In Europe last year, whenever I had a conversation with someone about travelling in Europe, they would wax lyrical about Berlin. It was incredible. You had to go. It was one of the best places they had been. But I was en-route to Poland and it wasn’t to be on that trip. So this trip, I did put it on the list – though once again I probably haven’t given it the proper amount of time it deserves (like most destinations on my itinerary!) and I’m really interested to see what all the fuss is about.
So much has happened in my lifetime – the Killing Fields, Australia’s America’s Cup win, VCR’s, microwaves, genocide in Rwanda, 9/11, the first black President in America, mobile phones, laptops, the ‘I’ range, Facebook and the end of Motley Crue – it’s sometimes easy to forget all the momentous occasions in history. And sometimes you are just too young to understand these things at the time.
One of those things was the fall of the Berlin Wall. Brief images of camera flashes, people cheering a wall being beaten to its downfall are lodged somewhere in my brain, but not the how or the why.
Anyway to find out all about this stuff, I’m joining the Berlin Wall and Cold War Tour with Fat Tire Bike Tours. You might remember I cycled with Fat Tire Bikes in London and really enjoyed the tour, which is why I’ve chosen to ride with them again. So I can’t wait, let’s get started!
Fat Tire give all their bikes quirky names too – it’s a good way to remember who’s bike is who’s whenever you stop to explore or listen for information. My bike today is Patti Smith – I think I had Helen Mirren in London, so let’s hope Patti rocks it out a bit more!
First up, Berlin is not what I thought it would be at all. Of course it was decimated during WWII, but no effort seems to have been made to re-create what was, rather it is kind of, well, Soviet. We start just on the edge of Alexanderplatz, or Alex, as the locals call it. In the background you can see the giant TV Tower. And in front of that the ‘Weltzeituhr’, or World Time Clock. Built in 1969, it was meant to be a forward thinking sculpture – a kind of ‘look how wordly we are’ display to the outside world. The truth of the matter is that the citizens of Berlin would never have had a chance to travel to any of the places on the clock at that time. Nevertheless, it’s a popular meeting point for it’s citizens even today.
The tall building in the photo just above is the Park Inn, which is originally where I was going to stay. Currently the tallest building in Berlin, it was completed in 1970 and was also built to show the world how forward thinking the communists were. All travellers to Berlin (and most especially foreign dignatories) would stay here in this modern hotel, and for good reason – it was littered with bugs, not the creepy crawly kind, but the kind that could get you in trouble if you said the wrong thing. In fact it was known as the most bugged building in Berlin at the time. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little relieved that I changed hotels at the last minute…
On we cycle through the streets, and I have to say that the landscape started to remind me of parts of Nowa Huta in Krakow, and also parts of Warsaw.
We arrive at the remains of the Berlin Wall, which houses the East Side Gallery – a number of colourful murals in remembrance of this dark patch of Berlin’s history. The Berlin Wall memorial can be found in the middle of the city on Bernauer Strasse. It stretches along 1.4 kilometres of the former 155 kilometre long wall. It contains the last piece of the Berlin Wall and is an open air exhibition dedicated to those who lost their lives trying to flee communism.
Our guide ushers us up to the back side of the wall, and takes out a bag of chalk. To demonstrate the powers at work and how Germany and Berlin were divided he colourfully describes how the Berlin Wall came to be. Today just happens to be the 52nd anniversary of the Wall’s construction, so it’s even more poignant. Back on our bikes, we cycle carefully along the East Side Gallery, checking out the works while artfully dodging the milling pedestrians.
One of the pictures along the Wall, I recognise straight away….
It was the same one painted on the wall of my hotel room! As I mentioned earlier, each of the rooms is decorated by a different artist, mine was a replication of The Leaper from the Berlin Wall, painted by Gabriel Heimier!
Leaving the wall, we cycle past part of the old death strip, with two of its towers still intact. The death strip was a piece of land between the wall (essentially creating two walls), which was patrolled by guards, trip-wire machine guns, anti-vehicle trenches and guard dog runs. Many died trying to escape, some were successful.
Cycling around Berlin is a great way to get a feel for the city.
The next stop in our cycle is the Soviet War Memorial in Treptower Park. It was designed to commemorate the Soviet Soldiers that fell in the Battle of Berlin in 1945. It has been a bit of a bone of contention over the years, not everyone was happy to host these red soldiers. In fact there is a book called ‘A Woman in Berlin’ which apparently tells the story of the Battle of Berlin and how the Red Army entered the city and systematically raped a massive number of German women. I’ll be sure to track that one down when I get home.
On the other side of the park, we cycle the streets of the Berlin until we come to our next stop.
The first picture above shows a brick line indicating where the Berlin Wall stood – in the second picture, you can see that one of our cycle group is standing on the East side, and the others are all on the West side.
Further along the route is Peter Fechter’s memorial. Newly strewn with flowers to mark the anniversary of the Wall, it seems his name will live on forever. The story of Peter Fechter is one of Berlin’s most tragic. Fechter, an 18 year old bricklayer, and his workmate made an attempt to cross the wall. His workmate made it over safely into West Berlin, Peter wasn’t so lucky. Shot in the back and stomach, he fell from the wall and lay groaning in agony for 45 minutes. There was a stand off as no one came to his aid. The guards who shot him were eventually sentenced to manslaughter in 1997, serving minimal jail terms as it as unable to be determined which guard actually fired the fatal bullet.
Around the corner is Checkpoint Charlie, or which was simply Checkpoint C. That’s all it is. C for Charlie. It was the notorious border crossing between Soviet controlled East Berlin and American run West Berlin. It’s remarkable just how commercialised this crossing is. You can get your passport stamped or get your photograph taken with a guard – all for a fee – and the tourists love it. And then you can top it off with some Macca’s. A bit of a circus really.
So how did the Berlin Wall fall. Well, by mistake really. On November 9, 1989 a press conference was held where East German politburo member Gunter Schabowski announced (somewhat prematurely) that restrictions on travel visas would be lifted. He had not been involved in earlier discussions on the new regulations and had not been fully updated. He was handed a note shortly before the conference announcing the changes but nothing on how to mete out the information. He read out the note and a reporter asked when the regulations would take effect – “As far as I know effective immediately, without delay.” At this point he confirmed that the regulations also included the border crossings through the wall into West Berlin and voila, down came the wall.
My day of biking has come to an end sadly. It really was a fantastic day and I would recommend it to anyone. Our guide knew so much and cycling is a great way to see a city.
The tour has run over by almost an hour, but there’s just enough time for me to fit in a cruise along the river, and the boat is ready to leave just as I arrive at the dock. I board, grab my ticket and a glass of wine, and sit back to take in the scenery. The commentary is in German, but I don’t care. It’s a lovely late afternoon. The architecture along the river is ultra modern in most places, it looks as though development is on the rise in Mitte.
To end this lovely day I decide to stuff myself full of potatoes and there’s no better place to do that than at Kartoffelkeller – the Potato Cellar. The food is incredible – hearty and delicious – and reminds me of my Babcia’s cooking. A nice glass of wine sets the evening off perfectly. I have a late flight tomorrow afternoon so I have about half a day’s worth of sightseeing left – there’s so much to do and see in Berlin, I wonder how much I can possibly fit in!