Following Dirk down the sidewalk along Karl-Mark-Allee, a boulevard built during the days of the German Democratic Republic, and looking at the pre-fabricated apartment buildings, I imagined what life was like in a 1949 – 1990 East Berlin behind the Berlin Wall. Admittedly, I am ignorant when it comes to historical events around the GDR, a totalitarian Communist dictatorship, but with each step during the tour, Dirk painted a vivid image of what that life looked like through engaging the five senses.
Dirk Engelhardt is a journalist who has lived in Berlin for about 30 years and has done so much research on what life was like behind the Wall that he has researched and published a guidebook about East Berlin during the GDR days (currently only available in German). He has also written other travel guides, such as 111 Places in Barcelona That You Must Not Miss. I found him through Airbnb’s Experiences options which connects travelers to locals for authentic experiences. I’m not a fan of big groups and the tour group consisted of a young couple from the Pacific Northwest and me.
During this nearly three-hour tour, through the use of the five senses, Dirk brought the former East Berlin to life.
Sight: Seeing Architecture and Design of the GDR
Obviously, this walking tour of East Berlin was a very visual experience which beings the World Clock in Alexanderplatz, a major gathering point and transportation hub, and Dirk quizzed participants on whether we thought specific buildings were built before, during, or after the GDR. Within the experience, I learned how to determine if a building was built during the GDR. The best I can describe it is the Mike Brady Style of Architecture. I don’t think Mike Brady Architecture is a “thing” but in my warped mind it is. I’m referencing Mike Brady of the 70s sitcom The Brady Bunch, who was an architect, and the design has distinct angles and long rectangles, somewhat similar to the Sarasota School of Architecture which is of a similar time period.
In addition to Kino International (a cinema which screened state-produced films at the time, today it’s an art house and was screening a film called The Florida Project, which I thought was a little ironic), some of the other buildings I saw with this style of architecture were a Soviet Union-era restaurant called Café Moskau, and Neues Deutschland headquarters, which was the official socialist newspaper and today is a bit more mainstream (there was a way, cool non-stop elevator called a paternoster. I didn’t get to try it out but Dirk demonstrated), I also viewed a mural with specific socialist message and prefab apartments which could be built in a day.
There were really so many interesting sights on this tour including a billboard advertising LKW Tatra Motokov on top of an apartment building on Karl-Marx-Allee. Tatra is one of the oldest auto brands in the world, a Czech-based company founded in 1850. Many buildings lining Karl-Marx-Allee in East Berlin had billboards, it was a way to promote a product (although, products were limited and controlled by the government) during the military parades. I learned this particular billboard is the only one left and the residents of the apartment building insisted it remain as a reminder.
She Said “Ja”
While waiting for the tour to begin, I witnessed something beautiful. I was snapping photos of the Fountain of International Friendship and didn’t realize what I was witnessing until after the fact, a couple got engaged in front of the historic monument! (Built in 1970)
Sound: Listening to History and Music
Sight and sound are pretty obvious for a walking tour and I listened to Dirk describe the military parades down Karl-Mark-Allee as residents watched from their prefab apartments. The tour led to the U-Bahn (the underground subway) where Dirk recounted how the trains ran through the East Berlin stations but were not permitted to stop. He recounted seeing armed law enforcement standing on the platforms in case anyone tried to jump on the train to leave. It was a similar story to what I heard during my walk in the woods with Thomas and his dogs, a chilling memory for both him and Dirk.
About midway through the experience, we visited a café playing music that would have been aired during the days of the GDR. “Do You Know the Way to San Jose” by Dionne Warwick played as we walked in.
Taste: What did East Berlin Taste Like?
Toward the end of the tour, Dirk led the group to a café called Volkskammer that was open during GDR days and is still open today. It serves food and beverages that available back then. I had a lemon soda while the other participants enjoyed a cola and red beer and we all enjoyed a sampling of chocolate candy.
Smell: If GDR was a Scent
Before departing the tour’s meeting point under the World Clock, Dirk spritzed each of us with cologne from the days of the GDR. How did it smell? Well, like men’s cologne! The only way I know how to describe it as not as peppery as Old Spice and probably a power-scent men applied when out and about.
A Trabant, made by an East German car manufacturer VEB Sachsenring Automobilwerke between 1957 and 1990 and represents the Eastern Bloc, drove by and I smelled the strong exhaust. Just one car was able to stink up the air and could not imagine what a road full of cars would do.
Touch: That GDR Feeling
Touching something during a walking tour may be a little odd but I couldn’t resist running my hand over a colorful and gorgeous mural made with thousands of small tiles. The mosaic mural called “From the Lives of the People of the Soviet Union,” by artist Bert Heller is on Café Moskau, built in the 1960s. The individual tiles were smooth and bumpy as a whole when I ran my hand across the scene. The café is across the street from the cinema. I also felt currency from the GDR days, Dirk brought along some bills and coins.
Walking Through History
As the tour progressed throughout the afternoon, a clearer picture of how a utopian society, one where everyone has enough to live and everyone is equal sounds lovely but is not realistic, especially when people are living in fear and without essentials. During the days of the GDR, the people of East Berlin experienced food shortages. Under communism, people distrust each other and fear their government. It’s human nature to want more, to want the best, and to want freedom.
As George W. Bush said in 2005 during a speech in Brussels, Belgium, “Freedom is the direction of history, because freedom is the permanent hope of humanity. ”
If you have not tried Airbnb during your travels, give them a try. My trip to Berlin was my first time experiencing it and although it had a bumpy start, which I need to write about, it was a wonderful experience with my Berlin apartment and activities. If you’d like to give them a try and don’t have an Airbnb account, use –> my link <– to earn $40 in travel credit and I’ll earn a little somethin’ somethin’, too.
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