Travel Tips

Revisiting the Berlin Wall, 20 Years Later

Locations in this article:  Beijing, China Berlin, Germany Havana, Cuba London, England Los Angeles, CA Moscow, Russia

Berlin WallThis past weekend, Peter chatted with USA Today travel reporter Laura Bly about the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Read on to find out their personal experiences in Berlin 20 years ago, how much the city has evolved, and what elements haven’t changed over the years.

Peter Greenberg: I was in Los Angeles and my cousin who lives in London called me and said, “You’ve got to get over here right away. We’re jumping on a flight to tomorrow to Berlin.” They had already gone to the hardware store and bought hammers and chisels.

So I ran over to Heathrow, transferred over to Gatwick and there was a charter flight going to Berlin that we all jumped on. (Of course, they made us check our hammers and chisels.)

  We got to Berlin and went right to the Wall. There’s a great photograph that was taken of me chipping off a part of the wall as it was going down, which I have framed. I actually have the blocks of concrete which in those days they were still spray-painted.

Hear more recollections of the fall of the Berlin Wall in Fall of the Berlin Wall, Travel News & St. Lucia from Peter Greenberg Worldwide Radio.

Laura Bly: I was there about two weeks after you were and I think I can beat you with my photo. I have a Polaroid shot somewhere of me reaching through a section of the wall and shaking hands with an East German border guard. How’s that?

Part of the Berlin Wall today

PG: Now that’s cool. I’ll tell you Laura, you have me beat! But you know what’s really interesting about going back 20 years ago … we can talk politics all we want, but I think what really knocked down that wall was MTV. I think it was cultural. And it’s interesting because the first thing that happened when the East Germans were able to go across that Wall, they were all given the equivalent of about $100 of welcome money from West German government. And the first thing they bought were orange oranges, yellow bananas and red apples!

LB: And you know the second thing they bought were guidebooks. Do you remember? I remember being in a department store and seeing all these East Germans just glomming right to the guidebook section of the store because of course they couldn’t travel. And this was the new freedom.

PG: Right! And then the third thing they bought after they bought the guidebooks were CDs because they wanted to hear the music. In 20 years, so much has changed. All sorts of infrastructure, so much development, and of course, some of the things haven’t really changed. If you go to the old area of the Wall you can’t find Checkpoint Charlie anymore, but there is a museum.

Suzy Gershman at Checkpoint CharlieLB: There’s a replica of Checkpoint Charlie there now which has created a lot of controversy. A lot of Germans feel this is really crass commercialism because there are actors there now in American and Russian uniforms. You can pay a euro to get a photo taken with an ersatz guard, and there’s a lot of debate over that. But you know this whole nostalgia phenomenon is fascinating from a tourist perspective because you can really still get a sense of what it was like during the Cold War by doing everything from staying at a place called the Ostel which lets you check in the lobby where you see clocks showing the time in Berlin, Moscow, Havana, and Beijing. And you can take a Trebi safari in the infamous Trabant cars.

Learn more about visiting Berlin today with Suzy Gershman’s Postcard from Berlin: The Adlon Hotel & Checkpoint Charlie.

PG: You know what Laura, they’re coming back! I heard they’re actually going to remanufacture the car, which was the worst piece of you-know-what ever made.

LB: They called it a lawnmower with four wheels. I drove one, and it was terrible.

Checkpoint CharliePG: That’s right, you can actually do a tour in a Trabant. Boy, I hope you have your AAA card with you. Those things never work.

LB: It was a kick, although I wouldn’t want to spend a lot of time in it. But they are coming back and I hear there’s an electric version in the works potentially.

PG: Now there’s another irony to all this. The last time I was in Berlin, they were just beginning construction on the Holocaust Museum. And the irony of all ironies is, guess where they’re building it … over the Fuhrer Bunker. They’re actually building it over Adolf Hitler’s bunker. How about that for real estate?

LB: Wow.

PG: I mean, that’s amazing. Now, Laura, you can confirm this: the big party towns of all party towns used to be Munich, used to be Hamburg, but in my book it’s Berlin.

LB: Absolutely. And you know it’s become a center for ex-pats of all stripes. It’s really the coolest city in Europe right now.

PG: It is, with a great nightlife. You know, I always laugh if you go to Morocco … the one place I don’t want to go is Casablanca because everyone’s looking for Rick’s Café. Stop it already! But if you want real history, Berlin is just so loaded with it. It’s not as if they want you to forget about it. All the references to Disneyland and Checkpoint Charlie notwithstanding, I think people really insist that if you can’t remember the past, you are doomed to repeat it. I think that’s why people need to go see it.

LB: Absolutely.

PG: Now the prices with the euro are not great right now, but at the same time there are discounts being offered. Eurail, by the way, is offering a 20 percent discount on all the trains. If you book before November 20 you can travel through next year and go through Germany at a reasonably discounted price. There are some other hotel deals out there so they are available. The bottom line is if you want to see living history and stuff we can actually remember from our past, Berlin is the place to go.

From Peter Greenberg Worldwide Radio.

Learn more with Suzy Gershman’s Postcard from Berlin: The Adlon Hotel & Checkpoint Charlie.

Check out more segments from the November 7th show featuring wide-ranging discussions of the Berlin Wall anniversary.