There can be few cities in the world that offer the drama and immediacy of Berlin. Its troubled history has been given new life in its attractions and museums, while its controversial dividing line still has a dark and concrete power, as Kirstie Pelling found out when she toured ‘The Wall’…
“We are about to cross from West to East. When we get into East Berlin you’ll feel your car is working much better. It’ll know its home,” jokes our guide Jordi Garcia Rodriguez, as he briefs us through a radio from the Trabi in front.
In truth, you can hopscotch over the Berlin Wall these days without realizing you are doing it. Two unassuming cobbled lines and a few sections of concrete are all that physically remains of the original divide. Yet this symbol of past hostility and division between East and West attracts tourists from around the world to modern Berlin.
More than two decades after the wall came down, it is still both inescapable and compelling.
A tour that engages the whole family
Over a long weekend, we cross the line many times; on foot, by bike, and by bus. We examine its history and meaning in innovative attractions like the DDR Museum where we become the manager of a GDR car factory and design our own socialist human. We drink in artistic interpretations around the city including Yadegar Asisi’s 360 degrees Wall Panorama. And we follow the wall’s route through Berlin in the way that East Berliners did for half a century; in an original Trabant car.
A Trabi Safari and a car that feels like a lawnmower
A Trabi Safari of Berlin is the most fun you can have in a clapped-out car on a Sunday morning in winter. Lined with old cars and covered in snow, Trabi World looks like something from the scrapyard of history. But it’s quickly buzzing with people choosing cars and enthusiastically revving engines for their ‘Wall Ride’ self-drive tour, led by a guide.
Trabants were the most common cars in East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall gave people a choice once again. They were produced between 1957 and 1990, from a hard plastic material called Duraplast. The gearbox is a nightmare, we choke on the two-stroke engine fumes, and a three-point turn is a turn too far. But it’s a novel way to see a city and an authentic East Berlin experience.
While other motorists drive about in comfort, we shiver in the back and try to stop the door from falling off. It’s hard to believe that once these were status symbol cars, with up to a 14-year waiting list and a thriving black market.
A wall that makes you think
It’s a real immersion into the past. We pause for thought at the moving Topography of Terror. We crane our necks to view sniper towers in the bleak former no man’s land. We ponder the wall art at East Side Gallery. We chug through ‘Checkpoint Charlie’ and are later stopped by our very own GDR policeman. It’s just for fun but still…
“I want to do this every Sunday morning,” shouts my son.
“I want a Trabi with heating,” shouts his sister.
An attraction you take home with you
There are chunks of the wall for sale in the Trabi World gift shop. But I don’t invest. This silent symbol of Berlin’s past is already lodged in my memory; I don’t need to hold it in my hand.