Get Away With Fran

November 9, 2009

Remembering the fall of the Berlin Wall

Filed under: International,Travel Advice — Tags: , , , , — admin @ 10:06 am

BerlinWall

Back in 1961, the leaders of East Germany probably didn’t imagine that the foreboding wall they were putting up around Berlin – to keep East Germans in – would someday be a big tourist attraction.

But visit Berlin in 2009, as I did a couple of months ago, and you’ll find remnants of the concrete barrier – and the culture of GDR (German Democratic Republic) – are very much part of the tourist scene in Berlin.

Today is the 20th anniversary of the Fall of the Wall, and through the end of the year there are special exhibits highlighting the Wall years and peaceful revolution that led to the fall of the wall and end of the GDR (including at Alexanderplatz, the square in the heart of the city).

The wall that divided the city was really two walls, separated by a “death strip.” Border crossings allowed those from the West to enter the East, but East Germans were not allowed to leave. Hundreds died trying to flee.

In the euphoria that followed the breach of the wall in 1989, much of the concrete was dismantled (pieces of the Berlin Wall now reside not only in Berlin but around the world including in New York). But there is still plenty in Berlin to remind travelers and locals alike of this chapter in world history.

TrabiTour

One of the more unusual ways to explore is in a Trabi, the horrible, smelly plastic diesel cars the East Germans produced mostly for their leaders. On a Trabi Safari tour ($108 for two in car), you drive yourself, and deal with a crazy gear shift attached to the steering wheel, as you follow other cars in a convoy with commentary and directions over the car’s radio speakers. Don’t be surprised if other tourists snap your photo – the cars are now antiques (mine actually spewed smoke). The tour takes you through the East and West parts of the city and past sights like East Side Gallery (the longest surviving stretch of the wall, .80 of a mile decorated by some 118 artists), the historic Brandenburg Gate, the new German government buildings from the 1990s (when Berlin regained status as Germany’s capital) and Checkpoint Charlie, the most famous crossing point (where a private museum details the history of the wall).

GeorgeatMauerPark

A quieter way to see Berlin is the “Bike the Berlin Wall” toured offered by Berlin on Bike (about $26 per person). Ride about 10 miles, much along the former “death strip,” with stops that include Bernauer Strasse, site of the Berlin Wall Memorial with a stark, re-created section of the double wall, a viewing tower and Documentation Centre museum and Mauer Park (where my guide posed, above). Unique to this bike tour, you also visit one of three remaining East German guard towers, located in an upscale housing complex, and preserved as a memorial by the brother of the first victim, shot and killed at age 21 while trying to cross from the East in 1961. All in all it’s a poignant way to take in the sites and history.

For those who prefer to tour on their own, in the center of the city, there’s a line of cobblestones and about 30 plaques that detail the course of the wall on the Berlin Wall History Trail. Readily available Berlin Wall Trail maps outline 111 miles of where the wall was located, divided into 14 sections to make exploration easier. Tour options also include self-guided Mauer Guide tours that you can do by renting a handheld GPS ($12 at kiosks at the Berlin Wall Memorial and elsewhere).

For a more kitschy approach to history, the new GDR Motorcycle Museum exhibits vintage GDR motorcycles.Or learn about daily life East German-style at the GDR Museum, where exhibits include such socialist state delights as nude sunbathing and bad rock ‘n’ roll.

The Stasi Museum, in the former complex of the Ministry of State Security of the GDR, has an exhibition area with concealed cameras and other weapons of the spying operation.

Or experience GDR life with a pint at Mauerblumchen (Wisbyer Str. 4), which offers a journey to the past via its East German tavern atmosphere.

Stay at the centrally located Radisson Blu hotel for about $142 per night, and do cocktails at the Atrium Lobby Lounge & Bar, which overlooks the world’s largest cylindrical aquarium. Or stay at one of the best hotels in the city, the Regent Berlin, on a three-night Berlin Wall Anniversary Package, priced from $315 per night, through Dec. 30.

To get around town, the Berlin WelcomeCardoffers unlimited travel on the U-Bahn subway, trams and buses, and discounts at attractions; $24 for two days.

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