Crossing the Berlin Wall twice, back in 1971, remains one of my most memorable and dangerous experiences in my travels around the world. Here are some thoughts from “Love Exploring” that I thought would provoke some travel planning.
“The Berlin Wall was built in the 1960s to prevent those in communist East Germany from traveling – or escaping – to West Germany. Known as the “Antifaschistischer Schutzwall” in East Germany, which translates as the “anti-fascist barrier”, it divided families and caused an exodus before it went up. During the Cold War it’s thought 327 people died trying to cross the border – some were shot, some drowned, while others set off mines or accidentally suffocated in the boots of cars. In 1989 the wall finally came down. Pictured is an elderly woman talking to her East Berlin friends and relatives in the early 1960s.
Today art lovers are drawn to the East Side Gallery, the longest remaining stretch of the Berlin Wall, and now a monument to freedom. Visitors can take in the colorful murals, including the famous Kiss, on this 0.8-mile (1.3km) tribute to liberty. The Mauerpark, once the wall’s off-limits border strip, is now home to a weekly flea market too.
Most visitors to Berlin will also swing by Checkpoint Charlie – the most famous controlled border crossing at the Berlin Wall. The barrier and booth remain and it’s also home to the Mauermuseum, which includes artifacts that tell the stories of those who successfully made it over the border.”
Berlin is a magnificent city and being able to roam from the old west to the old east after the days of the Wall is a testament to freedom and democracy. Sadly, Checkpoint Charlie is now a tourist attraction, with little attention paid to its dangerous, yet colorful history. I will recount a story from my visit in 1971. FYI, there was a very creative and daring escape just the week prior to my visit!!
The blue “hippie” van in the second photo was my transportation to my second visit through Checkpoint Charlie to East Berlin. The first was on a rather sterile tour bus a day or two earlier. After a quick meal in West Berlin with my new friends, a hippie couple from San Francisco, we headed to Checkpoint Charlie, and parked the van as you see above. We walked to Checkpoint Charlie and presented our passports.
While I don’t remember first names, one of my new travel mates had the last name of Kelly. The border guards quickly asked him if he was related to the infamous Lt. William Calley, amid many laughs and sneers. Meanwhile, they took the cute hippie girl into a room and strip searched her! We could hear them commenting about her.
Once they released us, we walked across the neutral zone, though the East Germans pointed machine guns at us while we crossed. It was rather unnerving. They also made us buy almost useless East German marks. We spent most of the day wandering around the city, a most depressing atmosphere of sterile gray buildings, and unsmiling old German ladies.
As we returned to Checkpoint Charlie later that day, we realized we had to spend the East German marks. We found a sleazy bar and proceeded to buy beer for anyone and everyone in shouting distance. For about 90 minutes, it was quite a party, until the marks ran out.
I think you can see why this event remains permanently etched in my memories. Nobody can replicate this now unless you want to head into Russia or Ukraine. Anyway, even a Cold War changes lives, and creates lasting memories. While I regard this as a good memory, it certainly did not feel good at the time!