October 3rd was German Unity Day. A national holiday in Germany, it’s the day that commemorates the joining of the Federal Republic of Germany (West) with the German Democratic Republic (East). In typically German pragmatic fashion, the day has been carefully named so as not to place too much emphasis on either the division or the reunion…just a nod to a sense of unity and moving forward. So, that’s what it’s all about, but maybe you’re wondering why I’m writing about it? And a day late at that, because I’d planned to get this published on the 3rd but life got in the way…
Because so many of the places designed to keep people out or in one place are now drawing people in. It’s beautifully ironic. So here are my five German destinations to visit, as inspired by German Unity Day.
The City of Berlin
Starting with the obvious, the German capital. There are plenty of options here including the chance to get up close and personal with parts of the wall itself and to view the modern day offering that was Checkpoint Charlie (now a bit tacky and overdone in my opinion, but I won’t start!). For a glimpse into the lives of normal folk in the DDR, I’d highly recommend the DDR Museum. Expect a hands on approach and exhibits including the Drive-A-Trabi experience and a recreated typical East Berlin Home. Book ahead to avoid the queues and save a bit of money.
Off the usual tourist trail, Chausseestrasse in the Wedding district is home to the sadly diminishing Kaninchenfeld. The collection of stone and brass rabbit plaques mark the area rund a former border crossing point that a population of rabbits claimed as home. I have blogged about this quirky bit of Berlin heritage before and I’d highly recommend seeking it out.
Not directly Cold War related as such, Beelitz Heilstatten was actually built as a place of healing, a sanatorium and refuge for those with TB. Following fierce fighting between Soviet and German forces in 1945, the Red Army took the complex over and the Russians stayed until the 1990s. Erich Honecker is said to have received treatment here.
Today the complex is beig restored and visitors can walk in the woodland, take an birds eye view from the treetop walk and visit the café.
The Harz Mountains.
The inner German border cut through the Harz area, dividing communities and creating a restricted border zone. This created an unexpected legacy once the inner border fell, the former no go areas and boundary paths used for patrol had created a green belt across the mountains where, free from development and human interference, nature could thrive. Now you can walk the old boundary and spot relics of the past.
Elsewhere in the Harz, you can take the steam train up to the summit of the Brocken Mountain, off limits in a divided Germany. As well as some knock out views and hiking routes, there is now a visitor centre and observation platform housed in the former listening station.
For an insight of life in the Harz divided, visit the Grenzland Museum in the picturesque town of Bad Sachsa. This small, friendly museum conveys beautifully the absurdity and brutality of divided times, and the optimism that reunification brought with it. At the time of my visit, all the information on the exhibits was in German, but you can ask for a guidebook in English.
The wall was born in Berlin, but its end began in Leipzig. The city is famous for its Peaceful Revolution, which were instrumental in bringing the DDR to an end. Today you can explore the events that unfolded via a series of Pillars located in the places where history was made. In a beautiful twist to the story, the information pillars are made out of metal from former GDR border fortifications. There is an app, Leipzig ’89 to accompany the walk.
Leipzig is also home to the Museum in der Runde Ecke, or the museum in the round corner. The name comes from the shape of the building, which was home to the Stasi district headquarters. The Leipzig offices are the only place in Germany where original rooms have been preserved and are now displayed as a memorial. Other aspects, like the cell, are faithful reproductions.Most of the information is in German, audio guides in English can be purchased.
Travemunde & Priwall
Now a pretty seaside resort area, this stretch of coastline was where the inner German border met the Baltic. There isn’t a huge amount to see, but there are some remnants of the border in the form of the occasional abandoned guard tower and fence posts left standing. There are some information boards dotted around giving some details of the areas history.
They don’t play up the former border here, things haven’t been preserved or presented for the visitor in the way they have in other parts of Germany. The legacy of the Inner border here is really the beauty of the area. Closed off for so long, the coastline and surrounding area was not sacrificed to over development. A high proportion of the beach and inland is now protected as a nature reserve and modern development is limited and sensitive. The border has been swept away leaving something beautiful in its place. That’s a nice statement, isn’t it …the perfect place to leave a post of travel ideas inspired by German Unity Day, I think.