Tourists Pay To Hunker Down In East German Bunker

bunker sign
Martin Abegglen, Flickr

Sleeping in rickety old beds, eating bland food that you’re forced to cook yourself and being bossed around by hotel staff hardly sounds like a fun travel experience, but tourists in Germany are paying $150 a night for exactly that.

It’s all a part of a unique experience that gives travelers the chance to experience life as it was for soldiers in East Germany. Visitors are taken to a forest 200 miles outside of Berlin where they spend the night in the Bunker Museum, which as the name implies, is a former military bunker. The bunker was built more than 40 years ago for use by the German secret police, and was designed to become a military command center if the local area was ever attacked.Today, tourists can experience life in the bunker, which includes donning the soldier’s uniforms before peeling potatoes and cooking sausages for dinner. But don’t expect a good night’s sleep here-the bunk beds are small and uncomfortable with thin mattresses and, naturally, you’re expected to make the bed yourself.

Those who run the hotel say the experience has proven extremely popular among travelers, and quite a few of those who visit are actually former East German residents themselves.

Shaking The Disease

east germany

From August 1984 through the summer of 1985, I lived with my family in Saarland, in the southwestern corner of West Germany. A French protectorate in the years following the Second World War, Saarland was a strange place for a family’s sabbatical year. It felt more like a cul-de-sac on the edge of German-speaking Europe than it did the “heart of Europe,” the notion underlying its contemporary self-presentation. Back then, many of my classmates had never crossed the border into France, which was just two or three miles away. The border felt sealed, even though passport checks were perfunctory and even though French words enlivened local dialects.

Saarland was a good launching pad. The dollar was strong and my parents’ modest discretionary income went far. We jumped on trains, sometimes on consecutive weekends, to explore the surrounding regions and beyond.

In the summer of 1985, we made a particularly exciting journey to Karl-Marx-Stadt (earlier and now again Chemnitz) in East Germany to visit some cousins. My father had become strongly interested in genealogy over the previous decade, and his research had yielded friendships with a slew of West German relatives. We had gotten to know one distant cousin especially well, and he invited us to stay with his aunt and her family near Karl-Marx-Stadt.To visit them we first traveled across West Germany to the border with East Germany and then continued on through East Germany’s train corridor to West Berlin. There was a friction in West Berlin that I hadn’t seen in other European cities, a counterculture that seemed stable and permanent, rooted in its weirdness. We walked near the scary, modern Wall, and combed through the city’s sights.

After a few days in Berlin, we took the train south to Karl-Marx-Stadt. Shortly after we crossed into East Germany, four teenagers boarded the train. There was a flash of negativity about them, a subtle alienation. These teenagers were not like West German kids. They were quiet, first of all, and apparently shy, glancing uncomfortably at us. I couldn’t stop looking at them, drinking all their details in – their hair, their clothes, their attitudes. They were less in-your-face than their West German contemporaries but their defiance was unmistakable. One of them held a little transistor radio. He and I faced each other, our eyes meeting above the seats.

A few minutes in the radio began to play “Shake the disease” by Depeche Mode, which was a big hit that summer. We both started to mouth the words, still viewing each other tentatively. We sang the song silently, observing one another throughout. Along the way he lost his shyness. I was filled with a sense of wonder. Previously I’d considered how fractured we were from another, and now it seemed as if we understood each other very well. The bridge between our two adolescences was this song, bound up in Martin Gore’s strange pairings of words: “you know how hard it is for me to shake the disease / that takes hold of my tongue in situations like these.”

I recall many incidents from the rest of that visit. We met relatives. We witnessed a small wedding in a village church and my mother cried. We walked in the woods. We had difficulty changing money. We drove to a tourist restaurant in the forests near the border with Czechoslovakia. The one completely focused memory, however, was that experience on the train. For that song’s four minutes and 48 seconds, two 15-year-olds shared something. It was everything. It was nothing. It belonged to us.

[Image: Flickr | Hunter-Desportes]

Germany marks 50th anniversary of the Berlin Wall — where to commemorate

This year, Germany marks the 50th anniversary of the construction of the Berlin Wall, a barrier that isolated East Berlin from West Berlin for almost 30 years and was a powerful physical symbol of the Cold War. On August 13, 1961, authorities in East Berlin ordered the construction of the Wall in order to stem the tide of Germans moving from Communist East Berlin to Capitalist West Berlin. When it was completed, the Wall was 28 miles long, 12 feet high, and included gun towers, razor wire, and land mines on its eastern side.

To commemorate this historic anniversary, visitors to Berlin can learn more about the Wall in three poignant ways:1) The first place visitors should go to learn more about the Wall is the Berlin Wall Memorial, which contains the largest remaining sections of both sides of the Wall, a documentation center, and memorials to the many victims who died trying to escape East Berlin.

2) The German Historical Museum is currently hosting an exhibit of the photography of Thomas Hoepker and Daniel Biskup, two West German photographers who used their lenses to document life in East Berlin during and after the Berlin Wall. Aptly, the exhibit ends on October 3, Germany’s Unity Day.

3) Finally, of course, there’s an app for that. The Mauerguide is an app that relies on GPS to guide users along the original path of the Berlin Wall. In addition to its maps and handy walking instructions, the Mauerguide includes political and historical information about the Wall, film clips, and interviews.



[Photo credit: Thierry Noir via Wikipedia]

Travel then and now: Travel to the USSR and GDR

travel to the USSRThis year is the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Soviet Union and 21 years since the reunification of Germany. While citizens of the USSR and GDR were unable to travel abroad and restricted in domestic travel, foreign travelers were permitted under a controlled environment. In the early nineties, if you were a foreigner looking to go abroad to the Eastern Europe or Central Asia, you called your travel agent and hoped to get approved for a visa and an escorted tour. After your trip, you’d brag about the passport stamps and complain about the food. Here’s a look back at travel as it was for foreigners twenty years ago and today visiting the biggies of the former Eastern Bloc: the United Socialist Soviet Republic (USSR) and the German Democratic Republic (East Germany).

Soviet Union/USSR (now: independent states of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldovia, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan.)

Travel then: Before 1992, most tourists were only able to enter the Soviet Union with visas and travel itineraries provided by the state travel agency, Intourist. Intourist was founded by Joseph Stalin and also managed many of the USSR’s accommodations. Like North Korea today, visitors’ experiences were tightly controlled, peppered with propaganda, and anything but independent, with some travelers’ conversations and actions recorded and reported. Read this fascinating trip report from a Fodor’s community member who visited Russia in 1984 and a Chicago Tribune story with an Intourist guide after the glasnost policy was introduced.Travel now: UK travel agency Thomas Cook bought a majority stake in Intourist last year, gaining control of their tourist agencies, and many of the old Intourist hotels can still be booked, though standards may not be a huge improvement over the Soviet era. In general, the former Soviet Union now welcomes foreign and independant visitors with open arms. Even Stalinist Turkmenistan is softer on foreigners since the death of dictator Saparmurat Niyazov in 2006. Russia now receives as many visitors as the United Kingdom, the Baltic and Eastern European states are growing in popularity for nightlife and culture, and Central Asian states have a lot to offer adventurous travelers (including Azerbaijan’s contender for New 7 Wonders, the Mud Volcanoes). This year, Estonia’s Tallinn is one of the European Capitals of Culture. While a few FSU countries are now EU members, several still require advance visas, letters of invitation, or even guides; check the latest rules for Azerbaijan, Belarus, Russia, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan before you make plans.

German Democratic Republic/East Germany/DDR (now: unified state of Germany)

Travel then: After 40 years apart, East and West Germany were reunited in 1990. Like the USSR, travelers to the GDR had to deal with visas and an official state travel agency, the Reisebüro. Western tourists in West Germany could apply for day visas to “tour” the Eastern side but were very limited in gifts they could bring or aid they could provide (tipping was considered bourgeois and thus officially discouraged). Read this Spiegel article about the East German adventure travelers who snuck into the USSR to see how travel to inaccessable is often the most exciting, no matter where you are coming from.

Travel now: November 2009 marked the 20 year anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and Berlin is now consistently lauded as one of the world’s hippest and most vibrant cities. The city is full of museums, monuments, and memorials to document the time East Germany was walled off from the rest of the world, from the sobering Berlin Wall Memorial to the tongue-in-cheek DDR Hotel. Outside of Berlin, Leipzig’s Stasi Museum documents the gadgets and horrors of the Stasi, the GDR’s secret police. For more on life in the GDR, Michael Mirolla’s novel Berlin deals with cross-border Germany travel and the fall of the republic, and film Goodbye Lenin! is a bittersweet look at life just before and after the fall of the wall.

Gadling readers: have you traveled to the USSR or GDR? Have you been recently? Leave us your comments and experiences below.

[Photo credit: USSR flags and GDR ferry postcards from Flickr user sludgeulper, Berlin Wall by Meg Nesterov]

Berlin celebrates 20 years of wall’s collapse

The Berlin Wall was pulled down 20 years ago, giving birth to a new industry: selling pieces of the Berlin Wall. Remember that? Well, all the pieces were probably bought long ago (well, except the “real” one that you picked up last week, of course), but there is still plenty you can do to celebrate. The list of cultural events is long and impressive, like the German translation of a short word in English. So, take a look at what Berlin has to offer.

Long Night of Museums lets you visit 100 museums will be open from 6 PM Saturday until 2 AM on Sunday every weekend from January 31 to August 29.

Take in the 59th Berlin International Film Festival (Berlinale) from February 5 to February 15; more than 400 films will be screened, many of them European premieres.

At the Festival Days at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Wagner’s Lohengrin opera will be staged, and other classical music performances will be available from April 4 to April 12.

Enjoy even more of the cultural stuff at the Extended Opera and Theatre Night on April 25. Half-hour events are available from 7 PM to 10 AM on 60 stages, and buses take visitors from theater to theater.

Other events include:

  • Berlin’s Lesbian and Gay Street Festival, June 20-21, and Christopher Street Day, June 27
  • Fete de la Musique, June 21, free concerts on over 50 open-air stages throughout Berlin
  • Jewish Cultural Days, Aug 29-Sep 6
  • Classic Open Air Berlin, July 2-6; opera, classical music
  • Berlin International Beer Festival, Aug 7-9, when Karl-Marx-Allee turns into the world’s longest beer garden and bar, with 190 breweries offering beer along a mile-long stretch
  • Real Berlin Marathon, Sep 19-20, a 42-km run
  • Festival of Lights, Oct 13-25; fireworks, light shows
  • JazzFest Berlin, Nov 5-8, with big bands and international jazz stars

Noticeably absent from the agenda: David Hasselhoff.
[Via Toronto Sun]