliner Bürger*stuben (Nautilus, 2020) is a masterwork of local literature, regularly brilliant at conjuring Berlin places in the full richness of their sights, stories, memories and absences.
The last word goes to a pair of flâneurs with a real sense of humour – and a complete lack of hurry. For their recent photobook Nocturnal Berlin (Distanz, 2020), photographer Ingo van Aaren and author David Wagner adopted a practice from 1840s Parisian dandies: roaming the city with a turtle on a leash – then as now, a symbolic rejection of modernity’s obsession with speed.
At its best, the walk reminds us we live in a world of strangers – and a world of surprises. As Rebecca Solnit writes: “A city is a language, a repository of possibilities, and walking is the act of speaking that language, of selecting from those possibilities.” Which sounds absolutely brilliant, but rather exhausting. Why not take a shortcut by putting your feet up and reading about someone else doing precisely all that?